Concerns over the accessibility of quality freshwater is growing in many parts of the world, with an increasing number of countries suffering from a scarcity of water resources.
Egypt falls at the heart of two particularly challenged regions in this regard, North Africa and West Asia.
According to Khaled Abu Zeid, regional director for water resources at the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe, a think tank, the countries of these two regions are largely either arid or hyper arid in water terms.
“In fact, 18 [out of 22] Arab countries are seriously challenged with below 1,000 cubic metres (m3) per capita per year shares of renewable surface and groundwater,” Abu Zeid said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that out of these 18 countries, 13 are in a very severe situation with their per capita per year share of water resources being around 500 m3. A country of this sort will have a tough time covering its agricultural needs, raising the spectre of food security and pressure on domestic and industrial usages, he said.
Things are also complicated by the fact that around 65 per cent of the renewable surface water in many of the countries in question comes from cross-boundary sources, in other words sources beyond the control of the countries concerned.
This is the case for Egypt and Sudan, in the case of the River Nile, and for Syria and Iraq, in the case of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Moreover, nobody knows how climate change could affect this situation. It could make it worse, Abu Zeid said. But how much worse is unclear.
“What we know is that climate change will have an impact in terms of droughts, floods, and flash floods, but it is uncertain how this could happen and what the precise effects it could have will be.
“However, we know that there are expectations of increased evaporation as a result of increasing temperatures, and we also know that as a result of the increasing evaporation, the water in bodies of water will decrease, and crops will need more water,” he added.
Other expected effects, Abu Zeid said, would include higher demand for domestic water usage, as a result of the increasing heat and its impact on humans, and more pressure on good quality freshwater as a result of the anticipated increase of salinity for groundwater due to the inevitable increases of sea levels as a result of global warming.
Abu Zeid said that the entire region is set to face considerable water sufficiency challenges in future. Egypt in particular, he added, faces serious challenges given the fact that it is the driest country with the least amount of rainfall.
He explained that while Egypt’s share of rainfall is around 18 mm of depth per year, a country with a decent rainfall could have up to 2,000 mm of depth per year. “And on top of this, most of Egypt’s renewable water comes from a trans-boundary source: the River Nile,” he said.
The amount of rainfall over the Nile Basin countries is around 7,000 billion cubic metres (bcm) per year. Of this, 1,660 bcm falls into the Nile River. “So, our share of 55.5 bcm per year is only three per cent of the overall water falling into the River Nile in the form of rain,” Abu Zeid said.
Meanwhile, he added, Ethiopia, the upstream River Nile country that has been in an extended diplomatic squabble with Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream countries, over the construction of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, has an annual rainfall of 936 bcm, from the Nile and another 12 river basins, of which only 100 bcm flow into neighbouring countries, including Egypt and Sudan.
When the issue of water-sharing among the Nile Basin countries is discussed, Abu Zeid insisted, things have to be put into perspective. Ethiopia has enough rainfall to feed its stocks of groundwater and to pursue large-scale rain-fed agriculture, including its coffee crops that allow for large exports.
Ethiopia also has perhaps the most grazing land in all of Africa, and this allows it to have one of the largest amounts of livestock in the entire continent. “Ethiopia has a lot of green water, while Egypt is mostly dependent on blue water [from the Nile] — and in fact, Egypt is on its way to serious water scarcity,” Abu Zeid said.
EGYPT’S SITUATION: Egypt’s water situation also translates into large food imports and persisting food-security questions.
According to Abu Zeid, in 2015 the embedded water in the amount of food Egypt imported reached almost 48 bcm, not significantly less than its annual share of the Nile water and significantly more than any of its agricultural exports.
The current scarcity of water in Egypt has also been leading to a reduction in the number of crops cultivated to avoid those with high water consumption, such as rice, sugarcane, and bananas.
However, Abu Zeid said that Egypt has a lot more to do than just to reduce the volume of certain high water consumption crops. It also has to be very careful with its use of groundwater in the desert, including for agriculture, because this is “non-renewable water” unlike the groundwater in the Nile Valley.
“If we use it, we lose it, and we have to make some really careful choices on how to use it,” he said. At times, he agreed, this might mean a decision to compromise on some agricultural schemes.
To compensate for the growing shortages of water, Abu Zeid argued, Egypt will have to invest more in recycling agriculture drainage water. “In the world of today, this is a non-conventional water resource,” he said.
Expanding the use of recycled and treated agricultural drainage water and even wastewater is something that Egypt is investing in. “There are already two big water plants that have been operating since last year, and this year there is a third and bigger one that is being built and should be operational soon,” he said.
Abu Zeid is not concerned about the possible impact of expanding the use of these non-conventional water resources on Egypt’s exports of fruit and vegetables. “There are rules that define the treatment of wastewater, and each level of treatment goes to a specific crop,” he said.
These rules, he explained, were first introduced into 2005. “At the time, wastewater could not be used with any edible crops,” he said.
In 2015, the rules were modified to allow treated wastewater to be used with edible crops, except for fresh fruit and vegetables. “It is used for vegetables that have to be cooked and fruit that has to be peeled,” he said.
However, the rules will eventually have to be modified to further expand the range of uses, using upgraded treatment technology. “The world is moving in this direction. In Singapore, for example, one can buy bottled water that is in fact treated wastewater,” he said.
Egypt, he added, is very far from reaching that point. However, it is moving forward with desalination schemes, especially in the coastal governorates. But more needs to be done, not just with desalination but also with water treatment.
Upgrading water transport to reduce leakage needs more work, and so does recycling wastewater for some domestic use, especially since 70 to 80 per cent of water going into domestic use ends up as wastewater.
The expansion of the wastewater system across almost all the country through the presidential Decent Life initiative should be complemented with an efficient water treatment and recycling scheme, Abu Zeid said.
He would also like to see the revision of the building code to install low-pressure water devices in new housing and office units. He advocates a firmer inspection regime for industrial water usage to ensure the observation of recycling regulations in factories.
“We face some serious challenges, owing to the current scarcity of water and the expected impact of climate change and also with the growing population. We need to work hard and fast,” Abu Zeid said.
Media awareness campaigns are essential at this point. “I am not just talking about traditional water conservation campaigns. I am also talking about campaigns to better inform people about the safety of treated and recycled water,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly