Papyrus and the Evolution of Civilization from Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars
by John Gaudet

Papyrus Conservation

From ancient Pharos to 21st Century water wars, papyrus is a unique plant that is still one of the fastest growing plant species on earth. It produces its own “soil”—a peaty, matrix that floats on water—and its stems inspired the fluted columns of the ancient Greeks. In ancient Egypt, the papyrus bounty from the Nile delta provided not just paper for record keeping—instrumental to the development of civilization—but food, fuel and boats.

Disastrous weather in the 6th Century caused famines and plagues that almost wiped out civilization in the west, but it was papyrus paper in scrolls and codices that kept the record of our early days and allowed the thread of history to remain unbroken. The sworn enemy of oblivion and the guardian of our immortality, it came to our rescue then and will again.

Today, it is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. In an ironic twist, Egypt is faced with enormous pollution loads that forces them to import food supplies, and yet papyrus is one of the most effective and efficient natural pollution filters known to man. Papyrus was the key in stemming the devastation to the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River from raging peat fires (that last for years), heavy metal pollution in the Zambezi River Copperbelt and the papyrus laden shores of Lake Victoria—which provides water to more than 30 million people—will be crucial as the global drying of the climate continues.

1. Papyrus Swamps as a Habitat for Birds
The swamps of Africa provide habitats for millions of birds, some of which overwinter there and form the life blood of tourism, tourism which now provides Africa with a major source of foreign exchange. It is a growth sector not to be ignored.

2. Papyrus Swamps Natural Filters for Sewage
Papyrus swamps in Uganda on the shore of Lake Victoria thrive on sewage from the municipal treatment facility in Kampala. Papyrus takes up vast quantities of nutrients that would otherwise flow into the lake, a lake on which 30 million people depend for water, fishing and tourism.

3. Conservation of Papyrus Swamps
As the swamps are cleared for farming, nutrients and runoff pollute local waters. Papyrus clearly is a great natural asset and provides an effective environmental barrier at little cost. In several places in Africa efforts have begun to restore and conserve papyrus swamps, but it may be too little, too late. An encouraging reclamation program in the Huleh Valley on the Jordan River, as well as one on Lake Victoria in Uganda and Lake Naivasha in Kenya, and the use of constructed wetland filters in Egypt, systems designed to handle a large regular flow of wastewater, demonstrate that such an approach can be used in the race to save the Nile Delta. As Global Climate Change takes its toll, wetland restoration seems the only feasible economic solution, since conventional sewage infrastructure is expensive and the task is enormous.

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