A Guide to Egypt's Challenges: Water

Bassem Sabry , Thursday 16 Aug 2012

Bassem Sabry provides a multi-pronged overview of the political, economic and social challenges facing Egypt's first post-Mubarak president, with an emphasis on the everyday problems facing average Egyptians

Nile river
Nile river (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt's reliance on the Nile river for 95 per cent of its water resources is another matter of serious concern.

The country has been involved in a well-publicised political spat with Nile Basin countries for some time over its share of the river's waters and the 1959 Egypt-Sudan agreement which divides control over the resources between Cairo and Khartoum. 
Ethiopia announced over a year ago plans to build a $4.8 billion dam and hydroelectric power plant capable of storing 63 billion cubic metres of water. This could lead to a significant decrease in Egypt’s current annual share of 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile. 
Egypt has demanded it be allowed to review the dam designs before giving Ethiopia the green-light for the project.
In terms of Egypt's water 'budget' and usage, there are some commonly used statistics.
According to Mostafa Tolba, President of the International Centre for Environment and Development and former secretary-general of the UN Environment Programme, Egypt's share of the Nile is complemented with water from deep aquifers, which add around 1.0 billion cubic metres per year, and rainfall which
brings in an extra 1.2 billion cubic metres.
These account for a total fresh water budget of about 58 billion cubic metres per year. But there's a significant gap between this budget and actual usage.
In 2009,  Egypt's total yearly water consumption was estimated at about 78 billion cubic metres. Agriculture accounting for 80 per cent of the consumption while drinking water and industry made up 10 per cent apiece. 
The difference of about 20 billion cubic metres was covered, according to Tolba, by "recycling agricultural drainage, blending it with Nile fresh water, abstraction from shallow aquifers(...), and treatment of municipal sewage."
A June 2012 statement by former irrigation minister -- and now Prime Minister -- Hisham Qandil said that the annual per capita share of water for Egyptians had dropped below 700 cubic metres, substantially beneath the international water poverty line of 1000 cubic metres.
By comparison. Egypt’s per capita share was 2,000 cubic metres in 1960.  Already many Egyptians have no access to either regular clean water or sanitation.
Population pressures are one factor, but there are other causes too. Evaporation of surface water is said to cost 2-3 billion cubic metres per year; a 2007 independent study also claimed another 3 billion cubic metres was lost due to its absorption by grasses which grow along the Nile, with an exta billion seeping away via pipe leakages.
Also blamed are traditional methods of flood irrigation which, by their very nature, make excessive use of water.
Rice-planting, which requires substantial amounts of water, has also been named a culprit. The state has enforced legal measures to limit the amount of rice planted in Egypt at 1.1 million acres this year. The government plans to import 700,000 tonnes of rice to cover the difference, according to news reports.
Improper and wasteful household usage is also reported to cost around half a billion cubic metres, according to a 2010 report by the Arab Network For Human Rights Information. 
Upscale new housing settlements on the fringes of Cairo, many with golf courses, are anotehr common target of criticism with regards to their water consumption.
The quality of potable water in Egypt is also under question. 
In 2008, Al-Ahram newspaper cited a study by the National Toxicology Centre Of Cairo University’s Faculty Of Medicine which claimed that a half-million Egyptians suffer from various degrees of poisoning due to toxic levels in their drinking water. It said 5,000 had died as a direct result of the same. Kidney failure and diseases caused by the water are also a concern.  
The study claimed that around 16 billion cubic metres of agricultural and industrial waste was being dumped annually into the Nile. While some dispute the figure -- in March, parliament asked for an investigation, citing figures from the report -- it gives a broad indication of the possible problem.
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