Egypt’s government recently started digging a 174-kilometre artificial river in its Western Desert to irrigate New Delta, its largest ever agriculture project which aims to reclaim and cultivate 2.2 million feddans — nearly a quarter of Egypt’s current agricultural land.
The government has also been constructing 30 water lifting stations and a mega tertiary wastewater treatment project, Al-Hammam Plant, to guarantee a sustainable water source. The plant can treat 7.5 million cubic metres of agricultural wastewater per day which, according to Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Hani Sewilam, “is the world’s largest agricultural drainage project and its water is enough to cover a large part of the [New Delta] project”.
The watercourse consists of an open canal, while the smaller part is made up of pipes buried in the sand, Sewilam said.
On the treatment and lifting of water, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the agricultural wastewater, which previously poured down in drains, is collected and triple-treated. “We are talking about 30 [water] lifting stations, each of which is a great engineering feat as they collect drain water against the natural slope of the land,” Al-Sisi said.
Sewilam said the cost of the watercourse, lifting stations and the treatment plant is LE60 billion.
Agriculture Minister Al-Sayed Al-Qusseir said the state seeks to achieve food security by expanding land reclamation, describing the New Delta plan as “Egypt’s food future”.
“The project [2.2 million feddans] is equivalent to approximately 25 per cent of the agricultural lands [9.7 million feddans] that have been reclaimed and cultivated in Egypt over thousands of years,” Al-Sisi pointed out.
The president said the cost of reclaiming 1.05 million feddans in this situation is close to LE250 billion.
The Agriculture Ministry spokesperson noted that the watercourse aims to strengthen food security, reduce the import gap of strategic commodities, support activities related to agriculture such as livestock and poultry and agricultural processing, and establish agricultural and industrial complexes that link agriculture, the manufacturing industry, and trade.
Al-Qusseir expects Egypt’s production of strategic grain crops to increase by between 10 to 15 per cent of the current gross agricultural product especially wheat and corn, as well as vegetables, fruits, and industrial crops.
Despite the objectives of the scheme, criticism has been levied against its watercourse, whose productive capacity will be 10 million cubic metres of water. The debate links the project to the uncertain fate of Egypt’s sole source of water — the River Nile.
The African Union-sponsored negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Addis Ababa has been building since 2011 on the Blue Nile and where more than 95 per cent of Egypt’s renewable waters flow from, collapsed in April 2021. All attempts to revive the negotiations have since failed.
While Ethiopia is getting ready to unilaterally fill the 74-billion-cubic-metre reservoir in July for the fourth time, Egypt says the annual share of water has reached 500 m3 per person at a time when the United Nations defines water scarcity at 1,000 m3 of water per person a year.
Professor of land and water resources at Cairo University Nader Noureddin believes that some news outlets have tried to “exaggerate the achievement, dubbing it the ‘world’s largest manmade river’ which hinted that there is a waste of water,” stressing the watercourse is merely “a canal delivering treated water to the west of the country for use in agricultural operations”.
Noureddin said it could have been called the extension of the Hammam Canal or the Matrouh Canal, but dubbing it the largest manmade river allowed Ethiopian and opposition TV channels abroad to “fish in troubled waters” and to cast doubt that Egypt suffers from water scarcity.
The irrigation minister, however, said the project shows the world how Egypt is keen not to waste water “because it is trying to benefit from every drop by reusing agricultural wastewater, after treatment, safely in agriculture.”
A week ago, during his speech at the UN 2023 Water Conference held in New York, Sewilam noted that Egypt has a water deficit of up to 55 per cent of its water needs, which is 120 billion cubic metres.
“Egypt is making huge investments to raise the efficiency of its water system, which exceeded $10 billion during the previous five-year plan. However, it also reuses water several times in this framework and is forced to trade in huge food imports worth about $15 billion,” Sewilam said.
The Western Desert’s groundwater and wells are very salty in these areas, and the salinity rate reaches 10,000 parts per million, said Noureddin who noted that the project’s first phase, by which 600,000 feddans will be cultivated, places no burden on the Nile water.
Noureddin stated that Egypt is the only country among the Nile Basin countries that imports 65 per cent of its basic food needs, adding that most of them enjoy self-sufficiency of crops.
During the past 70 years, he says, Egypt lost about 2.5 million feddans of agricultural lands as a result of urban expansion and desertification. “Hence, we [Egyptians] have the right to compensate for what was lost in agricultural soils and to ensure food security,” Noureddin said.
Sewilam previously said that Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change, noting that it is suffering water scarcity, high temperature, erosion and saltwater intrusion into fresh water, which in turn will badly affect its most fertile lands Sewilam the old Nile Delta.
The water resources of the country include 55.5 billion cubic metres coming from the Nile, 1.3 billion cubic metres from rainfall and 2.4 billion cubic metres from underground sources, the minister added.
Egypt receives a limited amount of rainfall that cannot be relied on, Sewilam said, adding that the government cannot rely on underground water as it is non-renewable.
Hence, the government is working on reusing agricultural water.
The country, whose current population is estimated at 104.7 million and is expected to exceed 150 million by 2050, overcomes water scarcity by importing 54 per cent of its virtual water, which is the embedded water required to produce commodities, and reusing 42 per cent of its renewable water as per its National Water Resources Plan of 2017-37.
The $50 billion, 20-year scheme aims to optimise water use by recycling agricultural wastewater and groundwater. It seeks to improve water quality and to bring additional water resources. The plan encompasses wastewater treatment, desalination of seawater, and an overhaul of agricultural irrigation systems.
It also involves opening desalination and water treatment plants such as the Bahr Al-Baqar plant in Port Said, hailed as the world’s largest, as well as rehabilitating irrigation canals, improving water management and distribution, and reducing wastage.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly