The River Nile: one of the water resources Egypt needs to keep a closer eye on, says the UN (Photo: Reuters)
Egypt needs "a shift in mentality" in the way it handles its scarce water resources, the UN's scientific and cultural body said this week, describing a series of stark challenges the country and the wider Middle East face when it comes to securing adequate supplies.
Among the pressures on the region's water resources are rapid population growth, overconsumption, climate change and damage to infrastructure due to regional conflict, the global body said in a study released on Monday.
Arab countries have seen only mixed success in their recent efforts to preserve resources, it added.
UNESCO's 4th World Water Development Report, titled 'Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk', was launched on 12 March at the World Water Forum in Cairo and Marseille.
One billion people in the developing world live without access to safe drinking water, and the number in urban areas is rising rapidly, according to UN figures.
By 2070, water scarcity could also affect the developed world, including at least 44 million people in Europe.
But while water management has improved in the Middle East, and supplies and sanitation are more accessible and non-conventional resources such as recycling are more in use, serious problems remain, says this week's UNESCO study.
In the case of Egypt, UNESCO experts interviewed by Ahram Online said much greater conservation efforts were needed.
Abdel Aziz Zaki, who works for a UNESCO programme specialising in Egyptian water security, talked of the need for "a shift in mentality in relation to water conservation in Egypt".
It was a view supported by Khawla Matter, Director of the UN Regional Office in Cairo, who added that "a new approach to water is required; it is the responsibility of the each individual, not only the government to preserve water."
In Egypt, water resources are limited to the Nile River, deep ground water in the Delta, the Western Deserts and Sinai, rainfall and flash floods.
Agriculture accounts for 85 per cent of water demand, while domestic and industrial use make up 8 and 6 per cent respectively, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The remaining one per cent is used in navigation and hydropower.
Non-conventional water resources include agricultural drainage water, desalinized brackish groundwater, seawater and treated municipal waste water. Desalinisation of water, however, has traditionally been given low priority due to its high costs.
The question of water diplomacy is also covered in the report -- a key issue for the Middle East and North African region given the existence of shared water resources like the Nile and the Euphrates.
UNESCO points out that current shortages have the potential to be exacerbated when governments fail to clarify the management and jurisidiction of resources in water-deficient environments.
Zaki stressed the importance of dialogue between governments and civil society organisations to ensure stability when it comes to water issues.
The report also highlights the need for collaboration to ensure benefits are equally distributed and water-related development goals are achieved.
The relation of gender to water resource management was a topic raised by Rasha Aboul-Azm of UNESCO.
Although women are the prime water-users in Egypt and the rest of the world, and are responsible for 60 per cent of agricultural production, they are still sidelined when it comes to making important decisions when it comes to irrigation, she explained.
The central oasis of Fayoum is one of the few areas in Egypt where women are represented in Water User Associations. But they are still not participating at the same level as men, Aboul-Azm said.