September 16, 2011 -
Ronald de Hommel
20 million then, 80 million nowadays, 150 million in the near future. Egypt’s population is exploding. All these people have to share the same amount of water, that mainly comes from Egypt’s lifeline the Nile. According to a recent study, Egypt’s demand for water will exceed the supply in 2017. How to avoid such a situation? Will there be enough water for all?
Dr. Mohamed Waeer has a very vivid memory of the first years of DINA farm. ‘In the beginning, we slept in tents, because there was nothing here, just desert´, tells the manager of the livestock division of DINA farm, in an air-conditioned meeting room 150 kilometres north of Cairo.
Those early days of DINA farm in ´tents in the desert´ sound like from another era, but in fact it’s little more than twenty years ago. Since then, the region along the Desert Road between the two Egyptian metropolises Cairo and Alexandria has changed dramatically. After Desert Road was expanded into a four-lane highway, residential areas developed, industry sprung up on both side of the road and more sand was turned into agricultural land. By now, DINA farm has become the biggest dairy farm in Egypt and one of the biggest in the Middle East, with more than 7.000 milking cows.The company owns 10.000 acres of land, that are irrigated by several gigantic pivoting sprinkler installations from wells that are over a hundred metres deep. DINA farm produces potatoes, fruits, vegetables and dairy products, that are sold in Egypt and abroad.
Agriculture, in the desert? According to Dr. Waeer, agriculture in the Egyptian desert makes sense. `Traditionally farming in Egypt was restricted to the Nile valley and delta. These regions are very intensively used. There`s no space left there, so the only place for expansion is the desert. There`s enough space, the soil is clean and there`s sufficient water.´ In order to prove this last point, Waeer shows one of the 120 wells that have been dug on the grounds of the 10.000 acre farm. `These wells go down to a depth of over a 100 metres. We`re fine with water supplies, in all these years the groundwater level did not sink substantially.`
The next day, in Cairo. Mr Boissevain, a Dutch consultant working for an irrigation project on behalf of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, tells another story. `Farms along the Desert Road do have serious problems with water shortages. Desert farming in Egypt is feasible, but it’s reaching its limits. We cannot expand agricultural areas infinitely.`
Although Waeer does not want to admit that his farm has problems with water shortages, he does mention that DINA farm is hoping for a branch canal that has been promised for many years, to bring water from the nearby Nile. So far, this hasn`t happened yet.
Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water in Egypt: roughly 80% of all water goes to agriculture. The amount of water available for Egypt is fixed. In 1929 and 1959, Egypt signed international agreements in order to regulate the division of Nile water. Since that year, Egypt is entitled to 55,5 cubic billion metres (CBM) of water annually, or in other words, 55,5 cubic kilometres of water each year. Another 18,5 CBM of water is allotted to Sudan. The remaining water is theoretically to be shared by the Nile countries further upstream. Since the remainder is mostly lost through evaporation the other Nile Basin countries, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ruanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are practically excluded from putting the Nile water to use.
In order to avoid floods and to have a better control over the river water, Egypt built a gigantic dam on the Nile, at the point where the river enters the country. With the help of the Soviet Union, the High Aswan Dam was constructed in the 1960-ties, which created lake Nasser. One of the main problems nowadays is the fact that the gigantic lake surface in the middle of the desert causes an almost unbelievable annual evaporation of about fifteen square kilometres of river water. This is almost a quarter of the annual flow of the Nile.
In order to avoid this ´useless´ evaporation, other Nile countries further upstream, especially Ethiopia, have developed plans to build their own dams. According to Ethiopia, a dam on its territory would have clear advantages: an artificial lake in Ethiopia would be constructed at higher altitudes, where temperatures are lower and thus evaporation is less strong. Further, a lake in the mountains would mean steeper slopes, which also means a deeper lake with a smaller evaporation surface.
Although the plan sounds logical, so far Egypt refused to discuss this option. `The former Minister of Water was not really what you would call a very diplomatic person`, tells Mr. Boissevain at the Ministry of Water. `In fact, in 2009 he openly threatened Ethiopia with war in case it would construct such a dam.’
Since the revolution in Egypt in February 2011, things are moving in the country. The new Minister of Water, professor Hussein El Atfy, has been working at the Ministry for almost all his life. He is a very knowledgeable and diplomatic man and not likely to use the same sort of aggressive language.
No more wars
In fact, talking is the only option, according to Dr. Rauf Darwish, Managing Director of Darwish Consulting Engineers in Cairo and member of several international high-level advisory committees on water issues. Dr. Darwish understands the worries of his government about the future availability of water, but according to him the only option is to keep talking with the neighbours upstream. ‘What other options do we have? I am 63 years old now. I have lived through the wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. That was enough for me. We have to come to a common level of understanding with our neighbours. All the countries along the Nile are in a sort of marriage with each other. In a marriage you first have to agree on rules and then you have to make compromises in order to be able to live with each other.’
Sudan, Ethiopia, Ruanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo: not only Egypt wants Nile water. During the past decade, these countries went through a process of economic development, their populations grew, their agricultural sector expanded, their demand for water grew. With the exception of Egypt and Sudan, all the Nile basin countries have become increasingly dissatisfied with the division of Nile water, as it was agreed upon in the 1959 international Treaty. This Treaty was designed during a time that Britain still ruled over its East African colonies. The United Kingdom had an interest at that time in receiving as much water as possible in present-day Egypt and Sudan.
In 2009, all Nile countries except for Egypt and Sudan started the so-called Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 2009. Since then politicians in Egypt and Sudan have been in a state of alarm. The Nile basin countries announced they want a bigger share of the Nile water for their development. Ethiopia even started already with the construction of dams in the Nile headwaters. Sudan and Egypt frantically disagree with the plans of the upstream countries.
Instead of threatening other countries with war, Dr. Darwish sees much more potential in water saving measures. Since roughly 80 percent of the annual 55,5 Billion cubic meters of Nile water that Egypt receives goes to agriculture, the biggest savings in water use can be achieved here. Darwish: ‘Since 1959, when our government agreed on the division of the water of the Nile, the population of Egypt has increased from 20 million people to more than 80 million. We have to increase our water saving efforts, we have to look for other water resources; we have to recycle water. Trying to renegotiate the shares of water on the international level will not bring us anywhere; it will only distract us from the real issue. We have to keep on talking as international partners. It’s our only option. Could a water war be possible? Anything is possible…’
According to Mr. Boissevain, one of the main issues to address in the near future is population growth. `I know it is a sensitive issue, but there is no way around it. How does Egypt want to deal with an annual population growth rate of 2,5%?` Each nine months, Egypt has one million of mouths more to feed.
Boissevain also suggests the Egyptian government to rethink its policy of expanding the agricultural area in Egypt in order to provide food security. ´Egypt wants a horizontal expansion, that means a geographical spreading of new agricultural areas in the desert. This means expansion along the Cairo – Alexandria Desert Road, expansion in the north of the Sinai desert through the construction of new canals, expansion in the direction of Ismalia and then there`s the huge development scheme in Toshka in the extremne south of the country. According to me, this plan is really a white elephant, with a planned 500.000 acres of new desert agricultural land. Toshka is an engineers´ dream and an economists` nightmare.´
Boissevain agrees with Darwish that Egypt should focus on more efficient water use in agriculture. Boissevain: `Egypt is already under the UN norm of water availability per person: each Egyptian has access to 750 liters of water per year, whereas the minimum according to UN standards should be 1000 litres. Therefore, we need a combination of measures. We need for instance more efficiency in the field of irrigation. Much water is lost through leakages in the existing irrigation system, we have to address that. Further, there are different ways of irrigation: flood irrigation, drip irrigation, etc. We have to adapt the irrigation systems better.` Another way to influence water usage is through a stricter selection of the agricultural produce. Boissevain: `There`s a maximum amount of rice which is allowed to be produced annually, because rice uses up to ten times more water than other crops. But since rice is a popular cash crop, Egyptian farmers tend to produce more than allowed. Some farmers even accept the fines they have to pay and keep on producing rice.` Sugar cane is another very water-intensive product.
Boissevain is reluctant to promote the use of fossil water aquifers. `Egypt should first make some strategic choices: how far does it want to expand its desert agriculture? We should be very careful with the use of fossil aquifers. This water resource is not renewable. Once you have started to pump up the water, you might get saline water. This water, which is being used for irrigation, sometimes creates new lakes which might cause problems witn salinity.`
Water pricing, which would be an incentive in Europe to make people use their water more efficient, functions only in a very limited way in Egypt. Darwish: `Water is regarded by the Egyptians as a gift from God, it is something you cannot put a price tag on. Still, there are ways around it. You can make people pay for the services, such as the delivery of water, the drainage system, etc.´
Another problem related to the construction of lake Nasser, is the reduced flow of water through the Nile. Less sediments than before are travelling down the river, which also means that less fertile soil arrives in the delta. This also leads to a sinking soil level, which is problematic in times of climate change. Further, because of the reduced flow of Nile water, salty Mediterranean sea water intrudes into the Nile delta. Therefore, some scientists are even suggesting the construction of a gigantic dam or other water work, in order to control the inflow of water into the Nile delta. Such a construction could also protect the delta against an increasing sea level in the Mediterranean.
Since the pressure on Egypt`s water in increasing, one has to keep other options in mind as well in order to be able to provide the country with sufficient water. One option is desalination of sea water. This is already being done in some remote villages on the Mediterranean coast, but only in areas where it is not feasible to construct groundwater pipelines. Desalination is however very costly.
An international option to increase the flow of Nile water would be to re-start the construction of the planned Jonglei Canal through the Sudd marshes in Sudan. This canal which has been planned in the seventies, would channel water from the vast Sudd marshes in southern Sudan in the direction of Egypt. The Sudd region is one of Africa`s most important wetlands, where many migratory birds take their rest on their way to Europe. There are however serious negative effects to be expected from the construction of the canal. The draining of roughly 8 CBM of water from the region would not only mean the drying out of the wetlands, it could even lead to a regional change in climate, since the region is so vast. It could lead to desertification, that is why the plans for the canal are so controversial.
Construction of the Jonglei canal started in the eighties, but was halted in 1983 because of the civil war in Sudan. With the recent peace in the region and the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, the discussion about the need to construct the Jonglei canal will probably flare up again.
In the end of March, Alemayehu Tegenu, the Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy announced that the construction of a ´great Nile dam` will soon commence near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. By now, six of the nine Nile Basin countries have signed a new Nile water deal: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. This deal had been negotiated for over a decade. Although Egypt was oppsing the new deal and officially still is holding on to its position of having ´historical rights´ to its 55,5 billion cubic metres of water, the country will have to face the fact that Eastern Africa is developing fast. It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian revolution has brought changes to the willingness of Egypt to act as a real partner in water issues in the region.