I’m on a tourist ship floating down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan, and I am not alone. There are dozens of other ships with 150 tourists each from all over the world sharing the same experience at the same time.
The juxtaposition of the modern and the ancient is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The world’s longest river is lined with sugar cane farms, cattle and water buffalo grazing, fishermen in row boats with small nets, and towns with a skyline of mosque minarets. The Nile itself is visibly polluted with the plastic refuse from tourism, agricultural discharges, trash burning on the river banks, and the ever present cattle on the shore. No one swims in the Nile. Egypt’s population is nearing 100 million and nearly all of their water comes from the Nile — and all of their sewage goes right back in.
On the first couple of days of the trip, my wife Lisette and I stayed in Giza at a hotel a half mile from the pyramids. The spectacle of the 500-foot tall, 4500-year old tombs was beyond awe inspiring. However, we were shocked to see that development had come to the door of the pyramids and that the entire site was covered in trash and fecal waste from camels and ponies, which are there to give tourists a ride and a photo-op. So strange to see water and soda being sold without a trash can on site.
Perhaps the most shocking moment of the trip was the first morning we woke in Giza. Lisette and I eagerly went to the garden to see the pyramids from the hotel, only to find that we could barely see these epic monuments due to a night of rice and garbage burning. Shades of a day in Beijing.
The spectacle of the pyramids of Giza and Saqqara, the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings are incomparable. To think that Egyptian civilization could create such long-lasting beauty 2500 to 4500 years ago is beyond comprehension. Seeing ubiquitous trash dumps and trash and crop burning, and the abuse of one of the world’s great rivers (don’t get me started on the ecological impacts of the Aswan Dam) in the cradle of civilization makes me realize that strong and effective environmental advocacy is essential everywhere.
I hope Steve Fleischli, Bobby Kennedy and the rest of the Waterkeeper Alliance have plans for Keepers of the Nile. It is sorely needed. Knowing them, they are working on it.
P.S. — As soon as we talk to an Egyptian, regardless of whom it is, we are greeted with a smile and a salutary “Congratulations on President Obama’s victory.” What a difference a week makes!