More than 180 million people in the Mediterranean region are considered water poor and an additional 60 million face water stress, with expectations that the number of water poor in the region might go up to 250 million by 2025.
These alarming numbers were highlighted on Sunday at the opening of the second Cairo Water Week (CWW). Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources had organised the week in collaboration with local and international partners in order to promote greater awareness of water issues and find ways to address urgent challenges.
The event, which ran from 20 to 24 October, gathered 500 people from around the world, including resource experts, scientists, academics and policy-makers to discuss plans and actions to tackle water issues.
They all agreed that financing was a pressing issue to help tackle water crises.
Financing was highlighted by the EU-Union for the Mediterranean (UFM) Water Governance and Business Forum, organised on the sidelines of the CWW by the EU’s Water Sector Technical Assistance and Reforms Support (EU Water STARS) and the UFM, in partnership with the Arab League, the Global Water Partnership Mediterranean, and Sweden’s International Development Cooperation.
Speaking at the forum, Ragab Abdel-Azim, deputy minister in Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, said that water resources in Egypt were very limited. Egypt’s per capita water availability was currently about 500 cubic metres per year, placing it among the countries facing severe water scarcity, he pointed out.
“This situation has led to a gap of about 21 billion cubic metres [BCM] per year between water needs and water availability,” he said, adding that Egypt was also highly vulnerable to climate change, which represents numerous economic, social and environmental threats.
Abdel-Azim said that Egypt needs more than 90 BCM of water per year to meet its needs.
Egypt has programmes in place to help close this gap, including the use of drainage water and waste-water re-use, he said, adding that the mix of efficiency and water re-use in Egypt was about 80 per cent, very high compared to other countries.
Egypt had also started to establish modern irrigation systems for better water efficiency and awareness campaigns, in addition to other projects carried out with the help of international partners, Abdel-Azim stated.
He pointed out that such challenges of water scarcity had led the government to take difficult measures a few years ago, such as cutting back on rice cultivation. “The challenges facing Egypt and the region necessitate strengthening cooperation at various levels,” he stressed.
Water scarcity is a global challenge, but it is particularly pressing in the Mediterranean region, which is among the world’s most water-scarce regions. “Water also plays an important role in world stability,” said Ivan Surkos, head of the EU Delegation to Egypt.
In the Mediterranean region, he added, there was a need to ensure better quality water to defuse various health threats, while meeting the demands of the additional eight million people born every year.
The combination of recurrent drought cycles, water scarcity, poor water quality and poor water governance have all been contributing to a growing water crisis, he emphasised.
“The water sector is a top priority for the EU, as it is the key to socio-economic development,” he said, adding that EU cooperation in the water sector in the Mediterranean region included programmes covering more than 15 countries.
Direct grants amounting to 900 million euros in 16 different programmes had been made since 2006, and funds of nearly six billion euros had been created in the sector.
Surkos pointed out that the EU realised the importance of partnerships between public and private enterprises through the launching of the European External Investment Plan and the European Sustainable Fund for Development. “These two platforms are expected to attract up to 44 billion euros of investments in the region in several sectors, including water, which can make use of these enormous resources,” he said.
He added that cooperation between the EU and Egypt in the field of water went beyond development assistance to the strengthening of collaboration between Egyptian and European researchers and innovators.
In October 2018, several international agreements were signed with various countries, including Egypt, for participation in the Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA). PRIMA is the biggest research and innovation programme in the history of the Euro-Mediterranean region focusing on water and food research.
The route to achieving sustainable water-sharing and cooperation has gone past two milestones, according to Surkos. First, there has been enabling the development of a circular economy and green growth, and second there has been meeting the obligations of parties to international agreements.
Surkos stressed that the construction of large dams on international rivers such as the Nile or Mekong could contribute to tensions among riparian states and wider affected areas. “The EU is ready to support efforts to address these challenges at the request of all the parties,” he said.
Maciej Popowski, deputy director-general for EU neighbourhood and enlargement negotiations, agreed with Surkos that water as a commodity could only be managed collectively.
The only solution for the issues raised by the Grand Ethiopian Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the upper Nile was through collective talks between all the countries sharing the Nile in order to find the best way to manage this joint resource of water, he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Unilateral action never helps,” he said, adding that “we are ready to mediate if needed and to provide technical assistance as well.”
There should be middle ground in order to manage the link between local and regional strategies, he said, adding that poor access to water could lead to conflicts and slow down development.
He said that the CWW was an opportunity for governments, international organisations, and businesses to find ways for cooperation.
Popowski also reiterated that the water sector was a top priority for the EU and was one of the main pillars of cooperation with Egypt. “With more than 500 million euros in grants, leveraging concessional funds of nearly three billion euros in the water sector from European financial institutions, we have been responding to water challenges in Egypt since 2007,” he added.
He said the EU had co-funded water programmes extending over 12 Egyptian governorates and providing nearly 25,000 permanent jobs and nearly 500,000 short-term employment opportunities, mainly in rural areas. “This will help in improving the quality of life for nearly 16.5 million inhabitants in Egypt by the year 2023,” he added.
Nasser Kamel, secretary-general of the Union for the Mediterranean (UFM), pointed to a recent UFM study presenting groundbreaking findings from the first ever certificate of assessment report on climate and environmental change in the Mediterranean region.
It showed that the Mediterranean region was one of the main climate-change hotspots in the world and one of the most-affected regions by climate change.
The study predicts that 250 million people will be water poor in the region by 2030, compared to 180 million today. “The Mediterranean holds only three per cent of global water resources, and the impact of climate change is likely to decrease fresh-water resource availability by up to 15 per cent,” Kamel stated.
The UFM promotes investment in the water sector through regional projects and programmes, Kamel stated.
“I don’t think we can succeed if we do not structure our water sector in a way that could be bankable and attractive to the private sector,” he said.
According to the UFM’s financial strategy for the water sector, approaching water financing in a strategic way, making the best use of existing financial resources, as well as mobilising additional domestic and international financial resources are the main challenges facing the sector in the region.
“The aim of the financial strategy is to facilitate the increased financing of investments that contribute to access to water, protection against risk of droughts, floods or polluted water, and sustainable growth in the Mediterranean region, while enhancing the financial sustainability of the water sector,” said Almotaz Abadi, managing director of the UFM’s secretariat.
Vangelis Constantianos, executive secretary of the Global Water Partnership Mediterranean (GWP-Med), also highlighted three areas for a successful financial strategy for the water sector. “These include the use of existing resources to fund water-related activities and projects, improving the coordination of investment, and the better use of resources from international financial institutions,” he said.
Although investment in the water sector worldwide was lagging behind compared to energy, he said, Egypt was one of the top countries in the Mediterranean region to invest in the water sector.
However, he added, the Mediterranean countries need to make use of international climate funds, in addition to local and regional private-sector institutions and stakeholders.
“The Mediterranean countries need these types of partnerships for better planning, knowledge-sharing, and creating a more business-pleasing environment in the water sector,” Constantianos said.
Governments should provide incentives and facilities and support must be given to smaller enterprises, he said, adding that governments should also take into consideration subsidising the water sector.
“If the renewable energy sector has done it, then why not water,” he asked.
According to the World Bank, about $1 trillion per year is needed in order to meet all the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and up to 30 per cent of this sum is needed for investment in the water sector globally.
The SDGs are a collection of 17 global goals set by the UN General Assembly in 2015 to be met by all countries by the year 2030. Better clean water and sanitation is SDG number six.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.