Egypt faces increasing water deficit
Cairo - Water scarcity is fast becoming part of the daily grind for Hashim Farag, a farmer in his mid- 50s from Ayat, a rural area in Egypt’s Giza province.
Every day, Farag, who is the head of the small farm owners’ union in Giza, hears complaints from farmers about their inability to find enough water to irrigate their fields.
“More and more farmers cannot find water to irrigate their plantations,” Farag said. “Others have to use costly equipment to tap groundwater but this water is never as good as Nile water.”
Egypt’s population — 89 million — continues to grow, but the level of water resources remains the same every year. As a result, water shortages become increasingly more acute.
The Nile — the country’s main source of water — provides Egypt with 55 billion cubic metres of water every year but there has not been an increase for decades. The country also gets about 15 billion cubic metres of water from other sources, including subterranean ones and scarce rain.
Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazi said the country has entered the phase of water scarcity. He added that Egypt faces a water deficit of around 24 billion cubic metres citing the growing population and increased demand.
Water and irrigation experts, meanwhile, say with an annual individual water share of 650 cubic metres, Egyptians receive 35% less water than global average amounts. The international standard is for an individual to have a water share of 1,000 cubic metres a year.
The water shortage along with the poor quality can lead to big economic losses.
“Water shortage means that the country will produce less food, which also means that it will depend more on imports,” Fawzi Diab, a water expert and a researcher at the state-run Desert Research Center, said. “More imports also mean more pressure on the economy.”
Egypt imported $1.2 billion worth of food during the first quarter of 2015, according to the Ministry of Industry and Trade. This is 4% more than food imports during the corresponding period in 2014.
Egypt produced 21.4 million tons of cereals, including 8.8 million tons of wheat, in 2014, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The country will have to import 18.1 million tons of cereals, including 10 million tons of wheat, in 2015, it said.
Water riots are becoming common in parts of the country. Residents in the Nile Delta city of Mansour staged protests against water shortages in July.
On June 18th, Hosni Shaaban, the head of the independent Farmers’ Union in Giza province, called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi to intervene to end the suffering sustained by farmers in some provinces due to water scarcity.
Observers expect this scarcity to have adverse political ramifications and contribute to destabilising Egypt if the government does not act. Egypt’s water shortages are expected to worsen with Ethiopia, the country from where the bulk of Nile water flows, building a multi-billion-dollar hydroelectric dam. Ethiopia says the dam — one of several it has planned on the Nile — is indispensable for its development but Egypt says the project will cut its supply of water from the Nile.
The two countries faced diplomatic tensions until Sisi came to power in June 2014 and promised to put an end to the water row.
In March, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a declaration of principles to regulate Nile dam negotiations.
Egypt’s water experts say, however, that the Ethiopian dam will affect Egypt regardless of the outcome of negotiations between governmental delegations from the three countries.
“Water used to flow without any impediments from Ethiopia to Egypt where the water was stored behind the High Dam,” Maghawry Shehata, a leading water expert, said. “Now, instead of being stored behind Egypt’s High Dam, water will be stored behind Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam and this will reduce Egypt’s water share even more.”
Like-minded experts say, when it is complete, Ethiopia’s dam can prevent Nile water from reaching Egypt for several years. The Ethiopian government says the project is expected to be completed by July 2017.
Farag says some Egyptian farmers, after failing to find water, resort to sewage to irrigate their farms
“The farmers do not have other solutions,” he said. “They have either to stand idly by and watch their plants dying before their eyes or use sewage.”
Egypt’s water shortage is not only about the scarcity of water. It is also about mismanagement.
Diab referred to outdated irrigation methods across this country, saying the techniques waste water. Other experts say around 30% of the 9 billion cubic metres of water specified for drinking is wasted by consumers.
“We are in bad need for a water management revolution,” Diab said. “We also need to search for new sources of water to compensate for the shortage related to available sources.”
Available options are for Egypt to increase its search for subterranean water, especially in the western desert, and desalinate seawater, using nuclear technologies, which is very costly.