The building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the River Nile and its effects on Egypt’s share of Nile water have led the government to increase the country’s water desalination projects to be ready for possible water shortages.
Egypt’s current and historic share of the Nile’s water is 55.5 billion cubic metres annually, according to a 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia says the GERD is now 62 per cent built and that construction is expected to be complete by the end of 2018. It plans to fill the GERD’s giant reservoir to use it for hydroelectric generation, a move that is expected to cut into Egypt’s water supply.
Despite the latest breakthrough in negotiations between the three countries following President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with Sudanese and Ethiopian leaders on the sidelines of the African Union Summit resulting to an agreement to resolve technical issues related to the GERD within one month, Egypt’s need for further water-desalination projects seems inevitable.
“Egypt already had water concerns before the GERD loomed on the horizon, since Ethiopia announced it was building the dam in 2011,” said Hossam Shawki, director of Egypt’s Desalination Research Centre. “These are due to the rapid increase in population, currently over 100 million and doubling over the past 25 years, and the increase in the number of development projects,” he added.
Egypt started water desalination projects in the 1980s, when there were only a few small plants in some tourism resorts with a total capacity of around 20,000 cubic metres of water per day (m3/d). The GERD alerted the government to the importance of expanding the country’s water desalination projects on a much larger scale.
Until 2017, Egypt produced about 140,000 cubic metres of water from desalination per day, and the volume increased at the beginning of 2018 to around 250,000 m3/d because of the Al-Yusr Plant in Hurghada, which is one of the biggest in the world.
The mega-facility was inaugurated last week by President Al-Sisi in order to provide the Red Sea governorate with fresh water instead of the current pipelines from the Nile which cost significantly more, Shawki said.
Desalination consists of extracting the salt from seawater by using filters. Al-Yusr is one of 16 desalination plants to be built or upgraded in five governorates as part of Egypt’s efforts to fight water scarcity. The new projects comprise adding two plants in Matrouh governorate with a capacity of 150,000 m3/d and 34,000 m3/d and another two plants being upgraded.
Another four plants are being built or upgraded in North Sinai with a capacity of 30,000 m3/d. Four other plants in the Red Sea governorate are to be expanded with a capacity of 47,000 m3/d.
There are also two desalination plants in South Sinai with a total capacity of 42,000 m3/d, and two in Port Said with a capacity of 170,000 m3/d. Egypt currently has 40 desalination plants in operation.
“Production from current and future desalination plants will reach 700,000 cubic metres of water per day within three years,” Shawki said.
He added that one cubic metre of water from desalination can cost from LE10 to LE15, after taking construction and maintenance costs into consideration. “This is still cheaper than extending pipelines from the Nile to distant parts of the country,” he said.
Water consumption for development projects and current expansion efforts can only be met by desalination, Shawki said. One person can consume 100 litres of water per day, he added.
Shawki said that Egypt currently suffers from a water shortage of about 20 billion cubic metres per year, even after adding about seven billion cubic metres of underground water to its 55.5 billion cubic metre share of the Nile.
“Water desalination is the best way for filling that gap,” he said.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly