Western desert groundwater could last 300 years, says Minister Abu Zeid

Jonathan Spollen
5 Min Read

CAIRO: As the Arab Water Council meets today for the first Arab Region Consultative Workshop March 13-15 to prepare its research papers and regional reports for the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul in March 2009, many questions surround Egypt’s water situation.

UN and World Bank reports warn of the grave threats to Egypt’s freshwater supplies posed by climate change, while a series of water shortages in rural areas last summer highlighted the need for improvements in Egypt’s water supply network.

The Ministry and the government have also come in for heavy domestic criticism over the Toshka land reclamation project, which has fallen far short of its targets, and criticism from abroad for its refusal to relinquish the 1959 Nile Treaty, which effectively gives Egypt 85 percent and Sudan 15 percent of the entire water of the river Nile.

“So far the [10] Nile Basin countries only use five percent of the total available Nile water, explained the Minister for Water and Irrigation, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, in an interview with Daily News Egypt at the Ministry’s Nile Water Authority in Nasr City.

“Therefore the Nile Treaty only pertains to that five percent of the water, so the goal is for other countries to use more Nile water that is going to waste.

Egypt, along with the other nine Nile Basin countries are part of what is known as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which aims to put together a final status agreement over the distribution of the Nile’s water, and promote joint cooperation with other Basin countries.

While the minister admitted that the Toshka part of Egypt’s land reclamation project has taken longer and cost more than expected, he insisted that the results would be worth the wait and said that many investors, predominantly from the Arab world, had begun investing in the reclaimed land.

The ministry is also engaged in developing groundwater resources in the Western Desert – known as the Nubian Sandstone aquifer – the minister said, adding that if it was exploited carefully it could last as long as 300 years.

He said that subsidies would be cut “a bit on irrigation water, though the exact amount has yet to be specified.

“We will provide farmers with new systems and reliable resources, so we hope their contribution will increase with time.

While he insisted that sugar and rice production in Egypt would not be cut to this end, rice, sugar and other high water consumption crops would also be imported from Nile Basin countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan where rainfall is higher.

As for the water shortages last summer, which saw several protests around the country, Abu Zeid said that contingency plans were in place to try and prevent a repeat in the coming months while permanent water networks in affected areas were in development.

He pointed out that 95 percent of Egypt has access to steady supplies of drinking water – compared to only 4 percent in the rest of Africa – but that only 10 percent had sanitation water, a situation that he admitted desperately required improvement.

One of the main topics Egypt will be discussing at the Arab Region Consultative Workshop over the next three days would be how to deal with rising coastal waters that could threaten freshwater supplies and farmland in the Nile Delta region.

Another priority topic will be desalination, which Abu Zeid expects Egypt to turn to more and more over the coming years.

Although a relatively expensive process, he said that its cost had decreased threefold in recent years as technology had improve to less than a dollar per cubic meter.

“Sixty percent of the world’s desalination plants are in the Gulf region, he said.

“We stand to learn a lot from the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, about this process. Desalination will become an essential method of obtaining usable water in the coming years as populations in Egypt and the Nile Basin expand.

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