Facing water shortage, Egypt turns to desalination
Cairo - Mohamed Farag, the head of the Egyptian Farmers’ Union, is growing more accustomed to water shortages and the resulting problems. In recent years, Farag has seen fellow farmers become incapable of irrigating their crops and others who lost livelihoods to water scarcity.
“A large number of farmers cannot find the necessary water to irrigate their farms,” Farag said. “They sometimes resort to groundwater, which has a very high degree of salinity. This destroys the crops and the soil in the long term.”
Water shortages are acute in Egypt, devastating the prospects of millions of its farmers and threatening food security in the country.
Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water yearly from the Nile, virtually its only source of water. That figure has been the same for years even as Egypt’s population burgeoned to nearly 90 million.
Egypt has an annual water deficit of almost 15 billion cubic metres, a figure expected to double in a matter of months once Ethiopia completes a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, which provides most of the water for the Nile.
Ethiopia is to begin filling the dam reservoir in July, preventing most of the Nile’s water from reaching Egypt and Sudan. Egypt will likely lose millions of hectares of farmland and be unable to reclaim land needed to meet its growing food needs.
The Egyptian government plans to establish a series of seawater desalination and sewage treatment plants to make up for water shortages.
“We are water-poor without Ethiopia’s dam already but the dam will increase our water shortages even more,” water expert Maghawri Shehata said. “This means that we have to resort to desalinating the seawater and rationing our water consumption.”
The plan is to build plants that can desalinate 14 billion cubic metres of seawater a year. The construction of the facilities should be completed in two years.
This country has plants that treat 3.8 billion cubic metres of sewage every year. Cairo plans over the next two years to double that treatment capacity.
Egypt uses about 85% of its water supply to irrigate its 3.5 million hectares of farmland. However, irrigation systems are inefficient, squandering almost 40% of allocated water, irrigation experts said.
The government plans to introduce modern irrigation techniques and systems in the next few years at the cost of $2 billion, an additional burden on the Egyptian budget, which has a deficit of almost $33 billion.
Nevertheless, it will take months, if not years, for farmers such as Farag to notice the effects of the plans.
He said farmers, particularly in recently reclaimed farmland north of Cairo, cannot find water to irrigate their farms. Some use untreated sewage to irrigate their farms, Farag sad, risking the health of people who eat those crops.
“The farmers are helpless and hand-tied,” Farag said. “Some of these farmers lost all their money because of the lack of water and had to leave farming altogether.”
Political analysts expressed fear that water shortages could translate into political unrest. There have been water riots in a number of Egyptian provinces, especially during the summer when high temperatures increase demand.
The country’s media often report on Egyptians blocking roads as a form of protest or farmers complaining of lack of water. Members of one farmers’ union recently called on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al- Sisi to rescue their crops and livelihood, threatened by the lack of water.