This piece is part of Water Grabbers: A Global Rush on Freshwater, a special National Geographic Freshwater News series on how grabbing land—and water—from poor people, desperate governments, and future generations threatens global food security, environmental sustainability, and local cultures.
A man surveys Nile River boat traffic near the Aswan High Dam in Egypt.
The river—one of the world’s longest at 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers)—runs a south-north course from its headwaters in central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea.
From the Ethiopian highlands to the arid deserts of South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt, the Nile River and its tributaries have shaped the history and fate of the region's diverse peoples.
Civilizations were built on the productivity of rich and reliable floodplain agriculture along the Nile. Soil fertility in the river basin traditionally depended on annual floods that washed nutrient-rich sediment onto the riverbanks. Now dams and elaborate irrigation schemes prevent this natural cycle of recharge. While the Aswan High Dam revolutionized Egypt by controlling flooding and making riverbank development less risky, it also prevented silt and natural fertilizers from reaching farm fields, forcing soil degradation and the need for chemical fertilizers.
Photograph by Antonio Ribeiro, Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Suez Canal, Egypt
A container ship makes its way through Egypt's Sinai Desert via the Suez Canal, a shipping lane opened in 1870 to connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas and expedite trade between Europe and Asia.
Along the western edge of the canal, irrigation systems that rely on Nile River water create a bright green landscape in a region that otherwise receives less than an inch (or 20 millimeters) of rain a year. The sandy Sinai Peninsula lies in contrast to the east. The peninsula is part of the ancient Nile River Delta, formed millions of years ago during a period of abundant rainfall, but as the river changed course, so did the climate of the Sinai.
Photograph by Jacques Marais, Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Fish Farm, Egypt
An Egyptian man works at a fish farm in the Nile River Delta town of Rashid, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) north of Cairo. Fishing has been a mainstay for residents of the delta for thousands of years, and many delta families still make their livelihoods from casting.
As native fish stocks in the Mediterranean dwindle, traditional ways of fishing have waned and commercial aquaculture operations have taken off, now providing Egypt with nearly 60 percent of its harvest.
The Nile creates an island oasis as it carves a path through Aswan, at the southern end of Egypt.
Elephantine Island (pictured above) is home to the archaeological remains of large temples commissioned by pharaohs in the 13th through 16th centuries B.C., in addition to even older tombs from Egypt's Old and Middle Kingdoms. Today it is the site of two Nubian villages.
Ancient Egyptians had a fascination with death, and the god that they most closely associated with the Nile was Osiris, a mythical king of Egypt who was killed by his brother on the river's banks and disposed of in the river. Osiris eventually became lord of the underworld and was celebrated during periods of flooding.
Women harvest and weigh cotton in Sudan's fertile Gezira irrigation district. The Gezira, where the Blue and White Niles come together to create the singular river that flows north into Egypt, is one of the world's largest irrigated regions, with a dizzying number of green rows traversing an otherwise flat and arid landscape.
While the Gezira has been irrigated since the 1920s, points along the entire Nile River Basin have been farmed intensely since communities began to sprout there nearly 5,000 years ago.
Despite the popularity of "Egyptian cotton," it was the ancient Nubian kingdom of Meroe, just north of modern-day Sudan, that started growing the water-intensive crop. (Learn more about the water footprints of cotton and other commodities.) Egypt was better known for flaxseed-based linens before the Arabs introduced cotton in the seventh century. Later, under British colonial rule, cotton became Egypt's primary crop, thanks in part to irrigation systems that regulated Nile River water.
Soviet and Egyptian officials celebrate the construction of the Aswan High Dam, built about 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of Cairo between the 1950s and 1970s.
The dam, supported in part by Soviet funding, created Lake Nasser, a reservoir intended to impound floodwaters and store Egypt's allocation of Nile River water. A treaty between Egypt and Sudan dictates that Egypt is entitled to about 75 percent of the river's flow.
Irrigation systems and dams that have helped to maintain economic and food security year-round have also caused controversy as neighboring countries vie for precious water resources.
Ethiopia is plowing ahead with a nearly $5 billion dam project on the Blue Nile, one of the Nile's two primary sources. The hydroelectric project will supply the South Sudanese and others with electricity; further downstream, though, Egyptians fear they will lose water.
Site of the ancient and splendid Egyptian city of Thebes, the region around the modern city of Luxor, on the Nile River, is also home to thriving farming operations. Crops such as mahogany, sesame, and corn are more common here than cotton.
The primary crops in ancient Egypt were cereals and grains, including wheat for bread and barley for beer.
Photograph by Jean-Pierre Lescourret, Corbis
Colorful houseboats line the banks of the Nile River in Cairo.
As civilizations developed along the Nile, kings owned the land and agricultural operations, building cooperation among their people to secure food supplies. Increased organization allowed for the evolution of a dedicated labor force that eventually built spectacular monuments and pyramids.
Photograph by Louis-Marie Preau, Hemis/Corbis
Lake Nasser, Egypt
Pumping stations control the flow of Nile River water into Lake Nasser.
This nearly $1 billion hydroelectric project generates up to 10 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power every year—enough to power one million televisions for 20 years.
Photograph by Shawn Baldwin, Corbis
Cattle Farming, Nile
Cattle graze along the Nile River near Bor, South Sudan.
As the Nile and its tributaries run their courses, they touch 11 countries, including Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, but also outlying areas in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. The entire Nile River watershed covers more than 10 percent of the total area of the African continent.