Roshdi Said: An Egyptian geologist’s journey along the Nile

Mohamed Al-Barghouti, Sunday 13 Dec 2020

Mohamed Al-Barghouti celebrates the birth of renowned Egyptian geologist Roshdi Said 100 years ago, whose work on the River Nile, land reclamation, and mineral wealth in Egypt has yet to be fully appreciated

The River Nile in Egypt, 1895
The River Nile in Egypt, 1895

It is high time to revisit the writings of Egyptian geologist Roshdi Said (1920-2013), who was born 100 years ago. 

Said wrote extensively on water, energy, desert reclamation, and other issues, as well as on the development of Egypt’s educational and scientific systems. These are all critical in the light of some of the issues the country is facing now, including the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), natural gas exploration and extending electricity projects, increasing the area of reclaimed land, overhauling the education system, and raising budget allocations for scientific research.

Yet, Said has not always been fairly celebrated for his achievements, although his books on Egypt’s geology, the River Nile, climate change, and environmental pollution have served as invaluable references to professionals at home and abroad.

His publications do not only cater to scientists. The subjects he wrote about have all generated public interest, among them education, healthcare, housing, employment, and people’s right to enjoy the country’s awe-inspiring beaches, many of them closed to the wider public as a result of investment projects. 

Said is credited with laying the foundations for the study of geology in Egypt. When he was president of the Mining and Geological Research Foundation between 1968 and 1977, he accompanied his staff on missions to Egypt’s vast deserts to conduct research. His writings also deal with desert urbanisation and the future of energy resources in Egypt. He foretold much about present-day gas and oil discoveries in Egypt’s deserts and beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Not all of Said’s scientific predictions were optimistic, however. He said that Egypt would regret uncalculated decisions to proceed with desert reclamation and the quick depletion of groundwater as a result of the massive extraction of water from wells. He noted that the Darb Al-Arbain caravan route extending through Egypt’s Western Desert from Assiut to Kharga Oasis was evidence of the small amount of groundwater available. 

He said that this groundwater was non-renewable and that the Darb Al-Arbain’s dryness was proof of the depletion of groundwater in an area that had seen previously agricultural land turn arid up until the mid-1950s. Said urged caution against such destructive practices during his membership of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament, the International Parliamentary Union, and many other international institutes and universities in which he lectured for decades.

Some observers might argue that Said’s voice was deliberately silenced and that his writings were buried by groups whose interests conflicted with his opinions about subjects that affected Egypt, including energy, mineral resources, water, agriculture, desert reclamation, housing problems, scientific research, and the Copts within the framework of national unity.

But Said still toiled to make his voice heard. He published articles in the Arabic edition of Al-Ahram and with the Dar Al-Hilal Publishing House and in the magazine Wighat Nazar (Viewpoints). He constantly sent his studies, often simplified, to the heads of Egyptian governments whenever they announced plans to launch new projects to reclaim the desert, export gas, construct tourist resorts on the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea, create urban communities around the Aswan High Dam, or enter new rounds of negotiations on the Nile Basin.

Many ministers ignored his warnings, opting instead to follow studies by World Bank officials and reports by Egyptian officials working for international agencies whose interests may have conflicted with those of the Egyptian people.

Said once asked veteran journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to write an introduction to his book Truth and Illusion in Egyptian Reality, which was then about to be published by Dar al-Hilal. 

Heikal wrote that “when my dear friend Roshdi Said asked me to present this book to the public, I did not hesitate for a moment, having a deep feeling to the point of certainty that this was my duty and not just out of enthusiasm for a personal friend.”=

“The feeling of public duty is based on a problem Egypt suffers from. There is a paradox that many people who have nothing to say about the affairs of this country and its problems do not stop talking, while those who have something valuable to say often don’t have the opportunity to do so. Many people who can serve the country are forced not to, whereas it’s an open day for ignorance, impotence, and corruption.

“With knowledge and wisdom, Said has revealed the demands of progress and development, creating a sophisticated type of integrated knowledge capable of inspiration and influence. Said is sought after by international universities and is often hosted by them, but in this country he somehow isn’t.

“There is a demand for Said everywhere in the world, but his country has not summoned him to public service except for a short period in the mid-1960s and early 1970s before political developments left no room for him in decision-making. The country abandoned him, but those who knew his value abroad embraced him. Although Said has travelled much, he has still kept a watchful eye on Egypt, following its developments and sharing its woes,” Heikal wrote.


ADVICE: This testimony by a leading journalist lifted Said’s morale after some officials had lent their ears to a man who was about to carry out a mega-project on land reclamation. Due to the turbulence that engulfed Egypt following the 25 January Revolution, the project was shelved.  

Said responded to the former president of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who had repeatedly asked him to write his memoirs. Said’s book Journey of a Lifetime: Egypt’s Wealth between Nasser and Sadat was published by Dar Al-Hilal in 2000 and was republished by the General Egyptian Book Organisation in 2012 as part of its Family Library.

It is almost impossible to present abridged versions of Said’s books because they contain such an enormous amount of valuable information. In addition to his vast knowledge and fine style of writing, Said had the ability to present difficult and complicated subjects in simple terms and a smooth style. This enabled him to present the findings of studies issued by international bodies, especially the World Bank, on water, energy, and development issues in Third World countries to a wider public.

He did this in a book issued by the World Bank on the Nile Basin Initiative in 2001, for example, re-published as Egypt: The Future by Dar Al-Hilal in 2004. The Nile Basin Initiative is an intergovernmental association of 10 Nile Basin countries, namely Burundi, DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, established in 1999. Said’s book contains information on the initiative that had earlier only been accessible to specialists along with the World Bank and its advisors.

In presenting the World Bank book, Said wrote that the cornerstones of the Nile Basin Initiative were trade in electricity and developing water resources for the Nile Basin countries. But this would be impossible, he said, without regulating the water in the River Nile and constructing dams on it. He said that the World Bank had focused on advertising campaigns for the Nile Basin Initiative, allocating money to prepare public opinion and governments to accept projects presented by the initiative in the Nile Basin countries and a system by which water would be regulated and priced according to the market.

According to Said, writing in 2011, the World Bank was also supporting a project presented by the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile that would involve “building a dam in Ethiopia and regulating the exit of water from its reservoir throughout the year, instead of the current system that lets the majority of the water flow in one season.”

He said that the construction of this dam would transfer the storage of water from the Aswan High Dam to the proposed Ethiopia dam, which “will render Egypt hostage to [Ethiopia]. This is the fate Egypt, throughout its modern history until the emergence of the initiative, has been trying to avoid by maintaining the status quo and preventing any third party from interfering in the river or containing the effects of interference if it is unable to prevent it.”

He said Egypt would gain nothing from the Nile Basin Initiative, which would decrease Egypt’s share of Nile water. Egypt would be harmed, Said said, “and in return some officials will receive higher salaries and privileges.”

His courage in addressing the nation’s woes is also reflected in his memoirs. In the first pages of Journey of a Lifetime, Said wrote that “I am 80 years old, and I am writing the journey of my life at an age that allows me to write without equivocation. I no longer have interests in this world, except in health, which no man can give me. I do not have any demands or ambitions that I now want to achieve.”

He discussed topics rarely tackled publicly. That ruling system “retains many features of the ruling system in the Middle Ages,” he said. He delved into the relationship between the ruling system and the religious authorities on the issue of the Copts within the framework of the national community. “This subject has caused me pain throughout my career since I returned from my scholarship abroad in 1951,” he added.


CAREER: Said looked at how scientific life has been corrupted in some Egyptian universities, especially Cairo University, to which he returned after gaining a PhD at Harvard University in the US, the first Egyptian doctorate in geology from that prestigious university. 

He stressed that he was a Coptic Egyptian who had imbibed the spirit of the renaissance that Egypt had witnessed after the 1919 Revolution and the promulgation of the 1923 Constitution, the articles of which did not contain the slightest trace of religious discrimination. 

Said joined the Faculty of Science at Cairo University in 1937, saying that these were the best years of his life. “Education then was mind-opening and mind-freeing. We used to listen to the lectures of the professors who would direct us to references in the library. The Faculty of Science was an advanced institute with many of the best European professors. They were there because Egypt had provided them with quality of life and the opportunity to conduct scientific research, which was, and still is, one of the most important signs of how advanced a university is,” Said wrote.

He added that Cairo University’s Faculty of Science then rivalled its peers abroad. “Until World War II, the faculty used to send undergraduate student exams to London University, with faculty there helping to evaluate the answers. It used to select professors from the most prominent foreign universities to supervise theses.”

Following his graduation in 1941, he was nominated by the then dean of the Faculty of Sciences, Mustafa Mosharrafa, to work at the Qusseir Phosphate Company in the Red Sea governorate. The 18 months Said spent there were fruitful because they opened his eyes to the realities of life for many people and the ways in which science could help them. He became aware of the Egyptian people’s feelings of alienation in their own country, as Egypt was still under British occupation at the time.

“The backbone of the company were migrant workers taken from their villages in Upper Egypt to work in the mines,” he said, adding that this arduous work took the lives of many workers at the young age of 35.

After finishing his Master’s, Said taught at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science from 1943. Two years later, he travelled on a scientific mission to Zurich, but then went to Harvard University, from which he obtained a doctorate in 1950. He spent another year in the US, where he taught and published a number of papers in scientific journals.

“I started exchanging research papers with those working in the branch of science in which I specialised, which enriched me immensely. I used my library to reconstruct the scientific research unit at the Faculty of Science upon my return,” Said wrote.

Returning to Egypt in 1951, Said was surprised to find the rise of the religious right had corrupted many universities. He tells the story of “a professor in the geology department at the Faculty of Science who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. [That professor] was constantly complaining about fictitious conspiracies he attributed to the secular and Coptic professors in the faculty. He recruited students to join the Brotherhood. He even convinced them that they needed to organise themselves to ward off the threat of conspiracies by Coptic professors.

“Despite the absurdity of the professor’s talk, I found, to my surprise, that many people, especially the poor coming from urban areas, were willing to believe him,” Said wrote.

Some reports described Said as a “fanatical Copt”. They were based on the conversion to Islam of his brother, who was two years younger than he was, in 1949. His family didn’t take the news well and severed ties with the brother, but Said tried to re-establish them. “I went to my brother the night our mother died in 1952 to convince him to attend her funeral, but he declined,” he wrote.

“The next time I heard about my brother, I was in a Berlin café and read his name on Al-Ahram’s obituaries page in 1986,” Said wrote.

One thing that always consoled Said before his own death was the fact that prominent universities across the world cherish his work in the fields of geology, water, and mineral resources and that his name will be forever associated with Egypt’s geology and the River Nile.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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