Sustainable water resource management in Egypt
Richard N. Tutwiler
Water scarcity is the existential specter haunting Egypt’s future. The inescapable reality is that Egypt depends on a single source tor its renewable water supply, that is, the Nile River. The Nile arises thousands of kilometers south ot the country’s borders and makes its way through circumstances and territories that Egypt cannot control. Egypt’s water lifeline faces unprecedented threats, both external and internal to the country. Externally, upstream states in the Nile basin are taking measures to harness and divert Nile waters for their own national goals and purposes, which could reduce the amount ot Nile water reaching Egypt. Moreover, regional climate change could have significant impacts on the flows of the Nile throughout the basin, especially through changes in long-term rainfall patterns in the Ethiopian highlands that provide over two-thirds of the water reaching Egypt. Increasing atmospheric temperatures will result in additional surface evaporation in the basin, which already loses over a quarter ot its annual discharge before it reaches the sea (Evans 1994:53). Internally, threats to Egypt’s water resources emanate from population growth and economic development that create more demand for water consumption. Simultaneously, there are unprecedented levels of solid and liquid waste that pollute and degrade water resources and reduce the amount ot water that can be safely used. Achieving sustainable water management in Egypt will require long-term policy and strategy measures that reconcile increasing water demand and changing modes of consumption with the environmental constraint of limited water availability.
The statistics are alarming. In the 50 years since the High Aswan Dam (HAD) became operational and impounded the annual Nile flood, the amount of Nile water annually available to Egypt has been about 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) (MWR1 2018:6). In 1970, Egypt’s population was about 34.5 million people, with almost 1,750 cubic meters (cm) of renewable water available per person per year. Since then, Egypt passed the United Nations threshold for designation as a water scarce country (less than 1,000 cm/p/year of renewable water). In 2019, the country’s population was estimated at 101.2 million, with about 590 cm available per person per year. In August of the same year, the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) announced that the country needs 114 bcm annually and that plans were in place to make up the deficit ot available fresh water though increased water recycling, increased pumping of nonrenewable groundwater, and utilization of nonconventional water sources (Cairo Herald 2019).
This chapter considers the prospects for sustainable water management in Egypt, with a focus on the changing nature of water use, shifting management objectives, and environmental uncertainty.The remainder ot the chapter is organized as follows: the next section begins with an inventory of Egypt’s water resources.The section entitled “Water management after the High Aswan Dam” provides a brief history of water management systems, followed by the section “National water resource plans,” which describes water management visions and strategies incorporated in official national plans announced in 2005 and 2018. The section “Adapting to climate change” considers water management in the context of climate change and the imperative to ensure adequate access to water for Egyptians. Finally, the chapter concludes with prospects for sustainable water resource management in Egypt in the coming decades.
Egypt’s water resources
Egypt is a desert country with an area ot approximately 1 million km2. However, due to the lack of rainfall, only a small fraction of this land is inhabited. The country’s population is confined to the narrow Nile River valley that bisects the country from north to south, ending in the north with the broad, fan-shaped Nile delta where the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea. The country depends on the Nile tor its water consumption, but the river itself has its sources far outside Egypt, the principal tributaries being the Blue Nile, arising in the highlands of Ethiopia, and the White Nile, arising in the Equatorial Lakes region ot Central Africa.
Water flows into the Nile vary greatly by season, being principally fed by runoff from the summer monsoon rains in Ethiopia, which are highly variable in intensity and quantity from year to year. Over 80% of the water reaching Aswan in southern Egypt has its origin in Ethiopia, coming as flood water in the Blue Nile, Sobat, and Atbara tributaries from June to September. The lack of predictability of the annual Nile flood is legendary, with a standard deviation in annual flow approaching 50% (Ibrahim and Ibrahim 2003:73).
The HAD was built during the 1960s to free Egypt from the vagaries of the Nile’s flow. By capturing roughly two years (164 bcm capacity) of river flow as storage in the HAD reservoir, Egyptian water managers were able to effect a complete transformation of water utilization downstream (Tutwiler 2007:83—84). In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed the Agreement for theTotal Utilization of Nile Waters that allowed the construction ot the HAD and the permanent flooding of parts of both countries upstream of the dam. The treaty also allocated the water flowing in the river between the two countries. It utilized the figure ot 84 bcm for annual average Nile flow and allocated 55.5 bcm to Egypt, 18.5 bcm to Sudan, and 10 bcm to evaporation from Lake Nasser.The 55.5 bcm figure has served as the foundation of Egyptian strategic water management ever since, and it represents about 90% ot the national water budget (MWRI 2005:128). Actual release figures since 1974 have, on average, slightly exceeded estimates (El-Bastawesy et al. 2007:1), and only in 1988, after prolonged drought in Ethiopia severely reduced flows into the HAD, releases fell below 55.5 bcm (International Center tor Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas [ICARDA] 2011:33).
Although a minor water source in comparison with the Nile River, groundwater is nonetheless a significant and precious resource within the country’s boundaries. Groundwater resources are of two types: renewable and nonrenewable. Renewable groundwater consists of water within geological formations that is recharged from another source. In the case of Egypt, the principal renewable groundwater resources are the Nile aquifer and the Moghra complex. Both are recharged by seepage from the Nile surface flow. The Nile aquifer consists ot alluvial deposits of sand, gravel, and clay that sit below the land surface and topsoil at varying depths in the Nile valley and delta regions.The Nile aquifer absorbs excess irrigation water as well as seepage from the Nile River and the network of unlined irrigation canals. Although renewable, the quality of groundwater in the valley and delta reflects its origins and varies tremendously from one place to another, usually deteriorating as one moves from south to north. Groundwater in the northern half ot the delta can be of very low quality, infused with pollutants from upstream waste and salts from the local soils (1CARDA 2011;Al-Agha et al. 2015). Given the ubiquitous nature of farmers pumping from shallow wells, estimates of total annual extractions from the Nile aquifer vary widely, from about 2.3 up to 6.1 bent per year (1CARDA 2011:35; MWR1 2005:10). Recharge rates for the Nile aquifer are difficult to determine. For the delta alone, researchers have offered figures ranging from 3.8 to 6.8 (Al-Agha et al. 2015:12). It should be noted that excessive groundwater extraction in the northern delta is seen as a contributing factor to seawater intrusion into the water table in these areas (Al-Agha et al. 2015:17).
The second important source of renewable groundwater is a complex of geological formations lying to the west of the delta, generally known as the Moghra aquifer (Massoud et al. 2014; Khalifa 2014). Like the Nile aquifer from which it is replenished, the Moghra formations consist primarily of deposits ot sand, gravel, and clay, but they he deeper underground than the Nile aquifer, and water extraction requires deep wells and relatively high operating costs. Beginning in the 1980s, water from this aquifer was used to enable agricultural, industrial, and urban development along the Cairo—Alexandria desert highway. Development has put severe pressure on groundwater resources. Static levels in wells have fallen sharply over the past two decades, and salinity levels are rising alarmingly. Estimates ot total extractions from the aquifer vary, but it the residential and industrial areas of Sadat City are included in the total, it may be as high as 1.0 bem per year and not lower than 0.5 bem (Massoud et al. 2014:140; Khalifa 2014:138—139). The present trajectory ot development reliant on groundwater extraction in this area does not appear to be sustainable.
The principal nonrenewable groundwater resource in Egypt is the Nubian Sandstone Complex underlying much of the Western Desert, including large parts of Sudan, Chad, and Libya. The amount ot water held in the aquifer has yet to be definitively quantified, but the general consensus is that the amount of stored water in the aquifer, in its many parts, is vast. The Center for Environment and Development in the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE) estimated that there are 2,183 bem of extractable water in the portion ot the aquifer underlying southern Egypt and another 2,985 bem of water in the “post Nubian” aquifer underlying the northern part of the Western Desert (CEDARE 2000:66). CEDARE noted possible issues regarding water quality (salinity') in the post-Nubian aquifer, but generally good to excellent quality in the Nubian sandstone proper. Extraction of groundwater on a larger scale began in the Western Desert during the 1960s as part ot President Nassers “New Valley Project” to establish agriculture and new settlements. In 2000, about 0.57 bem of water was being utilized per year using deep wells. A decade later, the rate was three times as much and with an estimated potential extraction rate ot 3.5 bem (MWR1 2005; ICARDA 2011:35). In contrast to previous reclamation plans utilizing Nile water, groundwater extraction forms the basis ot much of the governments present desert development efforts.
As noted previously, Egypt receives very little rainfall. Estimated annual useable rainfall is 1.3 bem, falling primarily along the northern coastal regions between November and January. While rare, storms and flash floods can occur in the Sinai and Nile valley and delta. Coastal rainfall averages vary from 80 mm in the drier western regions to 280 mm at El Arish on the border with Gaza (ICARDA 2011:34). Under these conditions, it is possible to sustain modest production ot olives, figs, and other fruits utilizing runoff rainwater harvesting techniques, but raising field crops ot grain or legumes is not reliable. The use of available rainfall is of only minor interest in Egypt’s national water budgets and management strategies (MWRI 2005, 2018). There may be some potential to capture flash flood waters for later use in narrow dry water courses in the Sinai and desert fringes ot the Nile valley in southern Egypt (MWRI 2005,2018).
Utilization ot nonconventional water resources is of great interest to Egypt’s water strategists and planners. Nonconventional water includes reused and recycled water, distinguished by the degree of treatment the water receives before it is reused. Egypt has a long history of water reuse, based upon the reuse of agricultural drainage water directly without any treatment to remove pollutants. The most recent estimates (2017) project about 9.31 bcm of agricultural drainage water in the irrigation system. Molle (2019:249) notes that this is more than double the figure estimated for 2005. Calculations of drainage water reuse are complicated by the many ways that it can be accessed by farmers.The figures provided by MWRI officials tend to be based on the system’s infrastructure, that is, the amount of water in agricultural drains that is reused for irrigation purposes, but another dimension of reuse is the extraction of shallow groundwater in the valley and delta. This groundwater is little more than excess irrigation water that has percolated the soil as a result of the prevailing farmer irrigation practice of flooding fields. As fresh water for irrigation becomes less available, farmers have resorted to the conjunctive use of fresh water and drainage water for irrigation.The Salam Canal Project, a massive government project begun in the 1990s, combines fresh Nile water and water from agricultural drains in the northeast delta for use in irrigating 168,000 ha of reclaimed lands in the east delta and across the Suez Canal in Sinai (Molle 2019:250).
Recycled wastewater, primarily sewerage and industrial effluent, is a target tor augmenting Egypt’s useable water resources. In order to be used safely, wastewater must be treated to remove pollutants harmful to health and the environment. This is typically done in municipal sanitary treatment facilities. Once the treated wastewater (TWW) has met specified standards, it is released into the environment.The MWRI (2005:112) estimated the total volume of wastewater discharge in 2000 at 3.3 bcm, with half of this being treated for recycled use. The other half was directly discharged into the Nile, the canal system, or the agricultural drains.The MWRI estimated that wastewater production would rise to 4.7 bcm in 2017. The current national water plan seeks to recover 6.1 bcm ofTWW per year by 2037 (Molle 2019). Currently, the majority ofTWW is produced from several large plants serving greater Cairo, including the new urban areas of New Cairo, 10th ot Ramadan City, and 6th of October City. TWW is recycled primarily for use in irrigating urban landscaping and golf courses, but it has been recently announced that the government is joining other Arab countries and adopting guidelines for permitting TWW use in agriculture (Egypt Today, 25 February 2018).
The last type ot nonconventional water in Egypt’s resource inventory is seawater or brackish groundwater from which salt and other pollutants have been removed. While a number of processes are available to desalinate water, all of them involve substantial materials and energy costs. Egypt has several desalination plants in operation, mainly on the Red Sea and Sinai coasts. They primarily serve the recreational tourist industry in those areas where revenues from hotels and holiday destinations can offset the high energy costs of desalination. Estimates for desalinated water production show rapid growth since 2006, although overall volumes are still low: 0.1 bem/yr in 2006; 0.23 bem/yr in 2015, and a projected 0.5 bcm in 2020 (Batisha 2007:339; EgyptianStreets 2017).The current water resources plan includes provisions to further expand the number of desalination plants targeting mainly coastal holiday communities and municipal uses.