Are Egyptians saving water?

Mai Samih , Sunday 16 Sep 2018

Mai Samih walks through the streets of Cairo to see if people are really saving enough water

Water in Egypt
A young girl looking at flowing tap water in Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

Many Cairo shop-owners traditionally have one of their staff clean the shop with water in the morning, sometimes flooding the street outside. However, these habits may be changing as a result of the need to save water.

Walking off Faisal Street in Cairo recently at around 8:30am, I could only see a couple of shops opening, and only one young man was throwing a bucket of unwanted water on the ground after using an old towel to shine the shop floor.

Could these sectors of society be reducing their consumption, particularly in the light of the current situation regarding Egypt’s negotiations with Ethiopia over the Nile water once Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been completed?

“I rent a flat in Cairo, and I think that water use depends on the tenant’s conscience. Some people use too much water, more than they need just because they give the owner the rent every month. They take water for granted since it is free of charge. I only use the water I need, nothing more, as I think that this is the best way to save,” commented one retired government employee living in Cairo.

“I heard advertisements on the radio telling people how to save water and the dangers of not saving it. We need more advertisements on TV and the radio that speak the language of ordinary people and we need them to be repeated to drive the message home so that people use less water,” he added.

Reda Suleiman, an employee in a nearby school, agreed. “People who use hoses to clean their shops and cars should have it on their conscience. It is forbidden in every religion to waste a gift from God, and water is a very precious gift we should save. I pay LE400 in water bills and LE200 for electricity, so water is much more expensive than electricity. I don’t know why I get such high bills, as I try to use water as sparingly as I can,” he said.

One young lady working in the Downtown area told Al-Ahram Weekly that “it is very important to save water before we have no water to use, then we will be sorry.” She said that some writers on social media had accused the government of spreading rumours about a future state of scarcity or even a lack of drinking water. However, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation has taken measures to ensure that this will not occur.

There are now projects in different governorates to save water, and a media campaign is hoping to raise people’s awareness of the issue through a competition between young journalists.

It is also working on correcting misconceptions about the water situation in Egypt, helping people to understand what water resources there are and the uses that are made of them.

“The ministry is correcting the mistakes in the numbers that go around. These include the length of the River Nile inside Egypt, which is 1,550km including the two branches of Damietta and Rosetta in the Delta. Its overall length is 6,853km, and it is one of the longest rivers in the world. The ministry also supervises 55,000km of canals and smaller rivers, 3,500km of sea coast on both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and 48,000 irrigation facilities,” said head of the Central Authority for Awareness on Water Hisham Saber at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.

“We supervise reserve canals that are about 2,000km long, monitor about 3,300 wells and 1,038 drinking water stations, as well as 225 industrial stations that depend on water, 583 sanitary lifting stations in Cairo, and 495 underground water tanks. We also have 21 protection canals in South Sinai and 16 artificial lakes under our supervision,” he said, adding that the ministry is committed to preserving and protecting Egypt’s water reserves.

According to statistics issued by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, the most important renewable source of water for Egypt is the River Nile.

Egypt shares the water of the Nile with 10 other countries, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan.

Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile every year, according to the 1959 Agreement between Egypt and Sudan.

The Nile provides Egypt with 94 per cent of its water resources. Another source of water are deep wells that yield 2.45 billion cubic metres per year.

In addition, there is rainwater that yields about 1.30 billion cubic metres, making a total of Egypt’s real water resources of some 59.25 billion cubic metres.

Water Use

Egypt uses 80.25 billion cubic metres of water per year, however, divided into 10.7 billion cubic metres for drinking water, 5.4 billion cubic metres for industry, 61.65 billion cubic metres for agriculture and 2.5 billion cubic metres lost in evaporation.

The 21 billion cubic metres gap is bridged by sea-water desalinisation, which yields about 0.35 billion cubic metres, superficial well water at 7.15 million cubic metres, and reusing agricultural wastewater and sanitation waste water at 13.5 million cubic metres.

The share of each citizen in the country’s water in 1995 was 1,000 cubic metres, but in 2017 this had fallen to 570 cubic metres.

The ministry had been working with the Ministry of Agriculture on implementing a four-pillar approach to dealing with the problem of the scarcity of water.

The first pillar is the treatment of ground water used for agriculture, especially wheat.

The second pillar is the improvement of irrigation systems, which involves farmers changing their methods for more modern techniques as has been implemented in some areas of Upper Egypt.

The third pillar is developing water resources through the desalinisation of water from the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.

The fourth pillar is raising awareness among the general public of correct water use. This has been done through the ministry’s campaigns, TV advertisements, workshops for journalists, interviews, radio competitions and door-to-door awareness campaigns.

It also has a Facebook page called Hafez aleyha telaqiha (preserve it and you will find it) that advises people on how to save water.

 According to the minister, by 2037 a single person’s share of renewable water in Egypt is likely to decrease by 35 per cent. If this occurs, Egypt will witness water scarcity, and the increase in the country’s agricultural area from 5.8 million feddans in 1980 to about 8.7 million feddans in 2015 also spells the need for more water.

Water use in industry has increased from 2.2 billion cubic metres in 2000 to 5.4 billion cubic metres in 2015.

In 2007, the ministry partnered with the European Union to ensure better water services for Egyptian citizens and to take measures to save water. It has been working on 16 projects in 12 governorates with a fund of approximately one billion euros. Approximately 11.5 million people have benefited.

In April 2018, the ministries of agriculture and irrigation sent a draft law to parliament amending Law 53/1966.

The new law says that the minister of agriculture, after consulting with the minister of irrigation, has the right to ban farmers from planting certain crops (such as rice, bananas and sugar cane) in certain areas.

The minister also has the right to determine the areas for planting certain crops, all with a view to using water more efficiently.

Governmental farms and farms in which experiments are conducted are exempted from this article. A farmer who breaks the law could be sentenced to a period of six months in jail and fined up to LE20,000 per feddan of land as well as having to pay to have the illegal crops removed.

Head of planning at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Eman Sayed said the ministry has other projects to reuse waste water.

“The amount of reused water is 53 per cent of the overall amount of waste water at the moment, and we plan to increase this over the next four years through our current projects,” she said.

“Most of the reused water projects are in the Nile Delta, where agricultural wastewater is being reused. The biggest project is the Al-Salam Canal,” she added, saying that the ministry has banned 54 types of crops and given alternatives that use less water.

“We also have a project in Fayoum in which crops are watered via spray irrigation,” she said.

“We need more people to live in empty desert areas, and this will only happen through projects using water. We are conducting studies to predict the effects of climate change on the Delta, the Nile and our water supply in general,” Saber commented, adding that to ensure there is enough water to go round agriculture water must be used more sparingly.

“One feddan of rice can use the same amount of water as 500 feddans of other crops. And it is for this reason that the new agriculture law is being discussed in parliament,” she said.

“I think that people’s consumption of water will only be reduced when people themselves decide to do so as a result of their conscience,” Suleiman concluded. “It cannot happen just as a result of a government campaign.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Are people saving water?

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