Egypt reuses 42% of its renewable water, imports 54% of virtual: Irrigation minister

Ahmed Morsy , Wednesday 5 May 2021

Several global and local factors are adding to Egypt’s water challenges, such as climate change and overpopulation, Abdel-AtI said

Mohamed Abdel-Ati
Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati during the virtual forum on "Climate Dialogue".

The large gap in water resources in Egypt,  which is one of the driest countries in the world, is overcome by importing 54 percent of its virtual water and reusing 42 percent of its renewable, Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati said on Wednesday.

Abdel-Ati’s remarks came during a virtual forum on "Climate Dialogue," organised by the Adaptation Action Coalition.

The forum is seeing the attendance of a number of water ministers and representatives of non-governmental organisations and the private sector from many countries.

Virtual water – which is the embedded water required to produce commodities – has been for decades relied on in the form of food Imports.

Virtual water, which is measured as a percentage of the already existing water resources, is increasingly recommended as a good policy for water-scarce areas.

Several global and local factors are adding to Egypt’s water challenges, such as climate change and overpopulation, Abdel-AtI said.

More than two million babies are born in Egypt every year.

Developed by the UK in partnership with Egypt, Bangladesh, Malawi, the Netherlands, Saint Lucia and the United Nations in January 2021, the Adaptation Action Coalition works to turn international political commitments made through the United Nations Call for Action on Adaptation and Resilience into on-the-ground support for vulnerable communities.

Abdel-Ati stated that “Egypt is facing a major water challenge” in balancing between its resources and needs, especially with “around 97 percent of its water resources flowing in from outside its borders.”

Egypt’s annual share of water is 560 m3 per person, cabinet figures indicate, placing the 100-million-plus country well below the international threshold for water scarcity. When annual water supplies drop below 1,000 m3 per person, according to the UN, the population faces water scarcity, and below 500 cubic metres "absolute scarcity."

To meet the water challenge, Abdel-Ati said the ministry developed a four-pronged National Water Resources Plan, running through 2037. The strategy is based on rationalising water use, improving water quality, providing additional water resources, and creating a climate suitable for optimal water management.

Under this strategy, many projects are being implemented to increase the capacity of the water system to deal with water challenges, Abdel-Ati said during his speech at the opening session of the forum.

The projects include wastewater treatment, desalination of seawater, rehabilitation and lining of canals, and switching from surface to modern irrigation systems in agriculture.

Egypt is currently building 14 seawater desalination plants that are expected to be completed by June 2022, with a total capacity of 476,000 m3 of water per day, at a cost of EGP 9.71 billion. When completed, the plants will bring Egypt’s tally of desalination stations to 90 with a total capacity of 1,307,69 million m3 per day due to the operation of 76 existing seawater desalination plants, with a total capacity of 831,690 m3 per day.

According to the Minister of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities Assem El-Gazzar, Egypt is also constructing 151 dual and triple sewage treatment plants across the country, with a total capacity of five million m3 of water per day, at a cost of EGP 31.59 billion.

In parallel, the irrigation ministry is also working on the national project of lining canals – which is meant to improve the management and distribution of water -- through 7,000 kilometres and is set for completion in 2022 at the cost of EGP 18 billion. Out of the 7,000 kilometres, the ministry has successfully rehabilitated more than 1,248 kilometres of canals so far.

The ministry also encourages farmers to adopt modern irrigation techniques, instead of surface irrigation, to reduce water consumption. Some 237,000 feddans are currently being irrigated with modern techniques.

In his speech, Abdel-Ati said climate change negatively affects the water sector, as a result of the sharp fluctuations in the climate, and the resulting reduction in the predictability of water quantities, the minister said.

Abdel-Ati highlighted the adverse effect of climate change on the Nile Delta as the rise in sea levels makes it one of the world’s prime candidates in danger of drowning or decreasing fertility.

“The climate change also adversely affects water quality, threatens sustainable development, and consequently people's right to access water,” he said.

GERD on top

The minister added that, over and above all such challenges, the unilateral measures that are being undertaken by Addis Ababa with regard to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) amplify the magnitude of challenges Egypt is facing in the water sector.

Egypt suffers from a water deficit of 30 bcm as its annual need accounts for more than 110 bcm of water. However, it currently has only 80 bcm, 55.5 bcm of which come from the River Nile.

The populous state fears Ethiopia’s 6,000-megawatt near-complete project will significantly cut its crucial water supplies from the River Nile, while Sudan fears it could endanger the safety of its own dams and consequently threaten national security.

Egypt and Sudan have been negotiating with Ethiopia for a decade now to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement over GERD but to no avail.

Talks have repeatedly stalled due to Addis Ababa's refusal to include an international mediator to bridge gaps between the negotiating parties and its insistence to pursue guiding terms rather than a legally binding agreement as has been the norm in international agreements on the management of transboundary water resources, such as the River Nile.

Adding to its “intransigence”, Addis Ababa aims at collecting around 18.4 bcm of Blue Nile water in GERD's reservoir during the second filling scheduled for July – as it has said with or without reaching an agreement with the downstream countries – up from the 4 bcm it secured last year. 

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