Ten months on this famous African river allowed the Cousteau team to study the relationships between humans and the Nile river system. In 1979, airplanes and land vehicles carried the team to the natural beauties and ancient cultures of its banks. From its source in Lake Victoria in Uganda to the Delta at Cairo, the Nile crosses marshes and falls, bringing life wherever it flows. Its floods beat the rhythm of life for people throughout millennia; its dams and canals shaped new landscapes in the 1970’s.
The countries of the Nile basin faced, and still face, important ecological problems that the Cousteau crew documented on film. Lack of water, desertification, deforestation, erosion, sedimentation, floods, famine and epidemics are factors that must be taken into account if environmental policy in the region is to be understood. Travelling up the river, Cousteau met a wealth of wild life, protected by millions of hectares of swamp, tall prairies of papyrus, clouds of mosquitoes and crocodiles. Herds of elephants, buffalo, giraffes, antelopes and ostriches still lived in an intact kingdom, but for how much longer?
In the second half of the twentieth century, three huge river management projects were planned for the Nile: the Jonglei Canal, the Jebel Aulia Dam and High Aswan Dam. This last, the most famous of the water engineering projects on the Nile, was finished in 1971. It blocked floods, irrigated desert areas and produced electricity but more harmful consequences became apparent as time went on. For example, the Egyptian river banks were no longer fertilized by silt so, for the first time in history, farmers used substantial quantities of chemical fertilizer to do what the river used to do for them naturally.
The Cousteau team emphasized the important decisions to be made for the future in order to stem coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion in wetlands, and the perturbation of animal behaviours, like the sardine migration along the coast of the Nile Delta, which had completely stopped. Such are the lessons for the future.