Egypt: How the World’s Driest Country Seeks to Safeguard Water Supply

Faced with a growing population, the threat from global warming as well as regional tensions over the distribution of Nile water, Egypt’s government has dedicated itself to a four-pronged strategy to safeguard water supply for coming decades, our correspondent in Cairo writes.

It is safe to say that the biggest challenge that the government of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is facing is how to supply the population of 105 million and the economy of this vast nation with fresh water. The president therefore personally addressed the Cairo Water Week in October, the fourth such annual conference held in a row.

The conference, which ran under the headline of ‘Water, Population and Global Changes, Challenges and Opportunities’ attracted an audience of ministers, academics, company executives and civil society experts, all looking to exchange their insights on how to find sustainable solutions for managing water resources to face the population increase and the changes, including a shift in land use and climate, as well as hydrological systems.

In his speech to participants in the fourth session of Cairo Water Week, El-Sisi said, “the choice of the theme for Cairo Water Week, which is ‘Water, Population and Global Changes: Opportunities and Challenges’ comes at a time when the world is witnessing rapid changes affecting water resources and making their optimal management practical very complicated.”

A Huge Challenge for Arid Nations

There is no doubt that the water crisis is one of the most pressing international challenges due to the increase in the population. Governments across the world grapple with the stability of fresh water sources, as well as environmental degradation and climate change.

All of these factors contribute to the exacerbation of the crisis and affect the ability of countries to meet the water needs of their people, which turns the issue of managing water resources into a challenge that affects the security and safety of countries and peoples, and may affect the stability of entire regions.

Working With the International Community

In light of this international crisis, and based on Egypt’s belief in international cooperation and multilateral action, with the United Nations system at the heart, Egypt has engaged in the “UN Water Decade 2018-2028”. Egypt actively participated in its various stages and coordinated with a number of friendly countries to launch the statement of the course of the Water Decade and the upcoming UN conference to review of the Water Decade in March 2023.

Egypt welcomed placing the Cairo Water Week of October 2022 on the path of the International Water Decade, to open a comprehensive discussion among stakeholders from governments, civil society, experts, academics, women and youth. The aim of this is to advance international efforts to confront water challenges, especially with regard to water scarcity, securing human access to it, and strengthening cross-border cooperation in order to build complementary frameworks that consolidate regional stability based on mutual benefit and common interests.

$50 Billion for an Ambitious National Water Program

The Egyptian government believes that advancing development efforts is a prerequisite for strengthening international peace and security and establishing a stable world order. That is why the nation has adopted its vision ‘Egypt 2030’, an ambitious national program that addresses all walks of life. Egypt has developed a strategic plan for managing water resources until 2037, at an estimated cost of $50 billion. This may double over time and the plan revolves around four main axes:

– Improving water quality, including the establishment of dual and triple treatment plants.

– Developing new water resources, such as through the application of desalination technology.

–  Rationalizing the use of water resources and raising the efficiency of the Egyptian irrigation system. The state has adopted a national project to line canals and switch to modern irrigation systems in order to achieve the maximum possible benefit from its limited water resources.

– Creating the appropriate environment in line with work programs and water projects. This is achieved through legislative and institutional development and raising citizens’ awareness of the importance of rationalizing water and preserving it from all forms of waste and pollution.

Considering that funding Egypt’s strategic plan for managing water resources represents a major challenge, Minister of Irrigation Abdel Aty stated that the Egyptian government has already developed programs to finance and procure the necessary funds to implement this plan. He indicated that financing programs would be announced soon, as well as the companies participating in the implementation of the plan and benefiting from it.

A Model of What Is in Store for the World

The national plan is addressing a number of key issues, such as water poverty levels. Egypt’s per capita share of water is 560 cubic meters annually, compared with the UN’s water poverty definition of 1,000 cubic meters. Egypt is the driest country in the world with the lowest level of rainfall. The country is almost exclusively dependent on the waters of the Nile River, which originates outside its borders. Egypt easily qualifies as an early example of what the situation in many countries may look like in the near future.

It comes as no surprise that the Egyptian people are closely following the developments of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Egypt hopes to reach a balanced and legally binding agreement in this regard in line with the statement issued by the Security Council in September 2021. It will help Ethiopia achieve its development goals, while limiting the impact on the water supply and the environment, as well as social and economic damages in Egypt and Sudan.

In this context, Mohamed Abdel-Aty, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, revealed the magnitude of the challenges facing Egypt:

“Egypt is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with water resources estimated at 55.5 billion cubic meters annually, most of which comes from the Nile River, in addition to very limited amounts of rainwater and deep groundwater in deserts. In contrast, the total water needs in Egypt amounts to about 114 billion cubic meters of water annually. This gap is compensated by the reuse of agricultural wastewater and surface groundwater in the valley and the delta.”

Eman Sayed, head of the planning sector at the Ministry of Irrigation, emphasized the importance of the water management plan for the country’s economy: “This plan pays special attention to the middle years of 2020 to 2030, for several reasons, including that Egypt has prepared a sustainable development strategy for the country until 2030, with the aim of placing Egypt among the top 30 countries in the world economically and socially by 2030. This year also corresponds with the method of the five-year plans for financial planning that Egypt will turn to again starting from the year 2020, which is why it was called the National Water Resources Plan 2037.”

The plan aims to achieve Egyptian water security

Egypt developed the strategy faced with a growing deficit in water resources, and the dependence on the Nile River as a main source of water (93% of the total traditional resources and 97% of fresh surface water).

Over the past decades, Egypt has pursued different approaches in managing its water resources, starting with a development approach, where the focus was on the relative abundance of water resources, to an inter-sectoral allocation approach, and finally, an integrated water resources management approach.

Previous Policies in Water Resources Management

In 1929, an agreement was signed between Egypt and the U.K. on behalf of Sudan to ratify the rights of each country to the waters of the Nile. Under this agreement, Egypt implemented in 1933 a water policy that relied on taking advantage of storing excess water in front of the old Aswan reservoir after its second ramp.

From 1959 to 1970, Egypt built the High Dam, and this included the signing of the agreement to divide the Nile waters between Egypt and Sudan in 1959, according to which Egypt’s share became 55.5 billion cubic meters per year. In 1975, the Ministry of Irrigation prepared a policy based on rationalization due to the increasing water needs. In 1980, the Ministry of Irrigation prepared a plan for the next twenty years, i.e. through the year 2000.

The period from 1980 to 2000 saw the implementation of a plan for reusing agricultural drainage water and expanding the use of groundwater. In 1977, the Ministry began preparing a master plan for water management. In 1994, the Ministry of Irrigation and the Land Reclamation Authority prepared a plan for agricultural expansion.

In the years from 2000 to 2005, the Ministry of Irrigation, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Program, prepared a plan for managing water resources at the national level to meet the needs during that period, in addition to expanding reliance on the reuse of agricultural drainage water.

Starting in 2005 and through 2017, the government decided on The National Water Resources Plan. In 2021, Egypt launched a strategy for managing water resources until 2050, within the axes of the National Water Resources Plan (2017/2037).

The Challenges Facing Egypt

-Population increase: This increase represents a major challenge to water resources. It is expected that the total population in Egypt will reach 188.5 million people by 2050. Already a nation suffering from water scarcity according the World Bank measures, the projected increase in population will further aggravate the situation.

Establishment of the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia: The dam impacts the water level of the Nile as a main source of water in Egypt.

Climate change: The rise in temperature is increasing the problem for the country. Extreme and unprecedented weather phenomena such as intense rain in specific areas of the country and the rise of the sea level and its negative impact on cities and coastal area add to the woes.

Traditional farming methods: The method of using field irrigation consumes a large amount of water, so the country has started to turn to modern irrigation methods.

Pollution of waterways: Increased agricultural pollution in Damietta and Rashid branches as a result of sanitation and agricultural sewage. As a result, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation suspended the implementation of a number of agricultural wastewater reuse projects.

In light of these challenges, the government of Egypt is keen to place the water issue on top of its political agenda and the Strategic Plan 2050 serves as a roadmap to secure the water needs of the Egyptian citizen.

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