Egypt's water challenges: Beyond the dam saga

Mahmoud Aziz , Wednesday 15 Jan 2020

Photo: Al-Ahram

Recent months have seen further negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the terms under which the latter’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be filled and operated, with little sign so far of a break in the long-running deadlock.

Egyptian officials have long warned that the mega-dam, being constructed on the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands, could impact the other two countries, which are downstream, and have stressed that Egypt is largely dependent on the Nile for its freshwater resources.

It is clear, however, that Egypt’s water challenges extend beyond the potential impact of the new dam, and to fully understand this vital issue, many other factors, problems and potential solutions need to be taken into account.

With the increase in Egypt’s population to over 100 million, Egypt's water consumption has reached between 105 to 110 billion metres per year.

The annual flow from the Nile has been stable at 55.5 billion cubic metres for many years; Egypt is therefore classified as a country in water poverty.

Experts and researchers say that Egypt has a longstanding problem whereby its share of water remains fixed but its population growth continues, as does economic development, increasing demand.

Egypt suffers from a water deficit of 30 billion cubic meters; it annually needs at least 110 billion cubic meters of water to cover its needs. However, it currently has only 80 billion cubic meters, of which 55.5 billion cubic meters come from the Nile.

To find out more, Ahram Online took a closer look at some of the key issues related to the country’s water challenges.


A growing water crisis

The average availability of freshwater per capita in Egypt has steadily decreased from about 1,893 cubic metres per capita per year in 1959 to about 900 cubic metres in 2000, and then to 700 cubic metres in 2012. This figure puts the country below the threshold of water poverty, which according to the World Bank is 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year.

Egypt has a high population growth rate, and given this, it is expected that the share of water per capita will continue to decrease to 534 cubic metres by 2030, which is nearly half the international threshold for water poverty.

In addition, the evaporation of surface water from Lake Nasser, Egypt’s vast reservoir, is believed to exceed the previous estimated amount. The current average evaporation rate is 7 millimetres per day,expected to reach 7.3 millimetres by 2050.

Water poverty poses a threat to economic growth and also threatens the quantity and quality of water resources in the country, which exacerbates the current problem of contamination of shallow groundwater from industrial chemicals and overuse of fertilisers and pesticides. In addition, farmers still largely rely on ineffective irrigation methods, resulting in water loss due to evaporation and over-irrigation, and to soil damage.

According to the water resources and irrigation ministry, Egypt already uses 127 percent of its water resources, and will need an additional 20 percent by 2020.

The United Nations expects Egypt to suffer from water scarcity by 2025. Assuming the continued growth of the population and taking into account land reclamation projects in the desert and the fact that more than 50 percent of grains consumed are already imported, Egypt cannot meet its demand for food only by relying on Nile water for irrigation.

Egypt is therefore already using most of its Nile flow, and plans to use more during the upcoming years.

In addition, Egypt is also seeing the effects of climate change, which have affected the Nile Basin countries and, as a result, the flow of the Nile.

Several studies have shown that the Nile is very sensitive to climate change, mainly due to the decline in rainfall rate by 4 percent.

Given these factors, experts agree that Egypt should intensify its search for alternative ways to increase its share of water, whether through desalination of seawater, rationalisation of consumption, and attention to providing new water sources such as re-using wastewater in agriculture and maximising the use of groundwater, in order to face its growing water crisis, which could potentially be exacerbated by the completion of the GERD.

Wasted rainwater

Rainwater, if properly used, could be one of the most important weapons in combating Egypt’s water crisis. According to reports by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the amount of rain that falls on Egypt is estimated at 51 billion cubic metres annually,which is nearly equivalent to the country’s share of Nile water.

However, Egypt has failed to take advantage of this water resource; only 1.3 billion cubic metres per year are currently used, as this is the amount that falls on the Nile Delta region. The other areas of Egypt, most of which are desert, do not have enough flood waterways or infrastructure to channel rainwater in useful ways.

The agriculture ministry has said in reports that the amount of rainwater that could be used is 13 billion cubic metres, which is sufficient to cultivate 600,000 acres of agricultural land annually.

In recent years, Egypt has developed a strategy to deal with its seasonal bouts of torrential rain, based on two important elements. The first is to reduce the risks of flooding and other damage via methods such as dams, walls, and water crossings, to direct flood water into waterways. The second is to maximise the benefits of this natural phenomenon, turning it into a useful source for water.

In addition, the irrigation ministry has decided to construct a man-made lake to collect flood and rainwater in Hurghada in Red Sea governorate, with a capacity of 5 million cubic metres. The project aims to direct the water to underground reservoirs and therefore provide water to local communities and surrounding villages.

The government also plans to construct a number of dams and industrial lakes in Red Sea governorates and in Upper Egypt at a cost of EGP 400 million, but these projects have not been completed yet.

There is a need to increase the infrastructure for channelling rainwater into reservoirs in desert areas, so this water can be used in agriculture or drinking if needed, as happens in some Gulf countries.

Water experts agree that by maximising rainfall storage projects, Egypt could generate an amount of water that is nearly half its current annual share of Nile water.

"The Renaissance Dam is only part of Egypt’s water problem, not the whole of it," Ahmed Fawzy Diab, a senior international water expert, told Ahram Online.

“Far from [focusing on] other sources of water such as desalination of seawater and groundwater, it is necessary to set up the necessary equipment and infrastructure to collect flood water, and to set up climate change prediction techniques, to benefit from rainwater based on geological studies,” he said.

According to Diab, in recent years the state has established several barrier dams, blocking dams and lakes in Sinai, but it has slowed down the process because of the high financial costs.

The lakes have been used in irrigation operations, for filling the underground water reservoirs, and for capturing 5 million cubic metres of rainwater annually.

Diab stresses that rainwater is one of the purest types of water to drink if initially treated properly.

“It is therefore necessary to take advantage of rainwater and flooding by directing it to reservoirs and industrial lakes,” he said, while noting that “most important of all is to rationalise consumption, as Egyptians should know that water is a matter of life or death to them.”

Desalinating seawater

During the 31st educational symposium of the Egyptian armed forces last October, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi revealed a plan to cut off the supply of Nile water to the northern coast and the Red Sea areas.

These regions would instead get their water from seawater desalination plants, with investments in constructing these plants currently at EGP 200 billion and likely to rise in to EGP 300 billion in 2020.

Egypt has been expanding its desalination projects in recent years, in light of its concerns about water scarcity.

“Desalination of seawater is one of the best, most effective and quickest ways for Egypt to overcome its current water shortage,” water expert Diaa El-Din El-Qousy told Ahram Online.

During a conference on desalination in Arab countries held in 2017, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly stressed that desalination of seawater is a top priority for Egypt now it has entered the stage of water poverty.

With the steady increase in population and the fixed amount of water resources, it is expected that there will be a steady decrease in the per capita share, he said.

Desalination of seawater is becoming “the strategic choice and a matter of national security for Egypt,” he said.

Madbouly noted that the urban development plan implemented by the state includes a total dependence on desalination of seawater in the new coastal cities, with desalination plants having been established in the new settlements of New Alamein, East Port Said and Galala, with a capacity of 150,000 cubic metres per day each.

Other stations are also being expanded, he said.

For example, Al-Yusr station in Red Sea governorate, has a capacity of 80,000 cubic metres per day, making it the largest operational desalination plant in Egypt.

Work is being done to localise the technology of seawater desalination industry in Egypt in cooperation with the Military Production and the Arab Organization for Industrialization, and the private sector and in cooperation with advanced Arab countries in this field such as Saudi Arabia, said Madbouly.

“Given the country’s extensive marine areas and thousands of kilometres of shoreline, desalination of seawater is an essential resource in bridging the water deficit and achieving self-sufficiency in drinking water,” El-Qousy said.

“Whether before or after the completion of the GERD, Egypt’s share of water is now insufficient…Egypt’s aim from the current negotiations is to limit the negative impacts to the least possible,” El-Qousy noted.

Desalination plants also offer to change the prospects of life in border governorates and remote areas that suffer from water supply problems.

El-Qousy believes that the best solution for Egypt to overcome its water crisis over the course of the coming few years is to establish scattered operations of water desalination plants in its coastal cities.

The amount of drinking water produced in Egypt is estimated daily at 25 million cubic metres per day, 85 percent of which comes from Nile water, while desalinated sea and groundwater, as well other resources, account for the rest.

A total of 63 desalination stations exist at present, with a total production capacity of 800,000 cubic metres per day. They are located in the governorates of North Sinai, South Sinai, Red Sea, Marsa Matrouh, Ismailia and Suez.

An additional 19 stations are under construction at a total cost of EGP 7.9 billion pounds in the governorates of Matrouh, the Red Sea, North Sinai, South Sinai, Port Said and Alexandria. They will have a total capacity of 375,000 cubic metres per day.

Desalination is a very expensive operation, however, and is mainly used by wealthy countries. Globally, only 25 billion cubic metres of desalinated water are produced per year, which represents 6 percent of drinking water in the world. Most of this is produced in Saudi Arabia, the US, Japan, Spain and Kuwait.

In Egypt, desalination costs between EGP 10 to 15 per cubic metre of water, which is very high, with 44 percent of the cost spent on electricity.

Wastewater treatment and re-use

Wastewater is polluted water resulting from different human activities, and the treatment of wastewater is important to protect the environment from effects of pollution.

The irrigation ministry has stressed the necessity of looking for unconventional solutions to the country’s water shortage, with the treatment of wastewater among those solutions, to meet the needs of agriculture and to provide drinking water.

Wastewater can be treated and used for a variety of activities, including for drinking, and this happens in many countries at present, including some European countries. However, these countries have advanced technology and sufficient financial resources to purify wastewater up to the seventh level, which is very costly.

In Egypt, treatment plants only purify wastewater to the second and third levels, therefore the water can only be -re-used to irrigate agricultural land.

While wastewater has been used in agriculture since 1915, the Egyptian state has expanded its use of wastewater for agriculture since the 1990s.

The amount of wastewater generated in Greater Cairo is currently estimated at about 6 million cubic metres per day, but only a very small part of this is used in agriculture.

Some studies indicate that the cost of purifying a cubic metre of wastewater for agricultural purposes ranges from EGP 0.15 piasters to EGP 2.

In addition to its high cost if used for drinking, the use of wastewater in irrigation of agricultural land poses a great risk to human health if not treated properly, due to the presence of different types of bacteria and viruses.

“Egypt is not only facing a problem of water quantity, but it is also facing a big problem in terms of water quality,” water expert Diab said.

“Sanitary and industrial wastewater treatment causes increased pollution rates in irrigation water, due to the lack of sufficient treatment plants," Diab argues; however, he stresses that treatment of wastewater will not lead to an increase in the total amount of water, but rather will improve water quality and reduce rates of health and agricultural pollution.

Drinking water consumption in Egypt is estimated at 11 billion cubic metres annually, of which 7 to 8 billion cubic metres are directed to wastewater, while the rest of it is wasted due to the lack of an efficient wastewater management network and weak infrastructure.

“A fundamental solution that the government must take is restructuring the whole wastewater sector in Egypt to achieve the best possible wastewater management,” Diab stresses.

During recent years, Egypt has seen significant progress in wastewater management.

In 2018, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi opened the expansion of the Al-Gabal Al-Asfar wastewater treatment plant in Qalioubiya in Greater Cairo. The plant currently has a capacity of 500,000 cubic metres per day and serves nearly half of Cairo’s population.

Egypt has also been working on extensive plan to replace dilapidated wastewater networks and construct new ones.



“Egypt has great potential to desalinate ground water, a crucial option to overcome its water crisis,” El-Qousy said.

Groundwater is one of the most important sources of fresh water around the world, and it is present in Egypt in large quantities. Its uses are limited, however, due to both natural and technological factors.

Experts say therefore that while it is not the whole solution, it can form a partial solution to Egypt’s water problem.

Groundwater in Egypt is distinguished by its fixed stock, although the underground reservoir contains large quantities of water, but it is a reservoir that is replenished in some places and not renewed in many regions, especially the eastern and western desert regions and the Sinai Peninsula.

However, the use of groundwater can compensate to solving water shortage if done with certain precautions, because when drawing from these reservoirs is thoughtlessly, the percentage of soil salinity in them increases, which affects the entire environment.

“The Egyptian government should set limitations and regulate the use of groundwater wells, because they are non-renewable,” El-Qousy said, stressing that groundwater is a strategic water stock for Egypt for future generations.

Groundwater is different to reservoirs, he explained; the subterranean reservoir in the Nile Valley and  Deltais a renewed reservoir because it depends on the infiltration of water from the Nile.

‘To maximise the utilization of groundwater, its use must not exceed 10 percent, so it can only be a partial solution to the water problem, especially in desert areas characterised by non-renewable geological groundwater reservoirs,” he said.

“Egypt’s stock of groundwater has existed since the rainy ages, which ended thousands of years ago, therefore its source has finished, and the current sources of renewal are confined to leaching from the Nile, or coming across the ground from Africa.

“Studies must be done to regulate the process of using groundwater, linking it to the amount that it is replenished annually,” he added.

Groundwater is the second biggest source of fresh water in Egypt after the Nile. In addition, it is the only resource for desert land, which make up about 96 percent of the country’s area. For these reasons, the state has been focused on this source and has been studying its potential utilisation for more than six decades.

In 2015, the state launched a vast agricultural project to cultivate 1.5 million feddans of desert land around the country. This huge project depends on groundwater for 88.5 percent of its water and on the Nile for 11.5 percent, with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency.

The project was divided into three phases includes the digging of more than 5,000 ground water wells at a cost of 70 billion EGP in eight governorates, mainly Ismailia, Qena, Marsa Matrouh, Al-Wadi Al-Gedid, and Aswan.

The irrigation minister stressed that the water management for the project is based on integrated studies carried out by the National Water Research Center, with the aim of optimising agricultural and urban investment within the limits of high safety precautions that ensure the sustainability of the underground reservoir.

Improving irrigation techniques

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said in 2018 that using modern irrigation and agricultural methods would save the country a huge amount of water that could be utilised in other sectors, and called on Egyptians to be careful when using each drop of water.

During the inauguration of the first phase of a project to establish greenhouses on an area of 100,000 acres in Marsa Matrouh governorate, El-Sisi said that the projects were not “luxuries,” but important projects that should be taken seriously by the government and citizens.

The greenhouse projects consume around 70 percent less water than traditional agricultural methods and can produce high-quality agricultural crops out of season.

El-Sisi said that the cost of constructing greenhouses is high, but saving water is vital.

Water experts say that other modern agriculture and irrigation methods can rationalise water consumption and drastically save large amount of water as well.

"Globally speaking, the main water problem is that the amount of rain is fixed and the land area, the seas and oceans are fixed, and therefore the amount of steam and clouds formed is constant, at a time when humans are increasing significantly, and thus the problem is a global one, not just one for Egypt,” El-Qousy said.

This month, the government announced a national plan to rationalise water and maximise the use of available resources in Egypt through 2037 at a cost of $50 billion, which aims to overcome problems related to water shortages.

The plan is based on four main axes: improving water quality and quality, rationalisation of use, water resource development, and creating an appropriate environment. It aims to provide alternative sources of drinking water, through desalination of water in coastal governorates, the establishment of groundwater extraction stations, and the re-use of treated water in some plantations.

The plan also includes the introduction of modern and technological irrigation systems, and working through specialised research centres to develop crops that consume less water, while reducing the time for crop growth.

It is expected that this plan will have a major impact on how water is used in Egypt, especially since the irrigation ministry said last year there was a state of emergency due to an expected decrease in water supplies in 2019 by about 5 billion cubic metres compared to the previous year.

The ministry attributed the expected decrease in the country's share of the Nile River water to the decrease in the rate of rainfall in the Nile Basin countries.

Traditional Egyptian irrigation methods used in the Nile Delta and Valley use large amounts of water, and in addition, it is difficult to convert the irrigation in these lands to modern methods.

According to the agriculture ministry statistics from 2019, a major problem is the overuse of old flooding irrigation techniques by farmers, especially in the Nile Delta and Valley, in addition to the lack of periodic maintenance of small lakes, the lack of which prevent large amounts of water from reaching waterways.

Another difficulty is the fact that a large part of the Delta lands in particular must be irrigated by flooding, which uses large amounts of water but prevents salinizing of the soil.

According to the information released by the agriculture ministry, the government is encouraging farmers to change irrigation methods. In 2018, 250,000 acres were cultivated with the more efficient irrigation system favoured by the government.

The ministry has said that the agricultural development strategy of 2030 depends on the optimal use of agricultural water resources and irrigation water, agricultural labour and capital and technological management, in order to increase agricultural production by 1.4 percent annually, thereby achieving both better rates of food security and water consumption levels.


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