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Solar-powered spray irrigation

How Egypt Can Achieve Water Security

by Tarek Erfan Shafey

Complacent about its Aswan High Dam reservoir levels and Nilewater share, Egypt wasted and mismanaged its water resources in recent decades; leading Egypt’s population; now 101 million and rising fast, to a growing water deficit. Water security is now further challenged by Ethiopia’s upcoming, huge dam on the Blue Nile, and rising heat and aridity with global warming. However, an integrated strategy to manage both water demand and supply, and utilize increasingly efficient and affordable new water technologies, can deliver the crucial water security for Egypt. Those are challenges and potential solutions shared by many countries, with lessons widely applicable elsewhere.

Costly, water-wasting, irrigation mega-projects helped land Egypt into its current “water stress”; defined as averaging below 1,000 cubic meters (m3) of water a year, per person. Egypt’s level is currently 600 m3 and falling, and is expected to drop below 500 m3; defined as “water scarcity”. Nilewater dominates freshwater sources with a an incoming annual quota officially set at 55.5 cubic kilometres (1km3 = 1 billion m3) but now under threat. Renewable groundwater (12 km3/year), is underused, as is rainwater (1.8 km3/year) except in the northwest and Sinai, where there is some use in winter crop and fruit tree growing, while on the Red Sea coast, a few small seawater desalination plants serve local tourist resorts. Recycling of wastewater and irrigation drainage, and water and sewage treatment, together add 20 km3/year, but with usage at 90 km3/year and climbing fast, the growing water deficit merits top policy priority and needs decisive action.

Water Demand Management

Egypt began a national water resources plan in 2017, but it is over-reliant on three highly costly and energy-intensive elements. Water desalination plants, planned to add 200 million m3/year by early 2022 and cost $600 million, sewage treatment plants, to add 2.1km3/year, costing $1.9 billion, plus water treatment plants; all state-built. Shifting to modern irrigation is another plan and is a main water saver, but is too gradual and is incomplete. There is much room for improvement, in terms of water demand management, boosting supply, and cost-efficiency. We start with demand management, where an effective population policy is crucial. Egypt can slow population growth to a manageable 130 million in 2070, instead of the unwieldy and problematic 190 million projected.

Water should be priced higher for all users to cut demand, with prices scaled in ascending order for uses such as drinking, home use, irrigation, energy, industry and tourism. The remarkably useful and hardy Senegalese khaya trees would replace water-wasting grass gardens and golf courses, while in (Muslim) Mosques all over the country, automatic water machines would allow water-efficient ritual ablution (washing) for prayer. Pricier water would help efficiently control and rationalize future demand. Irrigation, with 80% of use, is Egypt’s top water waster. Modern methods such as drip and spray irrigation dominate in the 2 million acres (feddans) of non-Nile Valley arable land.

Modern irrigation systems save plentiful water, but high purchase and maintenance costs are a deterrent, and with water still inexpensive, wasteful irrigation by inundation; only 45–50% efficient, persists in the Nile Valley and Delta. Of six million acres of arable land there, only one million receive modern irrigation. Its adoption should be promoted, in line with falling costs, rising efficiency and available state funding. Modern, metered and fool-proof water pumps are now available, with pumps and modern irrigation systems both operable in an efficient and environment-friendly manner via solar power. Pricey Nilewater, locally produced and discount-priced modern irrigation equipment and state guidance would together boost the latter’s demand and use.

Many irrigation and drainage canals are outdated and ill-maintained, causing pollution, water loss and scarcity; all worsened by over-irrigation, via diesel-fuelled water pumps, at many canal heads. Modern water pumps should be installed on farms for efficient and equitable water use, with state cost recovery via pricey water and enforcement of policy compliance via prospective heavy fines, water restriction and home electricity supply cut-off. Using modern irrigation would measurably relieve excess demand on irrigation and drainage canals, and allow more scope for efficient treatment and recycling of drainage water. The state could also pump, treat and add groundwater, but canals still need an overhaul and good maintenance; a costly but fundable and recoverable investment with great economic and public health benefits. Lining and covering many canals with recycled and reused plastic waste is another, highly recommended water saver, fundable by grants, state loans on favourable terms and technical assistance from friendly and international countries and donor organizations.

Agriculture’s role in water saving is crucial. Egypt faces a rising population, water demand, heat, aridity and water scarcity, while global warming is also making the Mediterranean Sea level rise, which in turn is causing rising soil and groundwater salinity in northern Egypt. Agriculture will need to be re-planned in light of this. To start, salt-tolerant trees and plants should be favoured in the north. In all of Egypt, water-efficient and profitable trees and plants merit priority. In particular, the water-hungry rice and sugarcane crops need to be replaced by their far better substitutes, quinoa and stevia, respectively, and Egypt will need to import more beef and camel meat from Sudan so as to save large amounts of water and arable land currently dedicated to water-intensive animal feed. Medicinal and aromatic plants, and 13 special trees for wood in different parts of Egypt with varying climates and soils, are all excellent adaptations. Lastly, genetic engineering is needed, so as to produce higher-yielding and more water-efficient crops.

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The Toshka Agricultural Project merits special mention. Begun in 1996, it aimed to irrigate and plant 500,000 acres of arable land southwest of Aswan. A fifth of that low-lying land is irrigable via groundwater seeping from the bed of the huge Aswan High Dam Lake to its east, while the other 400,000 acres was planned to be irrigated from the lake via very expensive water pumping mega-machines, irrigation canals, and more recently, large, cement-lined lakes. Since 1996, nearly $4 Billion has been spent, and since 2005, 80km3 (10% of all incoming Nilewater) has been pumped, but only about 100,000 acres have been planted and irrigated, and money and water wastage have been very high. It is now better to make do with the land already cultivated, to protect valuable state funds and Nilewater.

Further demand rationalization is needed. Heavy, water-intensive industries, based on Egypt’s mineral wealth, should be moved to the Mediterranean and especially the Red Sea coasts, so as to save precious Nilewater. Those industries would need to be in four special zones on each coast, with ports, far away from coastal tourism, with strict environment protection, and with access to abundant solar and wind power, and water desalinated, re-treated and reused more than once. In the populous Nile Valley and Delta, priority would be to lighter, more water-efficient and environment-friendly domestic consumer-oriented industries, and the services, agriculture and agribusiness sectors. Finally, Egypt’s home drinking water network, on which working-class families depends, is very poorly maintained, water-wasting, and provides low-quality and polluted water. The state needs to address this via loans.

Water Supply Management

Ethiopia is in the latter part of building its huge dam on the Blue Nile, with a capacity of 74 km3; to be filled in four years, with a 15 Gigawatt capacity of hydroelectric power a year, and irrigate 500,000 hectares. Egypt would surely be harmed, especially during the dam’s filling years. This dispute must be resolved, peacefully and satisfactorily, by Egypt’s skilled diplomats and experts, and via resolute negotiation, international law and incentives to Ethiopia. A formal, win-win and binding treaty is needed, reducing the dam’s capacity, prolonging its filling, limiting its use to hydropower, with no more Nilewater dams by Ethiopia. In return, Egypt can offer the energy and infrastructure-hungry Ethiopia exports of natural gas, light oil fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, liquid petroleum gas (to help refrigerate and transport Ethiopia’s food exports), electric power interconnection, road, railway and riverine trade and transport links, technical assistance in the electricity sector, and favourable Suez Canal shipping rates.

There is practically no scope for harvesting Blue Nile water, but plenty of opportunity with the White Nile, where a total of about 40 km3/year of water is harvestable in Sudan and South Sudan. The 360 km-long Jonglei Canal in South Sudan alone can recover at least 20 km/year of White Nile water wasted in the vast equatorial swampland there. Only 40km remain to be dug of this canal, which needs to be revived and completed. Other canals and water harvesting projects in South Sudan, a 12 km canal between Lake Victoria to the Nile in Uganda, and harvesting heavy seasonal floodwater in Sudan via channels flowing to the White Nile and Nile, can recover the remaining 20km/year.

The full potential of sewage treatment, water treatment, desalination and reuse is estimated at 40 km3/year. However, due to their high costs and energy intensity, those plants need to run on concentrated solar power, and be built via the highly beneficial Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) international investments (widespread and successful in Africa), whereby investors build the plants, charge fees for their services and water, recover their costs plus a moderate, pre-agreed profit, and finally deliver the plants free of charge to Egypt’s state. Seawater desalination’s rising efficiency and falling costs are good news. Still-high costs only allow use for homes, industry and tourism in coastal cities, where they are already important, but future prospects are bright, and eventually irrigation in the northwest and northern Sinai will become economic, which will be a great breakthrough for Egypt.

A qualified desalination research team at The American University in Cairo in 2014 made a breakthrough. Using specialized nanotechnology, the team devised a special water desalination membrane, with a US patent approval. This membrane yields 50% more freshwater and uses less energy; thereby cutting desalination plant installation and operation costs. If Egypt can augment this research and produce plant components domestically, all desalination would become economic, and with future component exports also possible. Standalone, solar-powered units could even desalinate brackish groundwater in remote areas where needed, including in the vast Western Desert.

Rainwater can be used better. Mediterranean coast rain alone can feed barley, grape, olive, fig and cactus crops and trees. With winter rain, groundwater, future desalinated water for irrigation, and favorable climate and location, Egypt’s northwest and northern Sinai can successfully export well-chosen, sandy soil-friendly and high-profit fruits in wide demand, as well as helping achieve a high degree of domestic self-sufficiency in the important wheat crop. Surplus rainwater there, pure and drinkable, is stored in clean limestone wells, which is also feasible in the less rainy, Nile Delta + the Western Desert oases. On the mountains of eastern Egypt and Sinai, rain falls in infrequent but heavy downpours, is as pure, and can be harvested via small, inexpensive dams. Egypt’s harvestable total of rain water and snowmelt is at least 100 million m3/year for irrigation and home use, especially in the Sinai Peninsula.

Groundwater also holds great promise in Egypt. Most important are the vast Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (shared with Libya, Sudan and Chad); the world’s largest known groundwater table, and the Sinai Peninsula ground water table (shared with Israel). Egypt’s shares are 90,000 km3 and 120km3, respectively, and the country would benefit from formal and binding water-sharing treaties with its neighbours. The Peace Canal also brings Nilewater to northern Sinai, thus freeing up groundwater, rainwater, flash floodwater and snowmelt for use in Sinai’s interior.

All this water can last for centuries, if used prudently, and sustain more new, growing and viable communities outside the populous and water-rich but congested Nile Valley and Delta. As the above-mentioned groundwater tables are non-renewable, it would be prudent to conserve water by restricting those new communities to the more water-efficient agriculture and light agribusinesses. To sum up, Egypt’s water security over the long term is a major challenge, but one achievable through the right vision and policies.

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