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Water Use in Egypt

Egypt- marrwa
Photo1: Farmers cultivating lettuce, while another farmer digs a small canal (marrwa) with a donkey. (Source: Hamish John, IWMI, Flickr)

Water use in Egypt is growing due to a rising population and improving standard of living as well as the government policy of encouraging industrialization and the expansion of the agriculture sector.

Water Use per sector and the Water Balance

Water resources currently available for use are 55.5 BCM/yr from the Nile River, 1.3 BCM/yr effective rainfall in the northern part of the Nile Delta and 2 BCM/yr non-renewable groundwater from the Western Desert and Sinai – a total of 58.8 BCM/yr – while the water needs from different sectors are about 79.5 BCM/yr. Thus, the gap between supply and demand is about 20 BCM/yr. This gap is overcome by recycling. The overall efficiency of the Nile system in Egypt is about 80%.[1] Much of Egypt’s water is used multiple times on its journey through the country.

water use

Figure 1. Water balance in Egypt.[2]

  • Nile Water
  • Deep aquifier
  • Rainfall

Figure 2. Water availability in Egypt.[3]

  • Agriculture
  • Municipal
  • Industry and Electricity

Figure 3. Water consumption in Egypt.[4]

Water withdrawals in each sector are as follows:

  • Agriculture: The agriculture sector utilizes the largest amount of water, which corresponds to more than 85% of Egypt’s share of Nile water. Although the country lost some of its fertile land to urbanization, this has been balanced by expansion of agricultural areas in the desert. The total cultivated land was estimated at 3.8 million hectares in 2015/2016.[5] Agriculture is crucial to the economy; its added value accounts for 14.5% of GDP. In 2016, this amounted to agricultural income of 256.9 billion Egyptian pounds. The sector also employs 29.6% of the active population and represents 11% of all exports. Because of water shortages, the government took measures in January 2018 to reduce the cultivation of water-intensive crops like rice.
  • Municipal water requirements: These were estimated to be 10 BCM/yr in 2013. Approximately 97% of the urban population and 70% of the rural population rely on a piped water supply. Municipal water needs are met by two sources: surface water, which supplies about 83% of total municipal water, and groundwater, which supplies the remaining 17%.
  • Industrial sector: The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) estimated the water requirements of the industrial sector to be 5.4 BCM/yr in 2017.
  • Tourism: In Egypt, tourism is a water-consuming activity because of the need to irrigate golf courses, fill swimming pools, fountains and artificial lakes, supply hotels and so on.[6] If the government’s plans to attract 20 million tourists per year by 2020 are realized, the tourism sector will be one of the main water consumers.
  • Navigation: The Nile River and part of the irrigation network are used for navigation. The present policy is that there is no exclusive release of water for navigation. There is, however, a guaranteed minimum release (75 MCM/d) from the Aswan High Dam, which is also required for some drinking water intakes along the Nile.
Polka-Dot Desert
Photo 2: Polka-Dot Desert - center-point irrigation farms in Egypt. A life necessity viewed from a stellar vantage point. (Source: SpaceRef Webmaster, Flickr)

Projected Water Use

The MWRI’s National Water Resources Plan (NWRP) to 2037 aims to safeguard Egypt’s available water resources, which include its share of Nile water, groundwater, non-conventional resources and agricultural water. The NWRP includes the target to reduce agricultural, industrial and domestic water consumption to 80% of current usage. The plan also outlines clear procedures for dealing with current and future challenges in the water sector by implementing programs for desalination in coastal areas, modern irrigation, water reuse and water harvesting in areas other than the Nile Valley. The plan is based on four major pillars: creating an enabling environment, developing water resources, enhancing water quality and rationalizing water use.

Agricultural Water Use and Irrigation Development

Agriculture is a major water consumer, not least because the arid climate means that nearly all agricultural land relies on irrigation. Although Egypt has been dependent on imports to provide sufficient food for its growing population for several decades, agriculture remains one of the main economic activities. Agriculture and the Nile River have been associated with Egypt since ancient times, and this connection remains strong. Plentiful year-round sunlight and fertile soil around the Nile Valley and Delta favour crops such as rice, wheat, corn, sugar, onions and tobacco.

The agricultural land base consists of old land in the Nile Valley and Delta, rainfed areas, several oases and new land reclaimed from the deserts since 1952. The total cultivated area was 3.8 million hectares in 2013, or about 4% of the total area of the country.[7]

Egypt has a history of irrigation, notably along the banks of the Nile. The first irrigation infrastructure consisted of embankments and canals to divert Nile water into basins and expand the irrigated areas. Current irrigation development plans aim to increase the area irrigated and improve water use efficiency.

[1] MWRI, 2014. ‘Water Scarcity in Egypt.’ Available at www.mfa.gov.eg/SiteCollectionDocuments/Egypt%20Water%20Resources%20Paper_2014.pdf, accessed [10-11-2018].

[2] MWRI, 2005. ‘National Water Resources Plan for Egypt 2017.’ Available at http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/egy147082.pdf, accessed [10-11-2018].

[3] Abukila, F. A., 2015. ‘Assessing the drain estuaries’ water quality in response to pollution abatement.’ Available at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110492915000053), accessed [10-11-2018].

[4] Abukila, F. A., 2015. ‘Assessing the drain estuaries’ water quality in response to pollution abatement.’ Available at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1110492915000053), accessed [10-11-2018].

[5] CAPMAS, no date. Available at www.capmas.gov.eg/Pages/IndicatorsPage.aspx?page_id=6151&ind_id=2361, accessed [10-11-2018].

[6] ICARDA, 2011. ‘Water and Agriculture in Egypt.’

[7] AQUASTAT, no date. ‘Regional report.’ Available at www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/countries_regions/EGY/, accessed [10-11-2018].