Monday, July 28, 2014

Deep insight into an African ecological time bomb  July 7, 2014

By DRBarker - Important review posted to

This review is for: Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Today's Water Wars by John Gaudet (published by Pegasus, hardcover, avail. at

Papyrus is a sedge, one among several classes of swamp plants called “reeds.” Papyrus swamps are distributed widely along rivers and lakes in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East, where they drive some of the most productive plant communities on earth. John Gaudet, an Ecologist, has studied this plant throughout his long professional career, and this book constitutes both an informal encyclopedia of the plant and the swamps it inhabits and a demonstration of an ecological approach.

In ancient times, papyrus grew thickly along the banks of the Nile River, all the way from Lake Victoria to the delta at the Mediterranean shores. From Neolithic times to about 900 AD, Egyptians used it for all sorts of things; houses, boats, rope, and, most famously, paper, whose very name comes to us from this plant. Quite apart from its usefulness to people, papyrus swamps played a key role in controlling the speed and volume of the Nile River water and creating habitats for birds, fish, and mammals.

Fast forward to the industrial age, which is the focus of about 80% of the book. Swamps are commonly viewed as untamed, backward places that need to be drained and cleared for farming and better access to their water. Gaudet takes his readers on a grim tour of devastation: to the Nile delta, which is subsiding and becoming saline; to the Huleh Valley, in Israel, a disaster which is only slowly being reversed; to Lake Naivasha, Kenya, where the commercial flower growers have cut more than 90% of the swamps; to the Sudd, in South Sudan, where trying to dig the Jonglei Canal triggered a water war; to Lake Chad, which is rapidly drying up; to Lake Victoria, where all the swamps will be gone by 2020 at the current rate of cutting, and to the Okavango delta, in Botswana, where strenuous efforts to preserve the papyrus swamps have made ecotourism the country’s number two foreign exchange earner.

Gaudet begins his conclusion by posing a paradox:

“Why, if wetlands are so valuable in their natural state, are they being eliminated at such a rapid rate? The answer to this paradox is that although wetlands serve society in multiple ways, the nature of wetland benefits are such that the owners of wetlands cannot usually capture the benefits for their own use or sale. The flood protection benefits accrue to others downstream. The fish and wildlife that breed and inhabit the wetlands migrate, and are captured or enjoyed by others. The groundwater recharge and sediment trapping benefits cannot be commercially exploited. For the owner of a wetland to benefit from his resource, he often has to alter it, convert it, and develop it. That is why, despite their value, wetlands are being eliminated.”

His final warning is stark: “In Africa, an ecological time bomb is about to go off, with agricultural, domestic and sewage pollution along the Nile and in the Central African Lakes.” He suggests that re-introducing papyrus swamps is perhaps the best chance to head this off.

Pegasus Books has done a fine job on this volume, which is loaded with both black and white and color drawings and photos and 11 maps. The Endnotes and Further Reading are thoughtful and complete. In short, the subject matter, writing style and accouterments of scholarship are all consistent with a fine late twentieth century hardback book. But throughout much of the time I was reading it, I was nagged by the thought that saving African wetlands needs a website to supplement this book. The author clearly feels passionate about the future of African wetlands, but a hardback book cannot possibly reach all of those people needed to defuse the time bomb. This leads us to a final paradox: paper cannot save papyrus, or books save wetlands. As in so many situations in life, we turn to the internet and social media to galvanize mass action.

Fortunately, the book supplement exists, so readers who want to take the next step should visit, which is more than just Gaudet’s website to plug this book. Drawing from the powerful published text, the website has the potential to play a significant role to inform and motivate action.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Save the Sudd

Keeping an eye on the Sudd Swamp on the White Nile in the southern Sudan is a difficult but important job.  

Home to over 400 bird and 100 mammal species, the Sudd supports the highest population of Shoebill Storks and the greatest numbers of antelopes in Africa. It is now in danger and so are the millions of birds that use the swamp during their migrations from Asia and Europe. 

The Sudd, of which 57 million hectares was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2006, is located in the lower reaches of the White Nile, which flows north from Lake Victoria.

“The wetland as a whole and its dynamics have not been mapped repetitively or systematically,” explains Lisa-Maria Rebelo, a researcher in remote sensing at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Two civil wars, the first between 1955 and 1972 and the second from 1983 to 2005 have also contributed to the dearth of knowledge about the Sudd. The political instability culminated with South Sudan becoming an independent state in 2011, but gaining access to the wetland remains difficult.  Rebelo recalled that “Many of the people we met in Sudan had grown up in or around the wetland and many of their cultural ceremonies were tied to it.”

Despite the wetland’s value, it faces a number of threats. In the 1980s, a 260km stretch of a planned 360km canal was dug, with the aim of diverting 4.7 billion cubic meters of water annually to Egypt and Sudan for irrigation. The project was halted by the civil war but if re-instigated could have drastic environmental consequences.

The Sudd can and should be saved, as explained in Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World, From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars from Pegasus Books ( by John Gaudet, Ph.D., a professional ecologist and environmental adviser (, will tell us how all the above can be avoided.

 Harvard University's Belfer Center voted this book the Innovation Book of the Week and declared it "A masterpiece of economic and historical botany," and Barbara Kiser in Nature called it "a swirling anthropological and environmental narrative."

Watch these short videos that brings much of this into perspective: and and help spread the word about this plant that will play a crucial role as the global drying of the climate continues. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Noah’s Ark off on the Wrong Foot - Again!

Theme Park and new film Noah with Russell Crowe sends the wrong message.  

Bwana Papyrus says: Why not show kids a Green Ark? 

The world’s largest religious theme park is to be built on 40 acres in Kentucky and will include a full-sized replica of Noah’s Ark.  Called “Ark Encounter” ( ) it will feature nine main areas including: a Walled City and Village typical of the Middle East; a full-size Ark; a large petting zoo with animals from around the world; a 100-foot-tall Tower of Babel; a 500-seat 5-D special effects theater; three bird sanctuaries and a butterfly exhibit.
Planned to open in the spring of 2014, it will be built by the private firm ‘Ark Encounter’ for $125 million, using a private donation of $24.5 million to build Noah’s Ark itself.  At least 25 percent of the project's cost will be written off in tax breaks from the State and donations will be ranked according to needs in building the Ark, ranging from: a wooden peg for a $100, a wooden plank for $1,000 and a wooden beam for $5,000.

Aside from the use of taxpayers’ funds, and the fact that a substantial number of people don’t believe that the Flood or Noah ever happened, one large problem will be the Theme Park’s claim to historical accuracy.   Even among those who believe in the Ark and the Flood epic, the details of are open to interpretation.   Almost anyone who reads the Biblical account in Genesis comes up with a different idea.

Take the Ark. 
According to early scholars it was shaped like a pyramid, as suggested by Origen (circa 200 AD).  But by the 12th Century artistic imagination had decided that the Ark must have looked like a large wooden container and the ship built to accommodate it was to be portrayed like the barges of the day all of which had keels, which goes against history as keels weren’t around when Noah built his Ark. 

Subsequent discoveries of things like the anchor stone and the impression of a very large ship on the side of a hill in Turkey were taken as direct evidence of the route Noah took and the place he landed on Mt. Ararat in Armenia.  But there is much about the Ark story that leaves room for argument.  Take for example, the material it was made of, ‘gofer wood,’ a form of Cypress.  Alice Linsley, a writer, researcher and teacher pointed out in her blog ( ) that the word for ‘Ark’ in Genesis is found only one other place in the Bible: in the Exodus story when Moses’ mother put him in a reed basket.  Linsley argues that perhaps ‘gofer’ isn’t a building material at all perhaps like the Moses basket it is simply “...a description of the Ark’s role in ransoming Noah and his household from destruction.”  

A quaffa in a busy harbor
Linsley points out that “the Hebrew word for ransom or compensation is kofer and the Hebrew kaphar means to propitiate, to atone for sin as well as to cover.  This view is supported by the literal translation of Genesis 6:14: ‘Make for you a box of woods of gofer nests you will make the box and you will cover (kaphar) her from the inside and from the outside with a covering (kaphar).”
Linsley and others have pointed out that the same reference could refer to “pitch” (bitumen) so the meaning may simply be to cover the Ark with pitch inside and out, something that is done with the ‘quffa’ a coracle-like, round reed boat still seen in the Middle East.  In other words, the Ark was a reed boat!

Proof for this new interpretation, the Ark as a reed boat comes from a story by Chris Irvine in the Telegraph.   Irvine’s story revolves around a clay tablet which dates to about 1700 BC and contains a description of the shape of the Ark ( ).  According to the tablet the Ark was circular in form and was actually made of reeds, not wood.  This makes some sense, as reeds, especially the grass reed, Phragmites (called ‘bardi’) has grown in river valleys and estuaries in the Tigris-Euphrates region for thousands of years.  Papyrus reed has also been present along the Jordan in Huleh Valley (the Biblical ‘Waters of Merom’) for at least 5,000 years.

The clay tablet described in the Telegraph story was found in the Middle East during the 1940s by Leonard Simmons, who subsequently passed it on to his son Douglas. Douglas took it to Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Scripts at the British Museum, who translated the 60 lines of script and believes it is one of the first tablets to describe the shape of the Ark.  “In all the images ever made people assumed the Ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it,” Mr Finkel, said.  “But the Ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well.  It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.”

Finkel is referring to the ‘quffa’ a woven, basket-type light craft.  But for the massive vessel called for in the case of the Ark, there is no need to look further than the large circular floating mounds and rafts of the Marsh Arabs.  During the thousands of years that they lived in the river plain of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, they have shown us how to build large floating rafts of reeds.  Starting from scratch they add reeds onto a smaller raft and in the process build it into a formidable mass.  As reeds in the deeper sections are lost to decomposition, more reeds are laid down on the surface by piling on fresh cut stems, or lacing together woven mats or bundled masses of the dried reeds.  Large rafts or ‘islands’ are thus built up that will float for years (see Wilfred Thesiger’s famous 1964 study of the Marsh Arab).  In Iraq they rise and fall with local water levels. 

As cattle the Marsh Arabs keep water buffalo, animals that are well adapted to the aquatic habitat.  Other cattle and animals can be kept on the smaller islands if forage is brought for them.  Once the floating mat or island is built up into a large enough floating mass, it will provide its own substrate, an organic matrix that can support grass patches and reed plants from wind borne seed.  This provides a self-sustaining source of food as the animal population grows. 
Marsh Arab House made of reeds

Housing on such a floating ‘Green Ark’ would be provided by reed houses.  The Marsh Arabs are expert at building lightweight elaborately and intricately decorated houses and mosques on these mounds using a distinctive type of construction.  And they are still at it even after 3,000 years.  The technique most often used involves the bundling and binding of reeds to form ‘posts.’  The butt ends of these ‘posts’ are sunk into the substratum where they can then be left upright to support a standing wall, or bent over to be interwoven and joined with opposing members to form an arch.  Once covered with reed mats, the result is an astonishingly strong vaulted building similar to a Quonset hut. 

Instead of a hulking mass of timbered wood enclosing a floating coffin, greater than the size of one and a half football fields, the Ark, according to this latest description, could have been a round floating raft of reeds.  It would have been covered with patches of grass that grew up during the hundred or so years that were required to build up the mound.  Wood would have been be used only in limited quantity in combination with the woven construction used in quffas, to form containers that could be incorporated into the floating mound.  These would serve to hold really large animals, like elephants, buffalos, rhinos and hippos who would need special handling.
The New Green Ark with reed houses, corrals, pens and people
 Animal waste recycled in and around fish ponds would provide for an open, productive environment, which in turn would mean that the bird population could grow naturally without the need of aviaries or special enclosures.
Throughout its lifetime time the surface of the reed raft, the new Green Ark, would have been covered with pens, corrals, huts or enclosures to contain those animals and plants that Noah intended to save.  Build from light materials and using techniques typical of the Middle Eastern village of the day, they would require fewer people to build and maintain, and the system would have been a sustainable one, a small part of Eden. 

Best of all would be the landing.  After the forty days of rain, the Green Ark, a verdant floating organic haystack, once stranded on high ground, would provide a ready-made organic farm, on the sustenance of which Noah and his clan and animal flock could live for many years.

The lesson of the Theme Park is skewed in the wrong direction.  The massive amounts of wood, and the need for great numbers of skilled workmen, specialized tools, laborers and draft animals to shift great timbers in the construction of a wooden boat over 500 ft long is a message that leads people further and further away from Nature.  Was it really necessary to deforest an appreciable part of the landscape, even though the trees would be inundated and lost?   

Better to begin with an Ark that shows everyone how man and God’s creatures can live in harmony.  The Green Ark also shows that we have learned our lesson and tempered that part of wickedness in man that is his arrogance in the face of Nature.  It also sends the message that there is no cause for sending another great flood!

See more on my web page
Pre-order my new book Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World at:

Crouse, Bill. 2003. The biblical flood: new thoughts, new questions. Christian Information Ministries website (
Lindsey, A. 2009.  Just Genesis (
Thesiger, W. 2007. The Marsh Arabs.  Reprinted by Penguin, NY.  (Photo credits: Noah’s Ark: Oil on canvas painting by Edward Hicks, 1846. Philadelphia Museum of Art.  ( and Wikipedia Commons; Quffa: Budge, E., 1920. By Nile and Tigris. John Murray, London; Marsh Arab house: Ochsenschlager, E. 1998. Laputan Logic: Life on the Edge of the Marshes.  Expedition vol. 40 ( ;   The Green Ark: John Gaudet.  .