The hardy reed that stood at the center of ancient Egyptian civilization can foster sustainable growth in the 21st century, asserts ecologist Gaudet (Island of Pigs, 2011, etc.).
The papyrus serves as a focus for the author’s broad exploration of the vital role that wetlands (including papyrus swamps) play in preserving and replenishing the global environment. Indeed, the plant’s history is not especially well-conveyed in the book’s scattershot opening chapters, which confusingly mix a history of papyrus use and mythology in ancient Egypt with tales of 19th- and 20th-century European explorers in Africa, plus such present-day swamp-dwellers as Louisiana’s Cajuns. None of it serves any clear purpose, but in the much better chapters that follow, Gaudet hits his stride, chronicling decades of misguided dam-building and swamp-draining that, combined with accelerating urbanization, have created horrific pollution problems and water shortages across Africa and the Middle East. Gaudet is not a doomsayer, however; he points to such hopeful signs for the future as Israel’s Huleh Nature Reserve, which partially restored a wetland area shortsightedly drained in the 1950s, bringing many wild birds (and tourists) back to the area. Other positive developments include regional cooperation on the Transaqua Project, intended to revive the dying wetlands of Lake Chad, and the Nile Basin Initiative, to protect the water resources of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Papyrus plays an important role since papyrus swamps can inexpensively filter polluted water and slow water loss from evaporation. Yet many obstacles remain—e.g., witness the 22-year civil war that erupted in part over a bypass canal that would have drained the Sudd, a vast complex of wetlands that nourishes rural South Sudan, to line the pockets of North Sudanese businessmen and provide more water for urbanized Egypt, which killed off its own papyrus swamps a millennium ago.
The challenges are daunting, but Gaudet’s detailed, undogmatic account of multiple attempts to counter overdevelopment with better practices inspires cautious optimism.