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Egypt presses on with mega water projects despite burden on state coffers

As water scarcity threatens Egypt’s food and national security, the state is moving forward with megaprojects to secure alternative water sources.
This picture shows an aerial view of the southernmost tip of the Nile Delta region, including the Qanater al-Khayreya Nile River barrages, north of Cairo, Egypt, Oct. 15, 2021.

CAIRO — In the desert along the northwestern coast of Egypt, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation is building the longest man-made artificial river to ensure sustainable water resources to cultivate about 1 million feddans (1.04 million acres) within the New Delta project, which is part of the goals set by the state to protect the country’s water and food security.

The implementation of this mega water project comes at a time Egypt suffers from water scarcity and a water share lower than 560 cubic meters per capita per year. 

The artificial river is approximately 114 kilometers (71 miles) long, including 22 kilometers (14 miles) of underground water pipelines, in addition to the open path of the river extending for 92 kilometers (57 miles). The river is expected to generate about 10 million cubic meters of water.

Egypt's Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hani Sewilam explained in press statements earlier this month that the river will use agricultural drainage water in the west of the Nile Delta region, which will then be transferred to a water treatment plant in el-Hammam in Matrouh governorate. A total of 12 stations will be built along the artificial river to transport the water to the main el-Hammam station where it will be treated to be used for irrigation purposes. The total cost of the transport operations, including the treatment operations and the construction of the pipelines, will reach 60 billion Egyptian pounds (around $2 billion), according to the minister. 

Safwat Abdel-Dayem, a water expert at the World Bank, talked to Al-Monitor about the timing of the water projects to guarantee Egypt's basic food needs. “The implementation of mega water projects may be costly for the state budget, but the recent world events — including the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine war and its subsequent repercussions on food security and safety — call for the need to implement such projects to secure the basic food needs in the country," he said.

According to 2020 data by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt’s total cultivated areas amount to 9.5 million feddans (10 acres). Other CAPMAS statistics from 2020 revealed that the country’s strategic production includes 9.1 million tons of wheat and 4.4 million tons of rice. However, these wheat quantities are not enough to achieve self-sufficiency and represent only 41.4% of the country’s total needs. The rest is secured through imports, which had not been stable the past year in light of Russia's war on Ukraine and the devaluation of the local currency. 

“It is necessary to implement projects to produce food locally even if water is scarce. This can be done by maximizing access to water, renewable and alternative water sources, and benefitting from every single drop of water through modern irrigation techniques in modern agricultural projects,” Abdel-Dayem noted.

Egypt heavily depends on the Nile River to meet 97% of its water needs — not including agricultural expansion projects. Add to this water scarcity and the lack of sustainable natural water sources, which have pushed the state to implement alternative water supply projects and increase water efficiency through agricultural drainage water and wastewater treatment projects and the use of treated water in agriculture. 

These projects include the Bahr el-Baqar wastewater treatment plant, which contributes to the reclamation of 456,000 feddans (473,000 acres) in the Sinai Peninsula at a cost of $739 million, and al-Mahsama water reclamation plant, built at a cost of 3.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($113 million) and used to transport around 1 million cubic meters of treated wastewater daily from the west of the Suez Canal to irrigate lands in Sinai and east of the canal, according to the presidency website.

The state’s focus on the water reuse projects is part of its policy to counter the anticipated negative effects of the unilateral filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. The floods over the past three years, which coincided with the filling of the dam’s reservoir, reduced the risks on the flow rate that reaches Egypt and Sudan. Yet the two downstream countries are still concerned that the flow of water will be reduced during periods of drought and prolonged drought amid the impact of climate change on the East Nile Basin.

The state’s policy of expanding wastewater treatment projects and of reusing treated water in agriculture comes after a yearslong controversy over the availability of alternative water sources to the Nile, as Egypt’s share of the Nile water is no longer enough to meet the domestic needs, while demand is increasing due to population growth. Several studies conducted by experts over the past 10 years revealed the existence of giant underground reservoirs in the Western Desert. Yet there is no proof that this groundwater can be used for sustainable agricultural production. 

Egypt is also working on the National Water Resources Plan (NWRP 2037), which aims to maximize the country’s water resources to meet the growing needs. The total cost of this plan amounts to $50 billion, which adds to the funding sources-related challenges amid the currency devaluation. 

Ahmed Galal, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Ain Shams University, spoke about the financial aspect of the megaprojects. “The decision to implement projects that serve the national interest and protect food and water security can’t be measured through their financial cost,” he told Al-Monitor.

“Any irrigation scheduling models designed to achieve higher agricultural [production] will improve food security and meet the people’s growing needs, which subsequently boosts national security and stability,” he said.

“Many researches are being implemented to study the impact of treated water on the produced crops, to determine crop pattern and select high-value crops, and to focus on the production of crops that are directly related to the basic needs of the population, including wheat and major feed grains,” Galal added.

Each year, the Egyptian government develops an annual plan to determine the crop pattern and areas to be cultivated with basic crops such as rice, based on the available irrigating scheduling models, through a coordination committee between the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation and the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation. The quantities of grain and agricultural commodities to be imported are determined based on this plan in order to meet local needs and preserve the strategic stock. Yet, despite these efforts, the prices of basic commodities, such as rice and wheat, increased significantly this year.

Despite the man-made river project’s high economic cost, technical challenges and the length of the pathways for the transport of agricultural drainage water, the state was left with few costly options to protect food and water security and achieve stability and balance between the quantities of locally produced food and imports, which are constantly subject to fluctuations in light of global politics.

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