Water resource management in the Eastern Mediterranean: the example of Alexandria and its water system – GEOMAR

Societal impacts of water-resource variations in the région of Alexandria (Egypt)

The study of water resources necessitates a multidisciplinary approach to investigate: (1) the natural evolution of the resource, in response to precipitation changes, the intensity of evapotranspiration and the mobility of water-system networks; (2) the evolution of socio-economic relations around this resource notably its use, management and governance; and (3) the identification of environmental thresholds beyond which agricultural innovation is no longer possible.

Water resource management in the Eastern Mediterranean: the example of Alexandria and its water system

Our objective is to understand palaeohydrological changes in the region of Alexandria in terms of natural and anthropogenic forcing agents. We would like to answer the following questions: (1) How were the freshwater resources exploited in the desert and deltaic areas of Alexandria’s hinterland? (2) What are the relationships between the development of agriculture and the phase of peopling that follows the foundation of Alexandria, and the evolution of its water resources? (3) Is the phase of desertification after Antiquity natural in origin or linked to human impacts? Our aim is to probe historical impacts, adaptations and management strategies in the face of past hydrological changes in the region of Alexandria. This will help to understand the plasticity and ingenuity of human societies in the face of water-resource challenges in arid and semi-arid contexts.

1. High-resolution analysis of an ancient vineyard (karm), which will be selected during the field surveys.
2. Analysis of the palaeobotanical remains found during excavation of the farms (presses and vats, jars, stoves, mudbrick, fields etc.) and beyond.
3. Chronology of the phases of development and retraction of the Maryut’s gricultural and pastoral base.
4. Reconstruct Holocene lake-level variations at Wadi Natroun.
5. Study of the hydrological sources of Wadi Natrun.
6. Reconstruct the history of the vegetation cover (natural forcing agents and human impacts).
7. Lead isotope analyses of sediment archives.

Around one hundred archaeological and geoarcheological sites have been documented and listed in the database to be input into the archaeological and paleoenvironmental Geographic Information System (GIS) for the agricultural hinterland of Alexandria. We have also reconstructed the sediment accretion record of the Nile Delta during the past 8000 years. Our results show that the Nile Delta has a particularly long history of degradation, in response to climate change and anthropogenic pressures. At the scale of the archaeological site, we have probably identified the lake harbour of Alexandria. A core has been taken from the area and is presently being studied. We have also documented a site for wine production, organized around a resource of fresh groundwater near Lake Mareotis, with a navigable waterway to export goods produced to Alexandria.

The first phase of the project has essentially been devoted to fieldwork, including archaeological surveys and sediment coring. (1) In the Wadi Natrun (western desert), we have probed the Holocene stratigraphy of the lake system, that suggest a rise in the aquifer head in this region. (2) In the semi-desertic region of Alexandria, we are working on inputting data into the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental GIS. (3) At the regional scale, we have also investigated the Canopic branch of the Nile, which supplied freshwater to the area. Data from a core presently being published has yielded a 7000-year record of palaeo-environmental and palaeohydrological changes that have taken place in the area, including a reduction in discharge during late antiquity that critically impacted upon the area’s agricultural base. (4) At the local site scale, our geoarchaeological study of the site of Akademia, situated 40 km to the west of Alexandria, has shown that the site undertook all phases of agricultural production and exportation via Maryut Lake. (5) On the lacustrine facade of Alexandria, a new core has confirmed the presence of Portus Mareoticus, whose precise whereabouts was unclear until now. The first phase of sediment archive ‘harvesting’ will be followed by sedimentological, biological and geochemical analyses. These data will subsequently be compared and contrasted with the spatial data in the GIS, to probe the use of water resources in the region of Alexandria during Antiquity.

1. V. Pichot, «The Site of Akademia: The Amphora Workshop of Apol(l)ônios«, Bulletin de la Céramique Egyptienne (BCE) 24, 2013, sous presse.

2. V. Pichot, «The Site of Akademia: First Excavation Campaign (July-August 2012) on the Amphora Workshop of Apol(l)ônios «, actes du colloque international de Nicosie, Per Terram, Per Mare: Production and Transport of Roman Amphorae in the eastern Mediterranean avril 2013, sous presse.

3. Flaux C., Pichot V., Géoarchéologie portuaire dans le lac Maréotis, delta du Nil, Egypte. Géochronique (BRGM), sous presse.

4. Marriner N., Flaux C., Morhange C., Stanley J.-D. Tracking Nile Delta vulnerability to Holocene change. PLoS One. DOI : 0.1371/journal.pone.0069195

During the past 40 years, numerous Near and Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey) have witnessed warming associated with a significant decrease in precipitation leading to water shortages. Although these dry periods have been irregular, they have grown in amplitude and duration during recent decades. In these “vulnerable” countries, present climate change and the associated hydrological anomalies interact with other social, economic and political factors.

Because hydrological changes exert significant pressure on resources and the vulnerability of communities, the project GEOMAR aims to probe society-environment interactions in the semi-arid region of Alexandria (Egypt) since Antiquity through the study of its water resources. GEOMAR aims to analyze, at various temporal and spatial scales, past climate changes, their impact on water availability and the exploitation of water resources, and their impact upon the environment. Adaptation to water shortages, the only means to maintain an economy in these semi-arid areas, has been a key challenge throughout history. This problem is particularly pronounced in Egypt because the region has long been deficient in water compared to the needs of the local population. Recent drought episodes have led to a significant fall in aquifer and reservoir levels, down to a critical threshold. As a result, it is envisaged that important reduction in water availability will lead to deep-seated changes in agricultural production. By looking at the history of these hydrological anomalies, and their impact upon human societies, GEOMAR will probe the response of socio-economic systems to environmental constraints, in terms of technological innovations and politics. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, GEOMAR aims to understand the key factors in the development of civilizations and the thresholds beyond which agricultural innovation is no longer possible, leading to a migration of populations towards more fertile and economically viable areas (fluvial systems, karstic sources). A multi-disciplinary approach will be developed, to understand if droughts have led to a stress on resources in Egypt and to investiagte the anthropogenic component.

Project coordinator

Monsieur David KANIEWSKI (Laboratoire écologie fonctionnelle et environnement) –

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


ECOLAB - UMR 5245(CNRS-UPS-INPT) Laboratoire écologie fonctionnelle et environnement
CEAlex - USR 3134 Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines
CNRS DR12 - CEREGE - UMR 7330 Centre National de Recherche Scientifique Délégation Provence et Corse - Centre Européen de Recherche et d’Enseignement des Géosciences de l’Environnement

Help of the ANR 576,955 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: December 2012 - 48 Months

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