Maximising the use of rainwater is essential for countries which, like Egypt, have limited water resources.
Agriculture based on irrigation makes up just 17 per cent of the world’s agricultural lands and is dominant in countries with limited rainfall but which have flowing rivers and fresh lakes, such as Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some parts of India. Because irrigation is regular and crops are not threatened by drought or the vagaries of rainfall such land has a high yield and produces 40 per cent of the world’s agricultural produce, production.
In a 2010 report the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated the quantity of rainfall in Egypt at 50 billion cubic metres annually, of which Egypt reaps the benefit of just 1.3 billion cubic meters which fall on the Delta and are used in irrigation. Most rainfall occurs in desert areas that are almost uninhabited such as the north west coast, through Marsa Matrouh to Al-Salloum. North Sinai has regular rains starting in October and lasting till May while South Sinai and the Red Sea cities and shores and most Upper Egyptian governorates witness floods in October, April and May. These floods are the result of heavy rainfall over a short period, on land that cannot absorb the quantities of water, and can be extremely destructive.
The government is now working to maximise the benefits of winter rainfall in Egypt’s north east and along the north west coast. Particular attention is being paid to 2.5 million feddans of flat land in the Dabaa area where there is sufficient rain to grow crops throughout the winter.
The area’s mild winter climate is frost free, and suited to growing wheat, barley, beans, lentils, and oil crops.
Barley ripens in April, a month earlier than wheat, and can withstand high salt concentrations in the soil. What is more, world prices for barley have overtaken those for wheat. There is a major regional market for the crop: Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest barley importer, and Libya is a large consumer.
Cultivating barley makes sense in Dabaa. It is an occasional-drought resistant crop which means the harvest won’t be spoiled if, as sometimes happens, the April rains are late. In such circumstances wheat, beans and lentils would require supplementary irrigation, involving the digging of canals which could then be used to irrigate summer crops. The Irrigation Ministry plans to irrigate the area using treated agricultural wastewater from the western Delta area which currently drains into lakes Idku and Mariout. The water will be treated to decrease salinity to a maximum of two thousand parts per million.
To reduce the damage from flash floods and make use of the otherwise wasted water a national rainwater harvesting strategy is being put in place. Water will be stored in a network of canals, ternches and artificial lakes.
Water is a rare and valuable resource that Egypt cannot afford to waste. The country has to benefit from every drop, through treating and re-using wastewater, desalinating seawater, and by establishing an effective water harvesting network.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly