Egypt's irrigation ministry warns of Nile water shortages due to lack of rain

Reem Leila , Saturday 10 Aug 2019

Measures are being put in place to help conserve water following predictions of lower rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands that feed the Nile

It never rains…

The Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources (MIWR) announced in a press release that it expects the flow of Nile water to Egypt to decrease by five billion cubic metres this year following predictions of lower than usual rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands. The rainy season runs from August till mid-November.

Yousri Khafaga, adviser to the minister of irrigation and water resources, says that though the impact will not be drastic given that strategic reserves of water held in Lake Nasser can be released, it will be necessary to rationalise the way water is used.

The shortfall is equivalent to 10 per cent of Egypt’s 55.5 billion cubic metres share of Nile water, as set in a 1959 convention apportioning Nile water rights.

Earlier this year Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Atti announced a $50 billion package to combat water scarcity. The plans, which will be rolled out over the best part of two decades, include introducing more efficient irrigation methods, cultivating less water-intensive crops and building a network of desalination plants.

In the meantime, Khafaga revealed, MIWR is working to contain the expected shortage this year by raising public awareness of ways to conserve water, and is taking action to halt any encroachments on the Nile and stop the dumping of waste in watercourses.

Amendments to Agriculture Law 53/1966 place restrictions on the cultivation of rice, sugar cane and bananas, all water intensive crops, and compliance is being monitored by satellite.

“We have also agreed with the Ministry of Agriculture that 85 per cent of water used for irrigation should come from recycled sources,” said Khafaga.

MIWR’s Spokesperson Mohamed Al-Sebaai says action will be taken against those who disregard cultivation restrictions. Farmers will be fined LE2,000 in the event of a first violation, an amount that will increase up to LE10,000 for subsequent violations. Repeated refusal to comply could lead to seasonal bans on any form of cultivation. 

MIWR also hopes to massively increase the use of drip irrigation for crops.

Eman Al-Sayed, MIWR’s head of planning, says Egypt’s potable water needs have reached 11 billion cubic metres annually, up from seven billion until recently. A further eight billion cubic metres are used by the industry. 

Efforts to conserve water are essential given that Egypt’s population, which is nearing 100 million, already live below the water poverty line. 

Egypt has entered into diplomatic and political battle with some Nile Basin countries over its share of the Nile water. The disagreements started in 2010 when Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda signed the Entebbe Agreement, abrogating the 1929 and 1959 agreements that had hitherto set the countries’ share of Nile water.

The two deals had fixed Egypt’s share of Nile water at 55.5 billion cubic metres, and Sudan’s at 18.5 billion. They also gave downstream countries the right to veto projects further up the river that could reduce their water share.

Cairo became even more concerned when Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in May 2011. Despite a series of tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, which began in 2014, agreement has yet to be reached over the timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and the regulations for its operation. Ethiopia is pressing for a five to six-year timetable while Egypt insists must extend to a decade or more to prevent reductions in Egypt’s water share.

Meanwhile, the Housing Ministry has announced plans to establish 39 desalination plants with a total capacity of 1.4 million cubic metres of water per day. The plants will be built in Matrouh, along the Red Sea coast, in North and South Sinai, Port Said, Daqahliya, and Kafr Al-Sheikh. The first 16 should be inaugurated in 2020. The ministry is also planning 52 new sewage treatment plants.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: It never rains…


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