Parliament this week began discussing a controversial government-drafted law on water resources and irrigation. The law was provisionally approved by parliament on 2 March.
A report prepared by the Agriculture Committee said Egypt has 55,000km of water currents and canals, as well as 48km of water barrages and stations. “One of the main objectives of the law is to preserve these water establishments and keep them in good condition for the coming generations,” the report said.
In general, however, the report indicates that the 134-article law aims at introducing a more effective system for managing water resources in Egypt. “This will come from limiting the cultivation of excessive water-consuming crops — particularly rice — to pre-licensed areas, banning the drilling for underground water without prior approval from the Ministry of Irrigation, preventing the setting up of fish farms on main water currents, and recycling the use of sanitary drainage water,” said the report, indicating that “the Ministry of Irrigation in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture and local administration units will be responsible mainly for designating the areas to be allocated to cultivating excessive water consuming crops on an annual basis, and that violators of this measure will face harsh penalties such as heavy financial fines and prison sentences.”
The report said the law also aims to address pollution and water waste at a time the country is facing dwindling water resources and adverse climate changes.
The report, however, refers to the fact that Article 38 of the law states that farmers are allowed to use and operate water pumping machines on the River Nile, main water currents and canals, irrigation networks and reservoirs only under a prior licence from the Ministry of Irrigation. “Farmers will have to obtain a renewable five-year licence against a payment of LE5,000 in order to be able to use machines,” it said.
Chairman of parliament’s Agriculture and Irrigation Committee Hisham Al-Hosari said Article 38 does not mean that the law aims to sell irrigation water to farmers. “Article 38 is clear in that it obliges farmers who use giant pumping machines on main water currents such as the River Nile or big water canals to pay an annual fee of LE1,000 or LE5,000 every five years,” Al-Hosari said, “however, small-scale farmers who use small pumping machines on small water currents are out of the framework of Article 38 and they will not be obliged to pay any fees.”
Al-Hosari indicated that “when the government referred the law to parliament three years ago, Article 38 was drafted to oblige farmers to pay LE10,000 every five years, but the Agriculture Committee decided to cut it to LE5,000 and less.”
Mohamed Ghanem, the spokesman of the Ministry of Irrigation, said in a TV interview that “the Irrigation and Water Resources Law was first drafted and passed in 1984 and at that time Egypt’s population was estimated at 40 million.
“Now, 37 years later, Egypt’s population has grown to 100 million or one and a half times more, and so it became urgent that the law be updated to help manage water resources in a more effective way to meet the needs of the growing population and agricultural activities,” Ghanem said, adding that “Article 38 aims to rationalise the use of the water of the Nile and main canals by imposing fees on the operation of giant machines which pump huge quantities of water from the Nile to irrigate wide-scale agricultural fields.
“Farmers who use these kinds of expensive machinery represent just one or two per cent of Egypt’s total number who are mostly small-scale landowners who only use small and subsidiary water canals,” said Ghanem. He also explained that “the fee for pumps is not something new. It is old and goes back to 1984 when the first irrigation law was passed but it was at just LE100 at that time,” Ghanem said.
MP Magdi Malak said since the law was put up for discussion this month, social media has been abuzz with rumours that the government intends to sell irrigation water to farmers. “The law does not have a single article which clearly states that farmers will be obliged to buy irrigation water, but we have one article that will oblige rich farmers to pay fees in return for using giant pumping machines on the River Nile and main water currents, not subsidiary ones,” Malak said.
MP Mohamed Salah Abu Himila told Al-Ahram Weekly that responses delivered by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Irrigation and chairman of the Irrigation Committee were not enough to contain the rumours. “Many farmers still see that paying fees in return for licensing water pumping machines means that one way or another irrigation water will be sold to them,” Abu Himila said, adding that “as a result, I urge the government to launch a massive media campaign to refute all the claims about the law. I can say that a lot of farmers are angry because of this law and unless they get assurances that they will not pay any money I can say there could be social unrest in the countryside,” Abu Himila said.
On 4 March, however, the cabinet’s information centre found it enough to issue a short press release insisting that the law does not include any articles that aim to sell irrigation water to farmers. “The law just aims to license water pumping machines on the River Nile and main water currents and canals with the objective of regulating the distribution of water in a fair and equitable way for all farmers,” the release said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly