Water management after the High Aswan Dam
Egypt has an ideal climate for agriculture. The summers are warm, but not too hot, and the winters are mild without frost.There is abundant sunshine year-round. If water is available, then the growing season can be 365 days a year. Agriculture has always been the principal user ot water in Egypt. Consequently, the history of water use and management systems is best understood as a sequence of agrarian and technological changes, together with the social and institutional dimensions associated with these changes.
From the time of the Pharaohs until the 16th century, Egyptian agriculture did not change substantially.The agricultural year had three seasons: inundation,growth, and harvest. Inundation, roughly late July through early October, was the period when the flood waters arrived from Ethiopia, and water rose from the riverbed to cover the land floodplain and delta to a depth of 1.0—1.5 m. They then gradually receded back into the riverbed as rains ceased in Ethiopia and the flood in Egypt soaked the soil and drained into the sea. The growth season, late October through February, was the period during which farmers planted their crops in the moist soil after the inundation and tended them while they grew to maturity on residual moisture stored in the soil profile. Harvest came in the spring and early summer, from March to early June, when the river flow was at its lowest before the flood arrived again. For millennia, Egyptian farmers used a complex network of artificial embankments, bunds, dikes, and excavated channels to divert and capture as much of the flood as they could in efforts to increase the amount of water stored in the soil before the planting season. This irrigation technolog)' ot canals and dikes allowed a single harvest per year per unit of land cultivated and depended on the annual flood and its uncertainties. Crops suffered when the flood was low and little moisture was retained, and farmers suffered when high floods washed away their earthen embankments and canals. The system was labor-intensive, requiring farmers to frequently rebuild dikes and canals, and it needed a significant degree of social organization to mobilize the large labor force to maintain the earthen structures (Postel 1999:31—35).
The basin system was transformed in the 19th century due to the efforts of the Egyptian state, initially led by the Egyptian ruling family and then by the British authorities who occupied Egypt in 1882 (Rivlin 1961; Richards 1978).The motivation tor agrarian transformation was cotton production to feed European factories. While the Egyptian climate is conducive to cotton, the natural regime of the Nile is not. Cotton needs to be planted in April, enjoy a long period of growth throughout the summer, finally to be harvested in October.The technological solution was to build a series ot barrages across the river, raise water levels during the low-flow season, and divert water into canals that flowed by gravity to the point where water could be applied to the fields. As cotton production expanded, more water was needed than flowed in the river during the spring; therefore, an over-season storage facility was built at Aswan to capture the tail end ot the flood and store it in a reservoir until it would be released in the spring at the time of cotton planting. When it was built in 1902, the dam at Aswan was the largest dam in the world, eventually raised to allow capture of 5 bcm of flood water for later timely release to irrigate cotton downstream. But the Aswan dam and all other hydraulic structures together still did not have the capacity to completely free Egypt from the annual cycle of flood and low water, nor did they capture enough water to allow conversion of all Egyptian farmland from seasonal to perennial cultivation.
In the summer of 1952, the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown and a republic was soon established. Within months, the new government announced its priorities in the water management sector: construction of the HAD to enable intensification of agricultural production in the old lands of the Nile valley and delta, and expansion of agriculture into the desert regions by using Nile water that otherwise would flow into the Mediterranean. In the decades that followed, a number ot other important developments took place as a consequence of these efforts. Government institutions associated with water management in agriculture and other sectors expanded. Parallel to the irrigation infrastructure, a national infrastructure to collect and channel agricultural drainage water was created to protect perennially irrigated agricultural lands from water logging and salinization.The drainage infrastructure enabled farmers to utilize drainage water when access to freshwater was restricted. Horizontal expansion of agriculture into the desert fringe brought new opportunities, but it also profoundly raised the need to provide more irrigation water than originally anticipated. In response to the need for more water to meet the rising demand, the government implemented an extensive (and expensive) program of irrigation improvement in the old lands. The ultimate goal of increasing water use efficiency was to realize water savings to meet the needs of the new lands. Finally, contemporaneously with horizontal agricultural expansion, the government undertook a massive program to build new cities and industrial centers in the desert areas.The new urban developments required their own demands tor water.
Agricultural expansion into the desert is the largest source of increased water demand since the construction of the HAD. There has not been a formal agricultural census in Egypt since the 1960s, when the cultivated area was close to 2.5 million ha (Hereher 2013:83), and contemporary estimates vary. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA 2011:17—18) estimates the 2010 total cultivated area at 3.3 million ha, Hereher (2013:88) estimates at 3.7 million ha; and Molle (2019:271) estimates at 3.8 million ha. Desert reclamation continues, although there is also loss of land to urban growth; however, it is reasonable to expect a net gain of perhaps 40,000 ha per year. Overall, the new agricultural land created by both public and private efforts since 1970 accounts for 35—40% of the total land cultivated at present (ICARDA 2011:17; Hereher 2013:88).
The institutional responsibility for managing Egypt’s water resources has evolved considerably over the past few decades, largely as a result of the country’s economic growth and diversification. However, one feature has not changed. Since agriculture continues to utilize the great majority of water resources, there is a division of management between the MWRI and the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR).The two ministries have different objectives and mandates, often pursue conflicting policies, and display stark contrasts in terms of strategies and actions with regard to water management (Molle, 2019:258). The MWRI operates the HAD and its Lake Nasser reservoir, determines releases from the dam, and manages downstream hydraulic control and conveyance structures such as river barrages, irrigation canals, regulators, sluice gates, etc. MWRI staff regulate the flow of water through the canal system from the HAD through the hierarchy of conveyance canals to the local branch canals that provide water to the farmer-owned distributary canals. If the MWRI is responsible for providing water to farmers (and also tor the return flow or disposal of drainage), then the MALR is concerned with how that water is used and consumed in the fields. The MALR is responsible for the well-being of Egypt’s agricultural sector through improving productivity, expanding cultivation, and supporting the competitiveness ot cropping systems and agricultural enterprises. Following construction of the HAD, the MALR acquired the lead role in implementing the government’s desert reclamation schemes, particularly in the development of new farms and farming communities. However, the MWRI continued to be responsible for providing water to the new lands. This interdependency can be not only a basis of cooperation, but also a source of friction, competition, and fault lines between the two ministries.
A third ministry—the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities (MHUUC)— has become prominent in the national water management system. Successive Egyptian governments have pursued ambitious policies of urban expansion and given MHUUC responsibilities for new urban communities, as well as the provision ot potable water to their residents, industries, and institutional infrastructure. MHUUC operates the collection and processing ot all urban sewerage and wastewater. It is also responsible for rural potable water supplies and sanitation. All this is done through the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater, which MHUUC oversees. The relative importance of potable water supply, as well as sewage and wastewater treatment, has grown rapidly with the expansion of the population and urban areas. Ultimately, municipal water supply depends on Nile water provided through the hydraulic infrastructure operated by the MWRI.