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Volume 32, Number 1January/February 1981

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The Lakes of Egypt

"Each in its own way, startlingly beautiful"

Written by Tor Eigeland and Martin Love
Additional photographs by Tor Eigeland

Lakes in Egypt? What lakes? Well, okay, there is Lake Nasser, and may be you could include the Bitter Lakes and Lake Timsah, but they're really part of the Suez Canal - aren't they?

It's a common reaction. Egypt, to the non-Egyptian, usually brings to mind such features as the Western Desert, the Suez Canal and, of course, the Nile. But lakes?

In fact, there are numerous lakes in Egypt. Even if you don't include the Bitter Lakes and Lake Timsah which, as part of the Suez Canal system, are fed by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, there are at least seven sizable lakes with a total surface area of 3,600 square miles-enough to accommodate 130 Manhattan Islands. They are: the High Dam Lake, straddling the Egyptian-Sudanese border in the south; Lake Qarun, southwest of Cairo, and, from west to near the Mediterranean coast, Lakes Maryut, Idku, Burullus, Manzilahand - in Sinai - Lake Bardawil.

These lakes, admittedly, do not compare in size with the Great Lakes, and the terrain is nothing like the wooded shores of lakes in New England, northern New York and Canada. And some would argue that five of them - Maryut, Idku, Burullus, Manzilah and Bardawil - are more inlets of the Mediterranean than real, fresh-water lakes.

On the other hand, most of the lakes are, or were, fresh water lakes. All but one -Lake Bardawil in the Sinai Desert - draw some water from the Nile. And though the terrain may be different from the lake districts of North America or Britain, the seven lakes are, in their own way, startlingly beautiful.

Lake Qarun, for example, lies at the edge of the fertile Fayyum region, but at the far end of the lake, in striking contrast, are the dunes of the Western Desert. On shallow Lake Maryut near Alexandria you can see fishermen poling canoes silently and swiftly through forests of tall reeds, and on Lake Idku, just to the east, visitors to the lake might find fishermen standing waist deep in the water far from shore rhythmically gathering in the folds of their nets.

One particularly lovely lake is Lake Bardawil, in Sinai, which sits like a blue-green gemstone embedded in dunes of sand that change in color from brown to yellow to pink, depending on the time of day. And then, of course, there's the High Dam Lake, formerly called Lake greatest as well as the newest. Nearly 298 miles long -112 miles of it in the Sudan -and 590 feet above sea level, the High Dam Lake, a vast inland sea behind the Aswan High Dam, is breathtaking.

But one aspect of the High Dam Lake is also, in an odd way, sad; for beneath the lake's waters, slowly crumbling away, are the homes of thousands of Egyptians who had to be relocated as the waters of the Nile backed up behind the dam - as well as vast areas of what was once desert and some monuments of ancient Nubia that, unlike the famous Abu Simbel, could not be relocated.

The High Dam Lake is not in the same category as the other six lakes. Incomparably larger, and more famous, the High Dam Lake may in time be developed into one of the great resorts of the world, where, planners predict, there will be floating hotels, crocodile pools and tourist villages along the banks. But in one aspect ifs similar to the other lakes: it provides a livelihood for fishermen - an estimated 6,000 - and food for thousands of Egyptians.

Indeed, fishing is the chief economic value of all the lakes. The catch on the High Dam Lake, for example, has grown from 2,662 tons in 1968 to 27,000 tons in 1979. Lake Burullus, measuring only 265 square miles, supports an estimated 45,000 fishermen, and on Lake Manzilah, about twice as large as Burullus, the boats often stay out for a week or more and merchants from shore communities sometimes sail out to buy up fresh fish on the spot.

Like many lakes in Europe and North America, the lakes of Egypt have suffered severe ecological damage from industrialization, modern agricultural systems and unexpected side effects from projects meant to help, not hurt Egypt's economy.

On Lake Maryut and Lake Idku, industrial wastes and chemicals used to spur agricultural productivity nearby are damaging the fish habitats; fishermen say that in Lake Idku fishing as an industry is dying. The salt content of Lake Qarun's waters has risen so dramatically in recent years that sole and shrimp, brought from Mediterranean hatcheries, now thrive in the lake - but at the same time other problems threaten nearby agricultural efforts.

On Manzilah and Burullus, fishermen are worried about the erosion of sand bars which separate the lakes from the Mediterranean. Said the mayor of al-Burj, Atiya Ramadan: "Previously, one to one-and-a-half yards were added to the coastline each year. Now the shore is being eaten away at a rate of 30 to 40 feet a year... and this winter our whole town was flooded three times during storms."

Lake Bardawil, fishermen claim, is being choked by weeds because two channels which connect the lake to the Mediterranean are clogged with sand. The fishermen say the lake can no longer breathe and cleanse itself.

Ironically, the High Dam Lake, which has become a fisherman's paradise, and the dam itself, which provides Egypt with electric power, may also be contributing to the ecological changes taking place at the other lakes. Most of the Nile's silt, a life-giving and natural fertilizer, instead of pouring onto the Delta's farmlands, is settling into the lake. Some of the silt, furthermore, may have helped maintain the coastal bars and dunes which separate some of the lakes from the Mediterranean.

The dam, fishermen say, also deprives the other lakes of the nutrients that once sustained the fishes' habitats. As a result, the fish have diminished in size and number in the past decade. Even worse, perhaps, the High Dam Lake may be the cause of an alarming rise in Egypt's water table - the level of underground water. With some 4,500 billion cubic feet of water backed up behind the dam, the lake, in the past 11 years, has found underground channels and its water is surfacing in the Western Desert, along the Mediterranean and, according to some experts, even leaking into tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Fortunately, though, Egypt is very much aware of these problems and has begun to search for solutions. Geologists from the universities of Cairo and Alexandria are studying the problems, several experimental drainage projects are under way and, according to Abdulgani al-Masri, chairman of the High Dam Development Authority, Egypt has "just about completed" the Tushka Canal. The canal is designed to divert some of the Nile's waters into the Tushka Depression and thus ease the lake's immense pressure.

As to the other lakes, the solutions are relatively basic: restrictions on the dumping of industrial wastes, improvement in drainage to prevent pollution from insecticides and fertilizers and better techniques to monitor changes in water quality. As one scientist said of Lake Maryut, "It has tremendous self-cleaning potential. If you stop the pollution, the lake will recover."

The lakes, beautiful as they are, are testimony to the fact, as scientists and ecologists have only recently begun to discover, that man can quickly and unwittingly damage what nature took millennia to create. They are also testimony to a diversity in Egyptian geography that is not commonly supposed and a beauty largely unknown.

Tor Eigeland, an Aramco World photographer and correspondent, contributes regularly to European periodicals and to National Geographic books.

Martin Love has recently joined Aramco World as assistant editor.

This article appeared on pages 17-23 of the January/February 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1981 images.