x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A river runs through it, but Egypt still lacks water

If the country is to have a viable long-term future it needs to handle its water reserves better. The good news is, the government is taking steps, albeit faltering, to bring this about.

A boy swims in the Nile near Aswan.
A boy swims in the Nile near Aswan.

The most serious problem facing Egypt is, says Rachid M Rachid, the minister of trade and industry, "the management and conservation of water".

But it is not as if the country's water reserves are vanishing; each year Egypt takes 55.5 billion cubic metres from the Nile, some 98.5 per cent of the country's total supply. The problem is that, year on year, an increasing number of people are depending on that fixed amount of water for their survival.

Dr Dia elDin Ahmedel Quosy, a former professor at the National Water Research Centre, says: "Only 200 years back the Egyptian population was 2.5 million and the per capita share of water stood at 20,000 cubic metres. Now we are one hundred million and we are below seven hundred cubic metres per person." That is technically described as being in water poverty. And with population expected to double over the next 30 years the problem will only get worse.

The reality is that if Egypt is to have a viable long-term future it needs to handle its water reserves better. The good news is the government is taking steps, albeit faltering, to bring this about.

Egypt still has an agrarian culture, with an estimated 40 per cent of the population earning their living from the land. Agriculture uses 85 per cent of the country's total water supply, with most crops still being watered through out-of-date and wasteful flood irrigation systems. The government is trying to persuade farmers to use more modern methods, such as closed pipes or the more efficient drip irrigation as well as growing fewer water-intensive crops. "You can produce one kilogramme of wheat per cubic metre of water but for the same amount you can also produce five kilogrammes of citrus or 10 kilogrammes of vegetables," Dr Quosy says.

Holding progress back are both the poverty of the majority of Egyptian farmers and the small size of their farms, which are, on average, under two acres. The government has set up a trial scheme, covering half a million acres, to get farmers to pool their resources and elect officials to manage their collective irrigation more efficiently.

All told, the government believes total water savings of between 28 per cent and 30 per cent are possible.

Perhaps surprisingly, Egypt's cities only use about 5 per cent of the country's total water supply, although half of that is then lost through wastage. This, too, is an issue under consideration, with a pilot scheme in Alexandria carried out by the trans-regional environmental organisation CEDARE showing that simple water saving devices could reduce wastage by a fifth.

Recycling could also be much improved. Dr Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the former minister of irrigation and water resources, estimates recycling of waste water could be increased from 5.5 billion cubic metres to 8 billion cubic metres, while the amount of recycled groundwater could rise from 6 billion cubic metres to 11 billion cubic metres.

Even so, all those savings, even if they come to fruition, will not be enough. The country has to find new sources of water, which means desalination plants.

Already, Egyptian tourist resorts on the Red Sea are using mostly desalinated water. Ten new desalination plants are out for tender, with desalination ultimately expected to provide the country with at least 10 per cent of its needs.

Demands from the Nile's upstream countries for greater usage of its water is another issue.

Egypt, along with Sudan, maintains there is nothing to discuss, since two British treaties signed last century grant them control over 80 per cent of all the Nile's water as well as veto rights over other countries' upstream projects.

Egypt regards any attempt to alter the river's flow as a threat to the country's existence. This attitude, according to Angus Blair, the head of research at the country's Beltone Financial, is no longer sustainable.

"Egypt had used rather bellicose language when the upstream countries started discussions about having a new treaty; but bellicose language won't get it anywhere any more because these countries are both stronger and more efficient and, with the world's media looking at the region, there isn't any alternative apart from a negotiated treaty," he says.

That said, Egypt's water experts believe the water in the Nile basin is under-utilised, with Dr Abu Zeid pointing out that only 5 per cent of the 1,600 billion cubic metres of rain that falls each year in the area is currently being used.

There is, though, one more serious threat facing the country and one it can, ultimately, do little about: if global warming continues, climate change takes place, the oceans rise and the delta floods, the steps Egypt takes to conserve water will become practically irrelevant. Egypt, as we know it, will be lost no matter what it does.