Climate change, population growth push Egypt to the brink of water crisis

By Hisham Allam

Climate change, population growth push Egypt to the brink of water crisis

Egypt has joined the ranks of those countries with the most water scarcity owing to rapid population growth and the effects of climate change. The Egyptian Minister of Irrigation admitted that the country is in a unique international water scarcity predicament. On one hand, Egypt tops the list of arid countries since it has one of the lowest rainfall rates in the world while on the other hand, per capita water use is approaching 500 cubic meters. According to UN estimates, the water poverty line is 1,000 cubic meters of water per capita per year and the water scarcity level is 500 cubic meters per capita per year.

According to Egypt’s Nationally Determined Contributions report submitted to the United Nations in June this year, the per capita share is expected to fall to around 390 cubic meters by 2050.

Egypt’s water status has changed considerably over the last fifty years despite having a fixed share of Nile water of 55.5 billion cubic meters per year. However, although the country appears to be a water-rich country due to the Nile River, which originates in the heart of Africa, Egypt’s water scarcity condition is at a critical level with the per capita share of renewable water resources reaching roughly 500 cubic meters annually.

Abbas Sharaki, a Geology and Water Resources Professor at Cairo University, links Egypt’s water scarcity to its geographical location with it being surrounded by the Great African Desert. As a result, like most North African countries, Egypt suffers from a lack of rain.

In 1960, when Egypt’s population was 26 million, the per capita water availability was more than 2,000 cubic meters. However, the population has now risen to 105 million and the country’s water resources are insufficient to meet demand.

According to Abbas Sharaki, a water expert, Egypt has a total of 76 billion cubic meters of water coming from various sources. This includes 55.5 billion cubic meters from the Nile River, 12 billion from recycled water and 5.5 billion from rainfall and groundwater in the Delta area with 1.3 billion used for farming. However, Egypt needs about 105 billion cubic meters of water per year which is far more than it is able to source.

Abbas said that climate change is affecting Egypt’s water shortage by causing temperatures to rise which results in water evaporating and crops needing more water.

Egypt is implementing several measures to cope with this crisis, Egyptian water expert, Nader Nour El-Din, told DevelopmentAid. He said that the state is working on three axes: developing the available water resources, preventing waste and rationalizing usage, and restructuring agricultural policies.

To cope with the water scarcity, the government is constructing facilities to convert seawater into freshwater along the coasts of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. However, this method of desalination is very expensive so is therefore mainly used for urban development and domestic purposes. Nour El-Din also commented that several plants that will treat agricultural wastewater will be inaugurated in the next two months which will help to recycle three billion cubic meters of water.

The second measure being implemented to address the crisis is the lining of 6,500 km of canals with cement to prevent water leaks and conserve five to seven billion cubic meters of water. Egypt has also enacted a law that obliges all desert lands, amounting to three million acres, to use modern irrigation.

The third measure involves reducing the growing of high water-consuming crops such as rice, sugarcane, bananas, and broad-leaved plants to save more water, Nour El-Din added.