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.

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