Since time immemorial, Egyptian lives have been founded on and around the River Nile. The river has brought them water aplenty and prosperous harvests. It has also acted as a traffic route between the north and the south and, later on, through the surrounding regions.
Life in the past was centred around the River Nile, and houses were built close to the water. While the Nile remains the lifeline of Egypt, its water is no longer enough for the country’s growing population.
The Nile represents about 79 per cent of Egypt’s water resources and covers 95 per cent of current water needs. Despite the annual increase in Egypt’s population, the country’s share in Nile water has been stable at 55.5 billion cubic metres per annum.
But climate change, the repercussions of which have been reverberating the world over, has resulted in severe water crises, which affect agriculture, a main source of food.
According to Magdy Allam, secretary-general of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts (UAEE), the government has established numerous water-desalination facilities on both the Mediterranean and Red Seas. These plants, which rank among the largest of their kind, are contributing to alleviating the country’s water challenges, providing an essential source of potable water for the population.
In addition, the government has undertaken concerted efforts to recycle agricultural drainage water, treating and purifying it to render it fit for irrigation purposes and thus recuperating nearly 12 billion cubic metres of water that would otherwise have evaporated or permeated into the adjacent soil.
Agricultural irrigation consumes a large portion of Egypt’s water resources, and the use of treated agricultural drainage water in irrigation has proven to be an effective solution to address this issue. This approach is being implemented on a large scale in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, where around 500,000 feddans of land are irrigated through tunnels that pass beneath the Suez Canal to supply water to agricultural areas.
To ensure the quality of the recycled water, the Ministry of Irrigation has implemented triple recycling and purification programmes for wastewater, which treat the waste water to make it suitable for various agricultural purposes.
In addition, the government has dug wells to provide irrigation water for various agricultural projects, including in the New Delta, Wadi Al-Natroun, and Dabaa areas. These projects are aimed at increasing the area of agricultural land and enhancing food security for the population.
Despite the challenges facing Egypt with regard to water scarcity, the majority of people have not yet felt its impact. However, as the per capita share of water continues to decline, it is imperative that the general population and farmers alike make optimal use of the available water resources.
Allam said that the per capita share of water in Egypt has decreased significantly since the 1950s, when 55.5 billion cubic metres of water were distributed to a population of 18 million people. Today, the same amount of water is being distributed to more than 100 million, representing a formidable challenge for Egypt’s water resources.
There is therefore a pressing need for all stakeholders to adopt a more sustainable approach to water usage, including by reducing waste, improving irrigation methods, and promoting water-conservation practices. By doing so, Egypt can ensure the long-term availability of its water resources and safeguard the future well-being of its citizens.
Meanwhile, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has added to Egypt’s water woes. The dam poses an existential threat to Egypt’s population and “could have a disastrous effect,” said Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hani Sewilam at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York on 22-24 March.
He added that operating the GERD during a prolonged drought might lead Egypt to lose nearly 15 per cent of its agricultural land and cause more than 1.1 million people to exit the labour market. “This would consequently be linked to risks of increasing social and economic tensions and exacerbate irregular migration,” Sewilam said, adding that it could also double Egypt’s food import bill.
Two months earlier, Sewilam noted that Egypt faces a water deficit of around 30 to 35 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water. It is adopting several measures to overcome this challenge, including by importing food that requires additional amounts of water.
He said that in addition to the 55.5 billion cubic metres coming from the Nile, Egypt receives1.3 billion cubic metres of water from rainfall and 2.4 billion cubic metres from underground sources. These amounts are insufficient, however, which has led the government to work on reusing agricultural water.
Meanwhile, Allam believes it is imperative to use modern irrigation systems such as irrigation networks and drip irrigation instead of old systems of immersion. Even if these modern systems are more expensive than their older counterparts, they are still cheaper in the long term, he said.
He added that the government is looking into the installation of agricultural irrigation meters, customary in developed countries, to hold people who waste water accountable for it.
IMPACTS: The impact of climate change on water resources is a global issue that is having a profound effect on agriculture and food security.
In Europe, the Danube and Rhine rivers have been particularly vulnerable to drought, which has impacted the quality and quantity of water available for agricultural purposes. These climatic changes have also resulted in increased soil salinity, higher temperatures, and heat waves, all of which have negatively affected agriculture and led to the spoiling of crops, the main source of food for people and feed for livestock.
Given the scale and severity of the challenges posed by climate change on water resources and agriculture, adapting and finding solutions to mitigate its effects is crucial. This requires the application of science and modern technology, as well as international cooperation and collaboration.
Egypt is adopting modern irrigation methods and developing drought-resistant crops to meet the challenge. The government has allocated 9,000 feddans of land for this purpose and is working in partnership with organisations such as the Desert Research Institute, the Agricultural Research Centre, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the Arab Centre for the Study of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD) to develop varieties of crops that can withstand drought conditions and require less water for irrigation.
These initiatives represent a proactive and forward-thinking approach to addressing the challenges posed by climate change on water resources and agriculture, Allam said.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has made significant efforts to prioritise agriculture since taking office, launching a number of initiatives to support this goal including the 100 Million Trees initiative, which is meant to plant 100 million trees across the country and of which 25 per cent has been completed.
Another campaign is the Green Belts initiative that aims to create green belts across the country. Saudi Arabia has coordinated with several Egyptian governorates to plant a green belt of trees across the entire Arab region from Saudi Arabia to Morocco. The initiative represents a significant step towards promoting environmental sustainability and combating desertification in the region.
The government has made significant efforts to ensure that the general public does not feel the impact of the water challenges facing the country. Despite the significant strain on water resources, it has worked to maintain a consistent supply of water to households and businesses, and the majority of people have not experienced significant water shortages or outages.
However, these efforts require sacrifices, such as the need to dispense with certain environmental features such as forests that are crucial for purifying the air and reducing pollution. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, among other pollutants, and play a vital role in maintaining a healthy environment.
They also preserve soil fertility and mitigate the impacts of environmental pollutants through a process known as phytoremediation. This involves the absorption and filtration of chemicals, water pollutants, and wastewater by the trees and plants in the forests, thus helping to maintain the quality of the soil.
Moreover, forests serve as a natural barrier against natural disasters such as floods. The roots of trees and plants help to stabilise the soil, preventing erosion and reducing the risk of landslides. In addition, they act as windbreaks, particularly important in arid and semi-arid regions.
Forests also provide a variety of resources that are essential for human well-being and economic growth. They are a source of wood and paper, used in numerous industries, and they play a crucial role in supporting local economies and providing incomes. Forests also provide a habitat for a diverse range of plant and animal species, contributing to biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems.
GROWING FORESTS: Realising the importance of forests, the then government implemented a project in the early 1990s to irrigate them using sewage water, considered one of the most important causes of environmental pollution and difficult to get rid of at that time.
The planting of forests took place in governorates including Aswan, Ismailia, Assiut, North Sinai, and Menoufiya.
However, the forests did not take off because of the scarcity of water resources. The country resorted to the 100 Million Trees initiative as an alternative that would provide the same benefits but use less water for irrigation and equally protect the environment.
But the forests did provide wood to be used in some industries, all the more reason for the government to try to maintain what was left of them in a project the revenues of which recorded LE123.69 billion.
Mahmoud Bakr, deputy chair of the board of the Society of Environmental and Development Writers in Egypt and a member of the Geography and Environment Committee of the Supreme Council of Culture, said that there was a national programme for the safe use of treated wastewater in planting forests.
The Ministry of Environment has developed a plan to preserve water sources from pollution as well as the safe utilisation of treated wastewater in the establishment of forests, he said.
The use of treated wastewater for forests is an important addition to Egypt’s water resources. The amount of treated wastewater generated in the country each year represents a substantial resource, with an estimated volume of 2.4 billion cubic metres being available for other purposes.
If this treated wastewater is not utilised, it may pose a significant environmental threat. Disposing of it by dumping it into the Nile, the seas, or deserts, or allowing it to seep into the ground, can lead to the contamination of other water sources and negatively impact the environment.
With modern technologies, advanced scientific research, and increased environmental awareness, maximising the utilisation of treated wastewater has become imperative. Therefore, the government resorted to finding solutions to this problem by making use of the wastewater instead of discharging it in the Nile or the seas, which can lead to the bacteriological, viral, and chemical pollution of the water, in addition to the deterioration of ecosystems.
Furthermore, treated wastewater has a significant economic value. It can be used for irrigating non-fruit trees, for example. At present, there are some 24 forests across Egypt on a total of 11,200 feddans. Work is underway to establish 27 more forests on 17,000 feddans.
Sayed Khalifa, chair of the Agriculture Syndicate, said a project was kickstarted in 1995 to cultivate forests in Luxor using untreated sewage water and planting trees such as the kaya, jojoba, and jatropha. Shortly after that, there were 35 forests in Egypt, he said, used in the wood industry since untreated and primary treated wastewater could not be used for the cultivation of food crops.
Khalifa said that the forests deteriorated due to the Holding Company for Drinking Water and Sanitation, affiliated to the Ministry of Housing, using the triple-treated wastewater for the cultivation of food crops.
The company’s decision was the result of the water challenges facing Egypt at the time, venturing into large agricultural projects such as the New Delta and other agricultural projects in central and northern Sinai that needed large quantities of irrigation water. The state saw that it was economically feasible to direct the use of treated wastewater to other crops and to assist in agricultural expansion projects.
Due to the contributions of forests in preserving the environment, adapting to climate change, and absorbing the gases that cause global warming, the government has now identified other alternatives towards these ends, including the 100 Million Trees Initiative, which sees trees planted on roads and in clubs, youth centres and schools across the country and serves the same goals as the former forests with the use of less irrigation water.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly