The lived Nile. Environment, disease, and material colonial economy in Egypt (Derr, 2019)

Noura Wahby

HD Derr, J.L. 2019. The lived Nile. Environment, disease, and material colonial economy in Egypt. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Hardcover ISBN: 9781503608672, Paperback ISBN: 9781503609655, 264 p., US$26.


Noura Wahby

Department of Geography, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, UK;


To cite this Review: Wahby, N. 2020. Review of "The lived Nile. Environment, disease, and material colonial economy in Egypt”, Stanford University Press 2019, by Jennifer L. Derr, Water Alternatives,


Constructing a social history of the built Nile is a daunting endeavour. From the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, colonial, state and indigenous transformations of the Nile were at the core of everyday Egyptian life in urban and rural areas. Recent historiographies of the Nile aim to excavate the materiality of these everyday ecologies. Jennifer Derr’s The Lived Nile contributes to this social history through a rich archival research on the encounter of bodies, ecologies and colonial capital at a moment of agricultural transformation. Researchers of both urban and rural waters will benefit from this enquiry to understand the construction of the Nile’s waters and its entanglement with disease, power and political economy.

The Lived Nile explores the interplay between politics, the environment and health in Egypt from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The construction of a new dam in the south - Khazan Aswan- shaped a defining moment in the production of a new Nile and its wider landscape. Derr describes what she calls the 'Perennial Nile', where perennial irrigation practices and canals replaced traditional large water basins used in rural areas. The use of perennial irrigation initiated year-round agricultural production and the cultivation of new crops. This Perennial Nile River becomes the object of analysis for Derr, as she explores its relations to Egypt’s colonial economy and rural bodies.

In centring her analysis around perennial irrigation, Derr seeks to emphasise the importance of the material environment in research on political economy and health. Instead of a narrow focus on the historical transformation of the cotton economy, she reveals different subjectivities and relations emerging from an expanded rural landscape. As Nature is produced in new ways with the damming of the Nile, changes to authority, expertise and the body are also engendered. These are the three key threads to Derr’s analysis in the Lived Nile, which are explored in two parts.

The first section with three chapters addresses the production of the perennial Nile, and its material encounters with expertise, authority and capital. Here Derr demonstrates how both experts and subjects were formed by these new infrastructural realities. In a first chapter "Nile Articulations", Derr guides us through a history of the Nile through British and Egyptian engineers, and more significantly British engineers deployed from India and attached to the Public Works Ministry. In this chapter, she seeks to decolonize the history of the Nile by pointing to how the British struggled to understand 'other worlds' of engineering used by Egyptians. She recapitulates the native history of irrigation and the emergence of the 'irrigation engineer'. As the British struggled to learn the Nile, their contribution to major works only began with the construction of a new dam. In chapter two "The Dammed Nile", Derr delves into the making of the Khazan Aswan Dam. She claims that British hydraulic hegemony began with this megaproject, and brought into existence a British Nile. She provides a rich description on the materiality of the Dam: construction methods, negotiation of native materials, and resulting irrigation practices. She traces how perennial irrigation began in the Nile Delta, and briefly, describes how these changes were met with struggles from the rural populations, workers, officials and capitalists alike. Derr also underlines the struggle to finance the Dam and its place in transnational capital flows.

Capital flows take us to a third chapter "Beyond the Frontier", which aims to reconstruct a changing geography of authority in the Egyptian south. Here Derr provides evidence for a persisting colonial economy in the early twentieth century, and turns our attention to an underexamined commodity − sugarcane. She traces lineages of local Egyptian capital and its relations with European capitalists, as they struggle to create a new global industry. This is the first chapter where the body comes to the fore of analysis through labour geographies. Derr takes us from the fields to the factories, where the encounters of local and colonial capital manifest through violence in the working conditions of rural labourers.

Violence leads us to the second part of The Lived Nile. In two chapters, we encounter the rural Egyptian body as it bears the brunt of a changing nature through disease. Aiming to construct 'ecologies of pain', Derr explains "It is a tricky business reading pain from the archive, but the certainty of its presence demands that we grapple with it as a historical force" (17). Here we witness the impact of a changed environment at the scale of microorganisms. As one of few studies on the politics of the non-human in the Middle East, Derr guides us through the accelerating evolution of three diseases in the shift to perennial irrigation- Schistosomiasis or Bilharzia, Hookworms, and pellagra. Disease becomes at the centre of the lived experiences of the colonial economy.

In chapter four "Cruel Summer", Derr skilfully weaves her experience as an epidemiologist and delves into the biological world of microorganisms and body-scapes of pain. She traces workers’ labour activities and how microorganisms enter and exit the body during labour. She demonstrates how temporal cycles of perennial irrigation helped organisms evolve, and conditioned cycles of workers’ infection and reinfection. As sickened rural bodies became 'endemic', these bodies became important only as a site of discovery and experimentation of tropical disease, the protection of white bodies, and limiting risks of urban contamination. Foreign medical practitioners formed a normative category that classified Egyptian bodies as parasite-filled, contributing to how race was constructed in colonial medicine. However, Derr also traces the emerging local medical profession, and Egyptian doctors’ relational understanding of the environment and body.

These empowered Egyptian medical practitioners and their relation to global tropical medicine become the main protagonists of chapter five "Treated Subjects". Here Derr shows how practitioners treated the masses of sickened bodies. National public health treatment programs saw their roots in racialized public hygiene interventions, but also institutionalized a centralized approach to medical treatment in the countryside, using coercion and legal compulsion. Drawing on the Rockefeller Foundation’s archives of American medical practitioners, Derr highlights the tensions between transnational expertise and Egyptian practitioners. Following the lives of these experts, we come to understand how treatment is shaped and formed.

The Lived Nile presents an important historiography that contributes to the latest brand of social history of late nineteenth century Egypt, which relates the material world to power and authority. It is especially apt at navigating different scales of analysis from the regional to the body, the countryside to the mills, and the non-human to the foreign. By centring the body, Derr has been able to explore new territories of the Egyptian south, and new landscapes of pain, labour, and capital. Yet, while the author acknowledges the centrality of rural bodies, it would have been helpful to populate these narratives with Egyptians voices, to gain better tract toward decolonizing the singular story. Similarly, a larger focus to uncover local capital and its roots would also have been helpful to further the discussion on transnational flows of capital and expertise.

The Lived Nile is a timely addition to the hydraulic literature on the Nile as we look to its imminent transformation further downstream by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. How will this new dam impact rural and urban waterscapes? What does this mean for food supplies, non-human interactions, and land division? As officials in Egypt scramble to draw the contours of real and imaginary waterscapes, Derr’s book provides us with a starting point to excavate future landscapes of pain from the bottom-up.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Jennifer L. Derr
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Reviewer: Noura Wahby
  • Subject: Environmental History, Irrigation, Dams, Water and community, Water history
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English