Finding a solution for Egypt’s water crisis

Mohammed El-Said
10 Min Read

Early in January this year, a sudden decrease in the level of the Nile River water in the waterway made controversy over the country and among Egyptians who were stunned and felt worried about the future of the country amid the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is believed to threaten Egypt’s water security.

The decrease in the amount of water was described at that time as normal and happens since about 100 years since the beginning of December until the end of January every year, according to Minister of Transportation Hesham Arafat.

Egypt is depending on the Nile flow to provide about 97% of its present water needs with only 660 cubic metres per person, one of the world’s lowest annual per capita water shares. But as population is expected to double in the next 50 years, Egypt is projected to have critical countrywide fresh water and food shortages by 2025, according to a study conducted by the Geological Society of America GSA.

“Problems of fresh water and energy poverty in the lower Nile Basin are likely to be seriously exacerbated in years ahead by construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD),” the research expects. Egypt receives about 70% of its water flow from the Blue Nile and Atbara River, both sourced in the Ethiopian plateau, then merge as the Main Nile in the northern Sudan.

Urgent procedures

The situation urged Egyptian experts to think about solutions for Egypt’s water crisis and future of the water security of the country, some of those solutions are related to agriculture, others related to ground and underground waters.

Professor of Soil and Water Resources at Cairo University Nader Nour El-Din told Daily News Egypt that Egypt now is suffering from a 31bn cubic metres water shortage annually because of its overpopulation and every citizen’s portion should not be less than 1000 cubic metres per year.

The state is working on using 12bn square metres of an agricultural runoff, about 4bn square metres of sewage water, and about 1bn square metre of the industrial wastewater, but unfortunately all these amounts are not treated, he added.

Nour El-Din explained further that state is planning to enter into the age of desalinations despite its high costs, in in order to meet the demands of hotels and the manufacture and perhaps the domestic use. Also there are plans for cooperation with upstream countries of the River Nile to use the waters of the swamps to increase the water of the Nile, as well as using crops that use less amounts of water or decreasing its areas such as rice, banana, and sugarcane.  

Recycling drainage water

Egypt has achieved good steps in the field of water management and drainage water reuse to be able to cope with the impact of water shortages and other water-related disruptions, as part of the Middle East region that face the dangers of water scarcity.

“In Egypt, 10% of agricultural water is recycled drainage water, and that success could be matched in other countries where there is large-scale surface irrigation,” the report says a recent joint report of the World Bank and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

According to the report, Egypt presented a successful example that reusing the drainage water as unusual source of water could be an effective and cheap source of water.

The report pointed out to Egypt’s approach of decentralising the responsibility of water management to local areas, for example, at Salheia in the East Delta, where a local groundwater association established a common management system and invested in a piped network, and now manages the aquifer sustainably.

It highlighted the importance of achieving better understand to the dynamics of water management, to ensure that water does not add to fragility, but rather promotes stability, and contributes to resilience in the region. Also, the report called for redoubling efforts towards sustainable and efficient management of water resources, as well as a reliable and an affordable delivery of water services to all and protection from water-related catastrophes.

Desalination, ground water

Another solution that could help in decreasing the crises is depending on ground water, as well as seawater desalination, in order to meet the domestic demand for water. A new study pointed out that the domestic water sector is one of the largest water users in Egypt, which consumes more than 16% of the total renewable water resources.

Egypt is urgently required to have its plan to face the increase in the current consumption of domestic water from around 9.2bn cubic metre in 2016 to about 15bn cubic metre of water by 2040 from alternatives to the Nile waters, according to findings of the study that was published in the American Journal of Engineering Research (AJER).

According to the study, domestic water in Egypt is diverted from two main sources. The first source is surface water (SW), which supplies about 88.99% and the second one is groundwater, which supplies about 10.77% of total demands and about 0.24% from sea water desalination. The major factor that affects the amount of diverted water for domestic use is the efficiency of the delivery networks.

“Groundwater and seawater desalination are together a promising source for meeting the future water needs of Egypt. By 2040 Egypt will need additional 5bn cubic metre to meet the domestic use of water to reach the needed amount 15bn cubic metre,” said Osama Sallam, the author of the study and researcher at the Egyptian National water research centre, and water projects manager, at the Environment agency, in Abu Dhabi, in the UAE.

Sallam told Daily News Egypt that the Egyptian groundwater stock is fresh and has few level of salinity, thus allows meeting the future demand of domestic water, it is also cheaper than seawater desalination.

He further added that the process of seawater desalination is very expensive and the cost of desalinating 1 cubic metre of water costs $1000, in addition to other costs of operating and maintenance which costs $1. But he explained that this process is the promising source of water for coastal governorates, particularly when Egypt rely on cheaper sources for energy, that will help in decreasing the cost of desalination.    

Drought tolerant crops

Researchers have identified new drought-resistant plant genes that could cope with the water scarcity. Also cultivating rice could help in decreasing the salinity in the soil of Egypt’s coastal governorates.  

One of the Egyptian local experiences in this regard, the experience of professor of Genetics at Faculty of Agriculture, Zagazig University, Said Soliman, who was working for a long time in progressing new species of rice that resist drought and use less amount of water.

Speaking to DNE, Soliman said that he has developed species of rice named “Oraby” after the political leader Ahmed Oraby who is the symbol of Zagazig university, the age of that species of engineered rice takes about 120 days comparing to 145 days for normal rice. He added that Oraby rice could be cultivated twice in the year.  

Oraby rice could be cultivated in all kinds of land, as it was successfully cultivated in Tushka in the sandy soil, and in the clay soil. According to Soliman it is possible to cultivate 2m feddans of the engineered rice with the same amount of water, which is allocated to irrigate 1m feddan of normal rice, and Oraby rice will achieve increase in productivity by 2m tonnes of rice, meaning 1 tonne per feddan.

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Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor for the Daily News Egypt with over 8 years of experience as a journalist. His work appeared in the Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other regional and international media outlets. El-Said graduated with a bachelor's degree and MSc in Human Geography, and he is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Cairo University. He also had a diploma in media translation from the American University in Cairo.
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