Louise Sarant

Climate change, a fast growing population, ill-designed infrastructure, high levels of pollution and lack of law enforcement have made Egypt a country thirsty for water — both in terms of quantity and quality.

The River Nile, which is considered poor by many experts and hydrologists, lies at lower altitude than the rest of the country. Massive electric pumps extract the water from the river’s bed and canals and direct it to industry, agriculture and for individual water use.

A significant portion of the water contained in Lake Nasser’s 5,000 square kilometer basin is lost to evaporation, while old networks of leaking pipes also deprive the country of satisfactory access to its most important resource: water.

In order to debate water scarcity in Egypt, its causes, and how climate change makes the issue more pressing than ever, as well as looking to solutions, a panel of experts were invited to participate in the 13th Cairo Climate Talk last week entitled “Growing Thirst: Sustainable Water Solutions for Egypt.”

Tarek Kotb, the First Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, and a member of the panel discussion, talked about the dwindling water share per capita with a sense of urgency. “Every year, the Egyptian population grows by 1.8 million, while the annual quota of Nile water allocated to Egypt, 55 billion cubic meters, has remained unchanged since the 1959 Nile Water Agreement,” he says.

While Egyptians in the 1960s could enjoy a water share per capita of 2800 cubic meters for all purposes, the current share has dropped to 660 cubic meters today—below the international standard defining water poverty of 1000 cubic meters.

Kotb estimates that Egypt is gradually going to leave the stage of water scarcity and enter a phase of drastic water stress in the next 40 years, if no sustainable water management is put in place.

“By 2050, there will be about 160 million Egyptians and only 370 cubic meters of water per capita,” he says. While Egypt has other options for its water needs, such as tapping into groundwater basins and desalinating sea-water, the bulk of water is still extracted from the Nile, leading to longstanding tensions with the other Nile basin countries.

The treaty signed under colonial rule in 1959 granted Egypt and Sudan most of the Nile water share, while upstream countries were given access to a very small allocation of water. Lama al-Hatow, a hydrologist and one of the founders of the Water Institute for the Nile (WIN) condemns Egypt’s historical and ongoing hydro hegemony, by which the country claims its entitlement to benefit from most of the Nile water.

“A lot of science has been published on how not to lose water if the Ethiopian Millennium Dam is built, but it is not given much attention by the politicians,” Hatow says. “The upstream countries have the right to develop,” she says, “and there are ways to make it happen without Egypt losing water.”

She adds that preventing water evaporation in Lake Nasser could even increase Egypt’s water share.

Kotb responding to her remarks, saying that Egypt is investing millions of dollars in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia to overcome losses due to evaporation in marshes and basins. “We don’t deny these countries’ right to development; actually, we help them,” he said.

Claudia Bürkin, the Water Sector Coordinator for the German Development Cooperation and Senior Programme Manager at KfW Development Bank, explains that Egypt’s water resources face two main challenges: water loss and bad quality.

“Egypt loses about 50% of its freshwater through poor maintenance of supplies and distribution problems, and the water is polluted,” she says, stressing that a significant number of diseases are water borne. Polluted water also affects the ecosystems’ balance, the soil quality, and seeps into the aquifers. “Egypt needs to set up strong standards for water quality and control the drainage nutrients, pesticides and waste found in the water.”

Kotb admits that while most of the issues and potential solutions have been identified by the government, much needs to be done in terms of implementation of existing laws and stronger cooperation between ministries.

“Water management is not the mandate of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation exclusively, which makes the implementation process so much harder,” he says.

A National Water Resource Plan was established a few years ago, Kotb says, to curb the amount of pollution in the Nile emanating from cruise boats, factories, industries and villagers deprived of a waste management system. As part of this, he explains, factories located close to the Nile or the canals have been moved further away from the water streams, and new industries will be prevented from setting up a plant within 20km from the water.

“Law 48 on pollution has been reviewed and the penalties will be tougher,” he says. Meanwhile, Hatow argues that enforcing stronger penalties is not the solution to prevent farmers from polluting.

“Instead of punishing them, we should give farmers incentives to make better use of water, and provide them with premium crops,” she says.

The conversation then shifted to the effects of climate change, which can already be felt in the Northern part of the Delta and in the Mediterranean coastal cities of Damietta and Rosetta. The gradual rise in sea levels taking place turns fields into barren land unfit for agriculture, and the sea water that infiltrates the Nile is reaching further and further away from the coast.

“In order to keep a good yield and maintain agricultural production,” says Kotb, “we need to use more fresh water to combat rising temperatures.”

Lama’s take on how to combat climate change is quite different from this. “We need to study community based resilience techniques to figure out how local and indigenous knowledge can provide answers and climate resilience.”