News / Science & Technology

Ancient Papyrus Reed Could Hold Key to Water Conservation

Restored Papyrus Swamps Can Help Fight Pollution, Conserve Wateri
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)
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

800-Pound Man Determined to Slim Down

Man says he was kicked out of hospital for ordering pizza; wants to be an actor More

Australia Prepares to Resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees

Preference will be given to refugees from persecuted minorities, and the first group is expected to arrive before late December More

S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

The estimated 100,000 say say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs