How the World’s Mightiest River Turned into the Plastic Nile

‘The Plastic Nile’ documentary follows Alex Crawford through Africa as she investigates plastic pollution and its effects on the area
‘The Plastic Nile’ documentary follows Alex Crawford through Africa as she investigates plastic pollution and its effects on the area | © Sky UK Limited

The Nile is one of the longest waterways in the world, and was hugely important to Ancient Egyptian civilisation. Today, it remains a vital part of a delicate ecosystem that brings life to a large area of Africa, but a new documentary is highlighting the potentially catastrophic impact a global menace is causing to the river.

The Nile – a name taken from the Arabic word for river – stretches for 4,130mi (6,650km) from Lake Victoria to a large delta leading into the Mediterranean Sea. It flows from south to north, which has led to the confusing categorisation of northern Egypt being known as Lower Egypt. The whole country has been labelled in this counter-intuitive manner since ancient times, and this quirky fact highlights just how important the river is to all aspects of life in this largely barren region.

Recently, pollution has been causing major problems to the flow of the Nile in Egypt – the country most closely associated with the river (although it’s worth noting that the river has a drainage basin that covers 11 countries in total). Alex Crawford, an award-winning special correspondent who works in the region, is hoping to bring wider exposure to the manmade plastics that are the scourge of environmentalists everywhere with the documentary The Plastic Nile.

Alex Crawford and her team examine the knock-on effect of single-use plastic for the millions of people and wildlife that rely on the Nile for survival

“The documentary was filmed before the global coronavirus pandemic, but it is sobering to note that while we are understandably consumed by fears and worries about the spread of Covid-19, all the while the world’s plastic problem has not stopped,” Alex explains.

“The world will eventually get a coronavirus vaccine – and let us hope that that is sooner rather than later – but so far there’s no antidote to the plastic which is choking the planet’s rivers and seas. It is another global challenge and one we increasingly cannot ignore,” she says.

Plastic pollution is an environmental problem that refuses to go away. There has been concern around the fact that decades of environmental campaigning could become lost in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak. The Plastic Nile aims to bring into focus just how much devastation is being caused by tourism and the growth of emerging industries; travel and commerce have been curtailed in the wake of coronavirus, but when lockdown restrictions lift around the world, the revival of each sector will serve as an indicator of a return to “normality”.

The impact of single-use plastic is more disturbing than anyone could have imagined

Explorers have tried to track the start of the Nile for centuries – now Crawford and her team are looking to find the source of the pollution that has infested the waters of the region. The proliferation of single-use plastics has been officially curbed, but as the documentary has found out, there is a black market for plastic bags in places like Kenya. Millions of people rely on the Nile to survive, and the clogging of the river has also affected wildlife. Fish and cattle have been found with ingested plastics in their digestive systems, and in turn this has begun to alter long-established food chains.

It is difficult to come up with any immediate solutions that will resolve this problem, but one thing is for sure… time is running out.

The Plastic Nile will premiere on Sky Documentaries on 1 June, and will also be available to stream on NOW TV

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