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How Egypt can address its water challenges

Egypt must bring in the private sector to help solve its water issues

Egypt water scarcity Reuters/Fatma Fahmy
Egypt's growing agriculture sector is by far the country's largest water user

Last year during the UN’s Cop27 climate summit the Egyptian hosts placed water firmly on the agenda.

UN decision-makers described the environmental conference as the “first water Cop” as several sessions focused on the subject, which is perhaps of more concern to developing countries than climate change.

Fears about Egypt facing absolute water scarcity by 2025 were aired. This is defined as water availability of below 500 cubic metres per capita per year. 

Such a shortfall can be difficult to imagine as Africa’s longest river, the Nile flows through Cairo and the Delta out into the Mediterranean via Damietta and Rosetta.

But scarcity typically reflects population growth versus available water resources. Egypt’s population rises steadily at a rate of 2 percent per year but water resources remain stagnant in a country that receives little rainfall.

Egypt relies almost entirely on inflows from the Nile and on groundwater in the form of aquifers and lakes.

Sharing the Nile’s water

Under the terms of the Nile Treaty of 1959, Egypt’s share of the river stands at 55.5 billion cubic metres per year. The only other country with an allocated share is Sudan, which was granted 18.5 billion cubic metres.

The rationale behind this arrangement was to provide countries with little rainfall with a share of the river’s water. Upstream states were supposed to rely on rainfall.

However in recent decades, the treaty has come under increasing pressure. Ethiopia and other countries upstream have been asking for their share, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) has caused anxiety in Egypt over the extent to which farmers in the Nile Delta will be able to rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops. 

Gerd has to be filled with 49.3 billion cubic metres of water to provide up to 6,500 megawatts of electricity to Ethiopia and other upstream economies.

Depending on rainfall conditions – Ethiopia is the “water tower of Africa” due to abundant rainfall in its Highlands – the filling period will take between four and seven years.

In the summer of 2022 Ethiopia finished a third filling period which means that 21.5 billion cubic metres of water is retained in the dam. Unless a severe drought hits Ethiopia’s Highlands, Egypt will see no shortfall in the 55.5 billion cubic metres released annually through the Nile.

Doomsday scenarios about Gerd have therefore not materialised and are unlikely to do so in the future.

But the reality of the past few decades has been different. Egypt has continuously overused its share of the Nile to levels above 60 billion cubic metres due to Sudan’s inability to use its allocated share.

Egypt waterReuters/Tiksa Negeri
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a concern for Egypt’s farmers who rely on Nile water to irrigate crops
Agricultural expansion

Egypt has also expanded agricultural production into its so-called “New Lands” adjacent to the Nile Delta. This expansion relies on groundwater use. 

Nobody knows how long the groundwater which has powered the growth will last. Much discussion focuses on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which may or may not be fed by the Nile. It is one of the largest aquifers in the world, stretching from Egypt into Libya, Sudan and Chad.  

Here though is the problem. Egypt has a national consensus to achieve food self-sufficiency. This means that the biggest water user of water in the country is agriculture. Egyptian municipalities and industry withdrew about 7 percent and 14 percent respectively in 2020, but agriculture was by far the largest water user with 79 percent. 

The government is aware of the challenges. Its 2037 National Water Resources Plan foresees about $50 billion in investment to improve water availability.

The plan foresees better use of the peak water in the Nile (flood management) by building dams and storage facilities, investing in water recycling plants, building 14 additional desalination plants to add to the existing 82, tapping further into groundwater resources in the Western desert, and improving water quality.

The agricultural sector will see stricter allocations and restrictions on water use in the future, but experts doubt this will be sufficient to tackle the country’s crisis.

Private sector vs government intervention

The authorities need to understand water management cannot rely on a government-led, top-down approach. Egypt needs to bring in the private sector to address water use and water conservation. 

Swiss fabrics manufacturer Ventile has announced it is teaming up with small farmer organisations to introduce regenerative agricultural practices. Regenerative agriculture emphasises soil management to use less water and fewer inputs such as fertilisers or pesticides. This dramatically improves water quality as agricultural run-off is free of pollutants. 

Egypt needs to set the private sector free to do what it does best: trading scarce resources through markets.

If farmers do not use water allocated to them, they should have an option to trade it for cash. Under scarcity conditions, this could provide alternative means of income for farmers.

Due to inheritance laws, agricultural land in the Delta has become increasingly fragmented to inefficient land sizes of one or two feddans (1.038 acres). A land reform that focuses on re-zoning agricultural land to economically viable plot sizes would be expensive but it could be a true game changer for farmers and the economy alike.

Egypt needs stronger private sector involvement. Allowing more public-private-partnerships (PPPs) in areas such as desalination, water treatment, recycling and irrigation would provide opportunities to reduce the burden on public finances and thus debt.

Blended finance also provides a solution. This is the strategic use of development finance and philanthropic funds to mobilise private capital flows to emerging and frontier markets such as Egypt.

European investors may find this especially attractive since fruit and vegetable production in the Northern Hemisphere during winter months has become prohibitively expensive due to the absence of cheap Russian gas. 

From agriculture to industry

The bigger question goes deeper: should Egypt still focus its economic growth strategies on agriculture? Or should it not favour industry? Nearby Europe needs products such as photovoltaics or electronic chips. 

A change in economic strategy would be the biggest water conservation measure in a country that cannot support a large agricultural sector.

This is not an easy option. Agriculture employs millions of Egyptians on farms and in related industries.

The Egyptian state funds one of the largest agricultural research industries in the world with over 100,000 staff members. But this is excessive for a country battling both a water and a debt crisis.

Egypt needs to understand that it should swallow a bitter pill to allow more private sector involvement and reduce its agricultural sector. All options on the table for Egypt will not be an easy transition. But running out of water will be much worse.  

Martin Keulertz is adjunct assistant professor at the American University of Beirut and lectures in environmental management at the University of the West of England

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