Reusing waste water: Egypt's fight against water scarcity

Mai Samih , Thursday 8 Feb 2018

Mai Samih examines how a joint initiative between the government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will help reuse waste water for urban and agricultural uses

Flowing tab water in Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

While construction work proceeds on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia continue regarding its possible effects on Egypt, the government has been racing against time to find alternative solutions to Egypt’s water needs alongside the ongoing negotiations between the two countries.

Egypt is one of many countries trying to save its water resources in order to avoid any future lack of supplies. One approach is to treat more waste water. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report for 2017, of 22 Arab states, 11, including Egypt, have adopted legislation permitting the use of treated waste water for various purposes, with the percentage of untreated waste water in low-income countries recording 46 per cent in 2015.

During a recent press conference in Cairo organised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank entitled “Promoting Sustainable Investment in Egypt’s Food Security”, Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati talked of a four-pillar approach the ministry is implementing to deal with the scarcity of water.

“The first is the treatment of ground water, in which we focus on increasing the quality of the water. The state’s investment in water purification is more than $1 billion, explained by the need to reuse about 25 per cent of the water we use,” he explained. It is treated so it can be used for agriculture and to produce wheat.

“The second pillar is the improvement of the irrigation system, and for this we have teamed up with the Ministry of Agriculture to transform small agricultural areas into larger ones from 100 to 200 feddans in size, while implementing modern irrigation techniques on them,” he said, adding that this involved farmers changing their irrigation methods for more modern techniques as has been implemented in some areas of Upper Egypt.

“New irrigation techniques mean production can be increased 20 to 30 times, in order to ensure reserves when needed,” he said.

“The third pillar is developing water resources through the desalinisation of water from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. This needs a lot of energy, however, and this is why we are diversifying sources of energy like nuclear, solar, wind and hydro-power. We are also building water-collection facilities in Sinai, each of which can store up to 500 cubic metres of rain water.”

“The fourth pillar is raising awareness of correct water use, something that has been discussed in parliament,” Abdel-Ati said, adding that a centre under the supervision of UNESCO, the UN’s scientific organisation, had been set up to help train people on using water properly as well as monitoring the movement of water for the early prediction of floods. “We have also developed equipment that can measure the amount of water in the soil, such that we can know more precisely when to irrigate the land and thus to save water,” he said.

Minister of Housing and Urban Development Mustafa Madbouli told the press during the inauguration of the Kema Waste-Water Treatment Plant in Aswan recently that the ministry planned to finish 46 triple-phase waste-water treatment plants in Upper Egypt from Beni Sweif to Aswan over two years. These will provide up to 12 million cubic metres of treated waste water per day that can be used for agriculture.

Manager of the FAO’s Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity Pasquale Steduto offered further insight into treating waste water in Egypt. “For the time being, we are assisting the government in evaluating opportunities for reusing waste water more than the desalinisation of sea water. Purifying waste water is an important sector we are dedicating resources to, particularly for agricultural use. So we are looking into the different quality of the water that needs to be treated for specific uses,” Steduto said.

“Some uses, for example agriculture and forestry, require less treatment, but others for field crops and the irrigation of vegetable crops require a higher standard of treatment. The FAO and the government are working with the public and private sector as well as environmental institutions and banks,” he said.

Studying the environmental impact of the process, analysing strategic planning for water resources, as well as looking into the strategic locations of water resources and for needs such as agriculture, are all important. Steduto said that the FAO had been working on such issues for many years and had discovered that much of the groundwater in Egypt and the Arab region is saline to different degrees, while some of it is brackish.

“We have criteria to determine the kind of crops that are planted and what degree of treatment is needed for the water. This includes the degree of salinity,” he said. When the salinity of the water is too high, it can be used for fisheries. In some cases, treated waste water can be used in aquaculture and agriculture together, however.

According to Steduto, waste-water treatment has been used in an agro-forestry project in areas surrounding Cairo. It has been experimented with on small forest shrubs in the wet lands in the Delta area and areas surrounding Cairo. The FAO has been cooperating with both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health because treating waste water involves food safety and the safety of farmers in the field.

Some people might think again before using treated waste water at home. “I think treated waste water would only be good for agriculture. I don’t think people would like to drink it. In the UK, they use treated waste water in bathrooms and fresh water in kitchens to save fresh water,” commented Adel Mohamed, an Egyptian living abroad.

Steduto said that treated water can be safer than fresh water in some cases. “Depending on the degree of treatment, it can be as pure as fresh water, actually better than it is in some cases. The problem is cost. In Singapore, they treat waste water for people to drink. It is not a question of technology; it is a question of cost,” he said.

There are also specific levels of treatment for specific uses. “Some uses do not impact the human food chain, like agro-forestry. A lower degree of treatment can be allowed. So the level of safety can be addressed, but of course it is a question of cost. It also depends on the regulations in place. We generally say that the different quality of water for different types of uses gives an opportunity for the better organisation of the process.” 

DESALINISATION: In order to desalinise a cubic metre of water, the cost could be as low as half a US dollar, though it depends on the quality of treatment wanted. If pushed upwards, desalinisation could be more expensive, even up to $1 per cubic metre, Steduto said. 

This is the best cost available today, depending on the degree of purity of the water. “It is still convenient, but if you compare it to the conventional way of treating Nile water, which is already fresh water and only needs to be sanitised and filtered, it is much more expensive. Water is likely to become scarcer and scarcer, and as the costs go up we need to act to reduce the consumption of water. This will reduce prices as well,” he said.

Regarding the use of desalinated sea water in Egypt, Steduto said that it would be worthwhile if the financial resources were ready. “Desalination is a very strong sector in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been working on it for 30 years. The research and technology are mature. The problem we have seen is that there are environmental impacts, however, in addition to costs. One outcome of desalinisation is extra salt that has to be disposed of. Mostly, it is dumped back into the sea, which has made the bio-diversity of fish off the coasts of Saudi Arabia the lowest in the world. However, research is going on to make use of the extra salt in building materials, for example,” he said. Another problem is that the treatment of sea water, like underground water, requires additional chemicals as well as extensive energy resources.

Work needs to be done to maximise the use of desalinated water, however. “The use of desalinated water in residential areas is much less than in agriculture. The original idea was to use desalinated water for agriculture, though in Morocco now the idea is to use it both for agriculture and domestically. This is where the research is going,” Steduto said, adding that the aim of current research was to see how and where water is becoming scarce and to find methods to correct this in order to encourage agriculture.

According to the FAO, the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region has the lowest per capita fresh water resources availability of any region in the world. Over the last 40 years, available fresh water has decreased by two-thirds. Irrigated agriculture consumes over 85 per cent of the region’s available fresh water resources. For this reason, the efficiency of water use in agriculture is pivotal.

In the light of this, the FAO and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), an international organisation, co-hosted a session highlighting the importance of utilising traditional knowledge in the modernisation of current agricultural technologies and practices to meet the challenges of water scarcity and food security in dry areas. This was during the Fourth Arab Water Forum (AWF) last November held under the Arab League and the ministry of water resources in Egypt.

The AWF is a regional platform for engaging policy-makers, water-resources experts and development practitioners on all aspects of water management for growth and sustainable development in the Arab region.

It was recommended at the session that experts should study and learn from practices that local communities have used for hundreds of years to manage their water resources. These include methods such as terracing in Yemen, aflaj (another traditional technique) in Oman, and the miskat system of harvesting rainwater in Tunisia and Morocco.

The FAO’s Water Scarcity Regional Initiative supports countries in pursuing food and water security for sustainable social and economic development amid an unprecedentedly severe escalation of water scarcity. Numerous projects have been launched, such as agriculture-aquaculture pilot farms in Algeria, Egypt and Oman, the first solar-energy water-pumping station in Egypt, and water-accounting units within ministries of water resources using advanced technology.

“In order to save water and increase sustainability, we need to continuously review our past and current knowledge and methods to enhance and learn best practices,” Steduto said. “Modernising irrigation systems has an important role to play in significantly increasing land and water productivity provided we set limits on water consumption in order to ensure sustainable water resources management. In this respect and in other similar ways, traditional knowledge from this region is teaching us.”

“We need to build on the knowledge and solutions we have to protect our precious water resources for future generations,” Ali Abu Sabaa, director-general of ICARDA, said. “The potential to learn from our past is tremendous, and the need for collective action is urgent to cope with climate change.”

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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