Photographer Norbert Schiller on the Nile River Basin

Q&A: Photographer Norbert Schiller on the Nile River Basin

In reporting on the Nile River Basin, Circle of Blue spoke with Norbert Schiller, a journalist and photographer with more than 25 years of experience covering the Middle East and Africa. He is currently a columnist for Mint Press News.

Photographer Norbert Schiller on the Nile River Basin

Photo courtesy of Norbert Schiller
Circle of Blue: What is your relationship with the Nile River?
Norbert Schiller: Egypt is completely chaotic. But in all the chaos, it is also very serene — [made so] by this idea that the Nile River flows through this land. I first traveled to Egypt in the late 1970s and have used Cairo as my base for 17 out of my 30 years in the Middle East. For 13 years, I took an apartment overlooking the Nile. My children grew up overlooking the Nile from our balcony, seeing the fishing boats, and the occasional dead water buffalo float down the river. There’s a lot of garbage in the Nile.
What changes have you seen along the Nile?
Norbert Schiller: Before, there was always a fear of the Nile and an acceptance of its power. People used to live on the high ground, and, when the river flooded, the water would create little islands around communities. In the late 1960s, the Aswan High Dam contained the Nile, and it didn’t flood anymore. Since then, people have been migrating to the banks of the Nile. Tour operators are upset about this, because you have foreigners who want to take romantic cruises and see the skyline as it was back in the days of the pharaohs. [But] all along the river, it’s built up now. People don’t fear the Nile anymore.
Are Egyptians worried about environmental changes along the Nile?
Norbert Schiller: There are the intellectuals — the educated classes [are worried] — but they’re a minority. The average farmer, I don’t think he’s worried about pollution in the Nile. I don’t think pollution is on his mind. We’re talking about the average farmer who is uneducated. He’s working barefoot in the mud. He’s using animals of burden to drag his plow around. I don’t think he’s concerned so much about pollution as whether he gets his seeds, his pump is operating to irrigate his fields, and he gets the fertilizers he needs.
What is your view of Egypt’s conflict with Ethiopia over the Nile?
Norbert Schiller: The Ethiopian dam was decided long ago — before [Mohamed] Morsi came to power. When things started to turn negative against him, Morsi started to blame all the problems on the Ethiopians. A lot of Egyptians watched the news and said, “How come they’re taking our water from us?” Nobody’s taking anybody’s water. This dam is not a secret. The Egyptian government under Mubarak knew about this, [too].I It was agreed upon that it was not going to affect Egypt’s water.
What environmental dangers do you see along the Nile?
Norbert Schiller: So much of the Nile’s water is being used for agriculture that no water flows into the Mediterranean Sea anymore. They are now catching saltwater fish up to a few kilometers inland. Fresh water doesn’t flow into the sea anymore. The land is inundated with salt — they’re using too much water and too much water is being wasted. Farmers in the Nile Delta whose land is completely contaminated with salt water are very concerned. The water is mismanaged. There is no doubt about that. You can see when you get up near the mouth of the river, because the water doesn’t flow into the sea anymore.

This interview was performed by Joanne (Yuan) Yao, a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) who is currently reporting for the Circle of Blue news desk. The interview is meant to accompany Yao’s article, Super Dam: Egyptian Concern for Nile Water Security Spurs Cooperation Over Ethiopia’s New Dam.

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