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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

At some time during elementary school all of us learned about the Papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) and its use as the source of the first paper. If you reacted like I did, this knowledge was as unimpressive as last week’s Jell-O at the school cafeteria. The picture of the plant in the book was about as large as the beans the class sprouted in paper cups sitting on the window sill and the existence of paper only meant some kind of work had to be done on it before you could throw it away or turn it in to the teacher. The exception was, of course, paper airplanes, which were strictly outlawed at school. So, papyrus was a non- event in the classroom and didn’t make the list of things we were going to enjoy remembering from our school days. This would not be the case if any of the teachers brought anything like the knowledge John Gaudet has about the subject, or better yet, an actual Papyrus plant into the classroom.
               Papyrus was responsible for a lot more than just paper. Not that paper wasn’t or isn’t a very large force in shaping civilization. It was and, in spite of the “electronic revolution”, still is. But Papyrus, the plant, was an abundant source of building materials for many cultures around the world. It was also used to make rope, handcrafted items and could be used as a fuel when dry. In a pinch, you could even eat it, but you would prefer most anything else if even remotely available. Perhaps the most important use of the plant was as a freshwater marsh reed that purified and conserved the water while simultaneously providing a biome for a huge number of animal, insect, fish and microbial life. That is what this book is really about.
               Gaudet is a professional ecologist, to quote from the book’s jacket. He has worked with the U.S. government and the National Geographic Society and is still active in African, agricultural and conservation/environmental agencies. So, his cache of relevant knowledge on the subject is both deep and wide. This becomes obvious as the book progresses. His website is
               The style of the book is from an earlier era and, therefore, comfortable and familiar to me. The text gives a background to the subject at hand, delves into the importance of the plant in its many uses and functions, then spends the back half relating how all of this history is relevant to the problems and confrontations of today’s world. There is no attempt to exaggerate anything just to add excitement. The subject is interesting and relevant all by itself and needs no additional zip or splash. While there are plenty of illustrations accompanying the text, they are hand drawn and in black-and-white. There is a small section of color photographs and illustrations in the middle of the volume just to accentuate some of the drama and beauty to be found in a Papyrus swamp, but it is a bit shocking to the eye after the soft edges and stylish shapes of the illustrator’s art.
The color section does serve a purpose however, just as Dorothy discovers she isn’t in Kansas anymore in The Wizard of Oz we are transported to the modern Congo, Zambesi, Nile and Jordan rivers as well as lakes with names as different from each other as Victoria and Chad are from Naivasha and Upemba. But, what is in a name? The rivers, lakes and marshes as well as the people who depend upon them for life itself are all suffering from the same problem: a seriously degraded and diminished supply of clean water. Gaudet takes each region in its turn and describes how things got to be such a sorry mess. He lays blame where he sees it appropriate, but wastes little time hand-wringing and whining. In each case he suggests a method to either eliminate or minimize the problem. As you have to have guessed, the solutions generally boil down to restoring papyrus marshes where they once were or starting new ones where they might provide the same water cleaning and conservation service.
Stated that way, it sounds like a simplistic solution to a massive global problem. It’s not and Gaudet doesn’t treat it that way. Each region has its own set of water problems that make a single formula solution impossible. This is where Gaudet really shines. His expertise, hard won by many years in the field, allows him to rise to the task and offer sensible, real world solutions that, if implemented, would make a significant difference in the lives of those close to the marshes. Those of us not so close would benefit, too. Cleaner air and water combined with more sustainable industry to feed and house the marginalized people could only lead to less war and better health for all.
There is a significant amount of science in this book, but all of it is very reachable to the layman. The only mathematical skill you will need is the ability to compare a big number to a smaller one. For example, C3 grasses like phragmites lose 833 molecules of water for each molecule of carbon sequestered. C4 grasses like papyrus lose only 277. Obviously, much more water is conserved in a papyrus swamp compared to a phragmites swamp. You learn the names of each part of the Papyrus plant and some uses for them. The relative strengths and weaknesses of papyrus, phragmites and some other marsh flora are compared. There is lots of geography, some ancient civilization, tales of the explorers, paper making techniques, reed hut differences between locations and plants used, boat/raft design and more. In other words, it’s not only broadly informative, it’s entertaining.
As you may have also guessed, you can’t talk about this many aspects of the environment without bringing up birds. And so he does, but as a descriptive of the condition he is describing. There is a good description of the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) and its plighted condition in the shrinking papyrus marshes. Cranes and storks are used to discuss migration patterns. Herons and warblers make a showing along with a Papyrus Gonolek (Laniarius mufumbiri) painted in the color section in all its vibrancy. One gets the general impression Gaudet is a fully addicted birder whether he knows and admits it or not.
In sum, Papyrus by John Gaudet is one of the most satisfying and informative non­fiction books I have read in a good while. I strongly recommend it to all. Had there been even a single percent of the information in this book presented in the class where I first heard the word papyrus, I would have had a much better understanding of just how important this single plant was to the history of mankind and life on planet Earth.

[Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World: From Ancient Egypt to Todays Water Wars by John Gaudet. 2014. 300 pp. Pegasus. S28.95]        Barnes &

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Where does all the water go?

Enormous amounts of water are lost every year in Africa.  For years developers in the Nile Basin have pointed fingers at the papyrus swamps in southern Sudan (the Sudd) as one of the culprits.  Now a study published by Routledge (The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods, 2012) shows a remarkable trend.  On a per unit area basis, the large reservoirs in the arid zone of the basin lose fantastic amounts of water.  The combined loss from storage is now over 28% of the total Nile flow!  And this figure will grow as lowland countries in the Basin add 25 new dams over the coming years.    

The report also points out that evaporation from reservoirs is entirely non-beneficial, while water loss from natural wetlands provides important local benefits in terms of both pastoral production and biodiversity. 
They recommend that water storage be carried out in the Ethiopian Highlands where evaporation is low rather than the arid lowlands where the majority of water is now lost.  As a water-saving measure, more efficient storage is a much more urgent priority than draining papyrus swamps.

The Sudd can and should be saved, as explained in Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World, From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars.  Due out in June from Pegasus Books ( by John Gaudet, Ph.D., a professional ecologist and environmental adviser, will tell us how all the above can be avoided. Watch this short video that brings much of this into perspective:

(Info from: Awulachew, S., V. Smakhtin, D. Molden and D. Peden, 2012. The Nile River Basin: Water, Agriculture, Governance and Livelihoods.  Routledge, U.K. and N.Y.  Note: Water loss expressed as millions of cubic meters per square km).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

At the center of the most vital human/plant relationship in history, papyrus evokes the mysteries of the ancient world while holding the key to the world’s wetlands and atmospheric stability —and it needs our help

Most people think that papyrus, the wonder plant of yesteryear, disappeared into the sands of ancient Egypt, a relic.  It didn’t.  Papyrus is alive and well and today thrives in central, south and eastern parts of Africa where it is a vigorous 15 foot plant with a prodigious growth rate. 

This is a picture that is quite foreign to modern Egyptians, as well as people living outside of Africa, and it is an interesting story, one that is stranger than fiction.  It begins in the past when papyrus helped shape the course of history and modern civilization.  It continues into modern times and the role that papyrus has today in the future of Africa. 

Papyrus is also a dominant plant in the Sudd in Southern Sudan, the largest protected freshwater swamp in the world.  This swamp is now a pawn in a dramatic world-changing face-off between Africa and Egypt, a showdown that hopefully will end in a peacefully cooperative effort.  The story is a simple one, Egypt and Ethiopia are at odds over water in the Blue Nile.Ethiopia’s new Renaissance Dam is intended to control the flow, reduce loss by evaporation and slow the downstream loss of water storage.


This is all to the good, but comes at a cost.  While the megadam fills, Egypt must live with a decrease in Blue Nile water flow.  Aljazeera (June 18, 2013) announced that foreign ministers from both countries have opened talks, and Bloomberg View (June 23, 2013) suggested that Ethiopia could bridge the divide by agreeing to fill the dam’s reservoir more slowly.  


By cooperating with Ethiopia in this new effort, a war will be averted, but, in compensation, almost certainly Egypt will ask all parties to pressure the new nation of Southern Sudan to complete a canal that will drain the Sudd.  That canal (called the ‘Jonglei Canal’) likely to have a significant impact on climate, groundwater recharges, silt and water quality; it is also likely to involve the loss of fish habitat and grazing areas, which, in turn, will have serious implications for the local people (World Wildlife Fund, 2013). 

The 1,700,000 people who live there will suffer, along with vast herds of elephant, gazelle and antelope now under study by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

It doesn’t have to be that way, as explained in The Plant that Changed the World: Papyrus and the Evolution of Civilization: From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars due out in June 2014 from Pegasus Books. John Gaudet, Ph.D., a professional ecologist and environmental adviser, will tell us how all the above can be avoided. 

See papyrus in action at: YouTube
Book is available at prepublication prices at:
For more on papyrus and the book see: