By. Pr. Alaa El-Din Abdin (MWRI)
Egypt being a country that depends mainly on the Nile River for its water resources needs proper management of such resources in-order to meet its increasing demands. Thus, the management process cannot be maintained without a set of rules and laws that may be enforced in an appropriate way for better control and accountability.
Egypt presents an example of arid to semi-arid countries that suffer from a complex water management system due to its increasing demands and limited supplies. The increasing water demands, because of the over growing population requires coverage for agriculture and livestock which are the major consumers of water and for the domestic use of over seventy five million people in addition to the growing industrial development. Some of the power generation is also water dependent, not to mention the minimum river levels that have to be maintained for navigation purposes. The delta area also requires maintaining specific levels of freshwater in-order to avoid salt water intrusion from the sea and to maintain a safe salt balance.
Egypt lies on groundwater aquifers, some of which are shallow and subject to recharge from the Nile River since they are located along the river valley and the Delta area, and the deep ones that lie in the eastern and western desert are non-renewable.
The problem is that the Nile water provides Egypt with 95% of its requirements, there is little effective rainwater that falls on the northern and western coasts that are used locally. Flash floods are not properly harvested or used, therefore, they are not, at present, of significant benefit to the country. Realizing that the Nile River is considered the major artery to Egypt's water resources, then; any increase in its natural supply would increase the country's quota. Therefore, Egypt seeks capturing the huge quantities of losses along the basin course through upper Nile projects that will be of benefit as well to the basin countries in the future.
The water usage in Egypt is primarily consumed by irrigation either through a traditional irrigation system that goes back to old times or by modern irrigation systems especially in new reclaimed areas that adopt automated equipment.
Due to shortage of freshwater sources, there come an urge of the conjunctive use, i.e. to abstract groundwater in some areas in addition to surface water. Also, drainage water is reused extensively in other areas to cover the demands.
The complexity of the Egyptian water system comes from many factors such as fulfilling the demands of an over growing population and sustaining food security, under the dynamic economic of water utilization and social pressures. Environmental deterioration adds another dimension to the matrix of difficulties as well.
In view of the above discussion, Egypt was one of the few countries in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region that developed a series of water policies which are continuously modified to cope with the ever changing circumstances. In other words Egypt has to adopt strict water conservation policy.
2.1Water Policy History in Egypt
In the 1800s, Egypt managed its Nile water with the purpose of expanding its cultivated area from 2.5 to 5 million feddans and to increase the cropping intensity from 100% to 150%, that is why the Delta Barrages, Isna, Nag-Hammadi & Assiut barrages were built along the course of the Nile.
The 1928 policy came just one year before the enforcement of the 1929 agreement in which Britain (as an occupying country of Kenya, Uganda and Tanjanica (Tanzania after being unified with Zinzbar)) and Sudan agreed with Egypt to stop abstraction of Nile water during the period of peak demand (May to July) for the purpose of securing enough water for the irrigation of cotton fields in the Nile Delta in Egypt. This rule was even extended to Upper Egypt in which Nile water was restricted during this period. Obviously the British Government was putting this agreement in perspective for the advantage of textile factories in Yorkshire, Manchester and Liverpool. The consequence of the 1929 agreement was the distribution of the natural flow of the Nile estimated at 52 billion m3 per year between Egypt and Sudan as 48 billion m3 per year for Egypt and 4.0 billion m3 per year for Sudan. The remaining 32 billion m3 of the average natural flow at Aswan (estimated as 84 billion m3 per year) used to flow to the Mediterranean Sea every year. The policy was meant to indicate the potential of land reclamation in Egypt and concluded that more than seven million feddans can be put under economic cultivation as a sum of the existing land area under perennial irrigation plus the lands which can be converted from basin to perennial irrigation, in addition to the desert lands located on the fringes of the flood plain in the Nile Valley and Delta and/or the water logged lands running parallel to the Mediterranean sea in the northern part of the Nile Delta.
The 1933 water policy marked the second heightening of Aswan Dam which increased its storage capacity to 2.5 billion m3 and the start of the construction of Gabal Awlia Dam in Sudan which captured about 2.0 billion m3 per year to be available for the use in Egypt. These two events took place in the year 1932. The additional quantities of water enabled the country to convert more than half a million feddan in the Upper Egypt from basin to perennial irrigation, reclaim more than 400,000 feddans in the East, Middle and West Delta and increase rice cultivation from 200,000 to 350,000 feddans annually.
The 1953 water policy came to make use of the additional quantities of water which was made available following the heightening of the Owen Falls Dam in Uganda. The heightening was partially financed by Egypt. The plan was to increase the cultivated area from about 6.1 million feddan in 1952 to 6.5 million feddan in 1959.
The 1959 water policy came as an immediate result of signing the Nile Water Agreement with Sudan in preparation for the Construction of the High Aswan Dam which started in 1963. As a consequence, the flood water of 32 billion m3 which used to flow to the Mediterranean sea was divided as 7.5 billion m3 for Egypt bringing its quota to 55.5 billion m3 and 14.5 to Sudan to make its quota 18.5 billion m3 and the remaining 10 billion m3 was left for evaporation for the reservoir (Lake Nasser) every year. Egypt was honored to be an agricultural country with 40% of its work force linked to agricultural activities that provide products for local and foreign markets. At that time, most of the industries were based on agricultural products such as textiles, sugar, oil, food, wood, fertilizer….etc.
Later on, it was realized that the country cannot depend mainly on agriculture and that focus should be given to heavy industry, services, tourism which will require even more water supply, this is in addition to horizontal expansion plans. Egypt became a typical example of a developing society that evolved from an irrigated agriculture base to a more industrial and service oriented economy. This entailed a shift in the major water interests and their political bases since industry needed new extra share of water supply to be allocated.
Since the alternative of capturing water losses in the Upper Nile Basin is not only an Egyptian decision, but requires agreement of nine other countries in the basin, thus, there were very slim possibilities of developing additional supply following to the complete exhaust of the Nile Water. Therefore, all the policies which came later had concentrated on groundwater abstraction and the reuse of drainage water. Both shallow, deep, renewable and fossil groundwater were put under perspective and the amount of recycled drainage water was increased one year after the other. It has to be stated here that the first reuse project started immediately after the construction of the High Aswan Dam by recycling drainage water of Upper and Middle Egypt to flow directly to the main course of the river. Reuse projects in the southern part of the Nile Delta followed the same procedure.
Increased utilization of low quality water such as brackish groundwater, land drainage, treated sewage, suitable and safe industrial effluent as well as the desalination of sea water were also considered to fulfill the demands of a developing country. In addition to the development of non-conventional water resources, opportunities for improving effective efficiency of Egypt's Nile Irrigation System for water conservation were also investigated.
Throughout history, Egypt was known to give priority to potable water supply projects. But since the military revolution of 1952, a slogan was raised to start the industrialization process for the greater well being of the country, then, urban and industrial growth was given priority over irrigation requirements. However, this situation did not create severe problems due to the smooth agricultural development running parallel to the increased municipal and industrial requirements. Urban and industrial users were given priority over irrigated agriculture with no restriction on supply but on pollution control since they discharged their waste into waterways, and agricultural users were compensated by effectively replacing water losses through implementing water conservation practices or developing non-traditional supplies.
Over the years, about 20% of the water diverted to municipal and industrial effluents was actually depleted through different sinks except along coastal areas where they got discharged to salt sinks, and the remaining 80% were made available for reuse. However, effluent borne pollutants deteriorated its quality and thus the usefulness of reuse was jeopardized. This brought into perspective the idea of conservation which is mainly an economically and environmentally driven issue.
Due to its historic role, it is politically and economically imperative in Egypt that the agricultural sector continues to expand in order to provide economic opportunities for the increasing population and their expectations, while giving industrial growth the time it needs to replace agriculture. An important social implication of agricultural expansion is to find jobs for agricultural labor which otherwise will move to urban centers creating additional increased urban population density problems. In the meantime, converting this type of labor to other activities needs time for skill development while the country is not yet in a position to compete on the industrial and tourism scales to the extent that it could be more supported by them rather than by agricultural activities.
The above argument is the base for the formulation of any water policy from the end of the last century until the first quarter of the present century at which the population is expected to reach 100 million by the year 2030. Most expectations predict that by then the rate of population growth will tend to flatten and the Egyptian population will not significantly grow any further.