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Egypt faces drinking water shortage because of Nile pollution

The growing Egyptian population is straining the country’s drinking water supply, which mainly comes from the Nile.
A man collects water from a canal beside a dead donkey in the Nile Delta town of Al-Borollos 300 km (186 miles) north of Cairo March 18, 2008. REUTERS/Nasser Nuri (EGYPT) - RTR1YHD4

Every once in a while, the level of pollution in the Nile rises, which requires halting the drinking water from stations that supply many areas of Egyptian cities because the Nile water no longer meets cleanliness standards. These rises in pollution are often caused by the Nile's low water level.

Because of the Nile pollution crisis and its impact on drinking water, citizens are worried about the quality of their drinking water. Some Egyptian villagers are protesting and are angry at the government for being slow at resolving this problem, which could result in environmental disasters if the causes of pollution are not addressed and if not enough Nile water is available to wash away the pollution to the Mediterranean Sea.

Cases of mass poisoning have appeared in various areas as a result of polluted drinking water. Although there is a different reason each time, the irrigation minister is the one who is often held responsible for the water pollution. The Egyptian government has even been sued for the contamination of drinking water coming from plants that withdraw water from the Nile. Cleaning the Nile’s water requires opening up the valves and releasing extra water, especially during winter when the Nile’s water flow decreases. 

The Rosetta branch, which is one of the Nile’s two branches and passes through the Nile Delta down to the Mediterranean Sea, has the highest pollution level, with increasing concentrations of ammonia and dissolved salts. This pollution kills fish and affects the drinking water stations in the provinces of Kafr el-Sheikh, Buhaira and Damietta, where most drinking water stations have stopped operating.

Government officials blame the problem on three main reasons: low levels of water in the Nile, especially during winter when less water is discharged from behind the High Dam; the presence of fish farms on the Rosetta branch; and some villages disposing their waste directly on the agricultural banks, which drains into the Rosetta branch. 

To try to restore the Egyptians’ confidence in the quality of drinking water from the Nile, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab decided as soon as he took office to prevent bottled water from being used at the prime minister’s headquarters, including water provided to him personally. He ordered drinking water from the Nile and stressed that this step was intended to lower expenditures and share in the lifestyle of ordinary citizens. He also did this as a show of confidence in the quality of drinking water and in the tests that are regularly conducted to ensure the quality of water used by citizens. 

Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Muhammad Abdul Muttalib said in an interview with Al-Monitor that the allocation of water that is released daily from behind the High Dam is done so according to the schedule set for the actual water needs for drinking, agriculture, industry and other development purposes. He said that the schedule is prepared by the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Agriculture, and then sent to the Ministry of Irrigation.

He added that it is no longer possible to release more water into the Nile, to wash away the pollutants into the sea, because the increased demand by the growing population has caused water to be scarce. He added that they are working on eliminating the various sources of pollution and have taken measures to close all establishments that pour untreated waste into the Nile.

Abdul Muttalib added that Egypt is among the countries below the water poverty line and that it relies on the Nile for its essential needs. Egypt’s share of the Nile does not exceed 55.5 billion cubic meters (1.9 trillion cubic feet) a year, most of which comes from the Ethiopian plateau during the flooding in the summer starting in August. He said that for this reason water is stored in Lake Nasser to be used during the rest of the year and that the ministry is working through the public authority for the High Dam and the Aswan Dam on a program that organizes water usage. That program will regulate the winter period, which is essential for distributing a limited amount of water throughout the year whereby water usage is optimal.

He said that Egypt is forced to release water from Lake Nasser’s strategic reserve in addition to the daily quota during some emergency cases when the government gets reports that the pollution level went above the allowed standard and for fear that the water quality at drinking stations will be affected, otherwise people will die as a result of the water pollution.

The Egyptian citizens’ lack of confidence in the Nile’s drinking water is a real crisis that may have been behind the popular dissatisfaction with the performance of former Prime Minister Hazem el-Biblawi's government. Hence, Mahlab's government is expected to act on restoring the Egyptians’ confidence in drinking water from the Nile.

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