News / Science & Technology

Ancient Papyrus Reed Could Hold Key to Water Conservation

Restored Papyrus Swamps Can Help Fight Pollution, Conserve Wateri
X
Faiza Elmasry
July 10, 2014 5:18 PM
Papyrus is a light but strong reed that grows well in shallow, fresh water. The plant stood at the center of the ancient Egyptian civilization. It was used as paper and the reed's shape inspired the fluted columns of ancient Greece. Most of the papyrus swamps gradually disappeared from Egypt and other parts of Africa. As VOA's Faiza Elmasry discovered, though, restoring the papyrus swamps could hold the key to solve many of today’s problems, from pollution to water wars. Faith Lapidus narrates.
Faiza Elmasry

Ancient Egyptians turned papyrus into paper and provided the world with it for thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of books in the Royal Library in Alexandria and Rome's 58 public libraries were made of papyrus, almost all of the Western world’s literature and sacred texts at the time. 

But the value of papyrus is not limited to paper. Writer and ecologist John Gaudet says ancient scholars considered it the wonder of the age. Egyptian civilization, he adds, might not have developed without papyrus.   

“In the Nile Valley, to do things on a day-to-day basis, you also had to be able to get on the water so they used to use papyrus boats," he said. "And they used papyrus boats the way people today use fiberglass. People still make them in Ethiopia so we know what they’re like.

"Then they found they could also use the boats to build the houses on. They didn’t have to build their houses on land; they could build them on water. Then they found that they could do all kinds of things with papyrus; as you can imagine, you can make baskets out of it, you can make sandals, you can make rope. They made incredible amounts of rope, they exported the rope. So even before paper came to existence, papyrus helped the ancient Egyptians get along on a day-to-day basis.”

John Gaudet walks through a papyrus swamp in Israel in 2011. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
John Gaudet walks through a papyrus swamp in Israel in 2011. (Courtesy John Gaudet)

Over the centuries, though, many papyrus swamps were drained.  Gaudet says people saw them as “wasted” spaces that could be better used for farmland or housing.  In the process, he says, an incredible natural resource was lost. In addition to the variety of items that can be manufactured from the plant, the swamps provide habitat for birds and fish, and help control pollution.

“Papyrus actually filtered sewage and runoff and silt all those years," he said. "And papyrus happens to be a very, very efficient plant in a filter swamp.”

Gaudet says papyrus - one of the fastest growing plant species on Earth - has recently started to make a comeback. He points to several projects in Egypt to restore the swamps to filter sewage.

“A lot of the scientists there, the engineers, are beginning to see the value of a filter swamp because it’s cheap. It can be put in place at all different levels," he said. "You can either have a simple swamp, you don’t touch it, you just leave the swamp and it works. Or you can have a managed system where you take a swamp, you take some concrete liners, you divert the polluted water into the swamp and you clean it up that way. So the managed system is what they’re working on now. This is the same filter swamp concept we have used in the United States." 

A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
x
A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)
A man propels a papyrus boat across Lake Tana in Ethiopia, 1980. (Courtesy John Gaudet)

In his book, Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World, Gaudet writes that papyrus swamps may hold the key to stability in some of the most unstable regions in the world. As fresh water becomes scarcer, he says papyrus can help preserve the resource.

“People always think of the wetlands or swamps as places where water goes in and never comes out," he said. "What I’m saying here is that the water seeps into the soil and therefore recharges the system underground that you don’t see. And also the papyrus, because the heads close over and form this canopy, it creates this very humid barrier underneath. It’s great because it actually prevents water from being lost. So it’s better to have papyrus than to have an open surface like a reservoir; if you have a reservoir in an arid zone, you tend to lose a lot of water by evaporation.”

Gaudet has traveled to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and other places where papyrus grows. He works with water experts there, and encourages officials to preserve papyrus swamps or restore them. He says that can benefit local economies. 

“Wetlands in years to come are going to worth an awful lot of money for people in southern Sudan, throughout Sudan and central Africa and southern Africa, because it’s going to be a tourist resource, it's going to be a natural resource that they use for virtually everything, from local farming, small scale farming," he said. "They all use water from that system.”

Ecologist John Gaudet says he’s optimistic. As people rediscover the benefits of papyrus, he hopes the plant will once again flourish in the land it once ruled.

You May Like

Russian Help on Iran Less Promising on Syria, Ukraine

US-Russian collaboration to secure a deal on Iran's nuclear program has raised hopes of closer cooperation on other world issues More

Video US: Millions Exploited by Vast Fortunes of Human Trafficking

State Department's annual report calls exploitation 'modern slavery,' brutalizing girls, women into prostitution and forcing men, women and children into low-wage jobs across the globe More

US-Ethiopia Relationship Strong, But Complicated

While Ethiopia serves as a valuable security ally and a bulwark against terrorism - the U.S., is a major aid donor and economic stimulator More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backersi
X
Michael Bowman
July 26, 2015 8:44 PM
Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Underground Streetcar Station In Washington, DC, to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Obama Encourages Kenya to Fix Cultures of Corruption, Discrimination

President Barack Obama bid farewell to Kenya Sunday with a major speech at as stadium outside the capital Nairobi where he called on Kenyans to change the cultures of corruption and discrimination that can hold society back. VOA East Africa Correspondent Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video California Towns Welcome Special Olympics Athletes

Cities and towns in Southern California are greeting thousands of athletes who are arriving for Special Olympics, a competition for people with intellectual disabilities. The games will run from July 25th through August 2nd. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, where athletes from Namibia, Singapore and Tanzania got a rousing welcome from local residents.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.
Video

Video Hoverbike Flying Toward Reality

Another long-standing dream of many technological inventors is quickly approaching reality: U.S.- and British-based firms are cooperating in the development of an individual flying platform they call a hoverbike. They say it may revolutionize the concept of flying, including in the U.S. military. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video As Japan Expands Defense Role, Protests Follow

The Japanese government is moving forward with a controversial security bill that would authorize the military to fight abroad for the first time since World War II. Leaders say it is critical to defend against rising threats from China and North Korea. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Japan on the big changes ahead, and the opposition they are drawing.
Video

Video Rise in HIV Infections Worries Ugandan Officials

Uganda had the third-highest number of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa last year, reversing its reputation for successfully tackling the epidemic in the 1990s. Although the percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS is still half of what it was in the 1980s, the increase in new infections is worrying to health workers. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video Replacing Poppies with Coffee in Myanmar

The remote mountains of Myanmar’s Shan state are home to the second-largest opium-producing region in the world. After a drop during the 2000s, production surged in the past eight years to feed an increasing demand for heroin in China. But farmers are now making less on the crop, and the U.N. is hoping many will make the switch to growing coffee. Daniel de Carteret reports for VOA from Taunggyi.

VOA Blogs