Water of the Middle East and North Africa

The Nile River in Egypt

Nile river
Photo 1: River Nile, Cairo, Egypt ( Source: Voyageur du Monde, Flickr)


Author: Ahmed Mahmoud is a PhD student at the Department of Environmental engineering and water technology of IHE-UNESCO institute for water education, Netherlands. He is as well a senior chemist at the laboratory and research department of Aswan water and wastewater company.
Reviewer: Prof.Dr. Kamal Ghodeif is professor at the Geology Department, Suez Canal University, Egypt. He is short term consultant (STC) to international (World Bank, GIZ, USAID) and national organizations (HCWW).  He knows most dimensions for water projects; the academic and the industrial demands. His research activities are covering the hydrogeological environment, natural water quality and pollution, natural water treatment (MAR, SAT, RBF) and water protection.

Throughout history, the Nile River has been Egypt’s main artery of transport and communication as well as the source of its fertility and wealth. At one time, the river provided sufficient clean water for a variety of purposes, including domestic use, agricultural irrigation, industry, fisheries, navigation and recreation. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.

Egypt is unique among the other countries in the Nile basin for its dependence on surface water that mainly comes from outside its territory [1]. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement with Sudan allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres (BCM) per year to Egypt [2]. The Aswan High Dam is the major storage and regulatory facility on the Nile. It began operation in 1968, ensuring Egypt’s control over annual flood waters and guiding their utilization.

The construction of the dam formed Lake Nasser. At 150km long, an average of 12km wide and 180m deep, it is considered the largest artificial lake in the world. It has high importance for the fishing industry, producing 15,000-25,000 tons annually.[3] However, the lake suffers from high evaporation, losing 10-11 billion cubic metres (BCM) of its water a year.

Downstream from the dam, the Nile is diverted from the main stem into an extensive network of canals through several types of control structures, providing water for agricultural and other uses.[4], [5], [6]. The river has two main branches: the Rosetta and Damietta. The Rosetta is the western branch of about 239km long, between 450-1,000m wide .[7] The water level in the Rosetta is controlled by two barrages: the Delta Barrage in the south and the Idfina Barrage about 197km to the north. The Damietta is about 230km long, 300-500m wide.[8] The average depths of both the Rosetta and the Damietta branches and range from 3 to 7 meters.

River Nile water in Egypt
Map 1 : River Nile, Egypt. @Fanack water

Three shallow, brackish lakes – Manzala, Burullus and Edku – at the northern end of the Nile Delta on the Mediterranean coast, have high economic, industrial and historical value. Covering an area of 1,360km2, Lake Manzala is the largest coastal lake in Egypt, extending from the Damietta to the Suez Canal in the east. It contributes 4.2% of annual fish production. The 420km2 Lake Burullus is connected to the Rosetta by the small Brimbal canal. In 1988, the international Ramsar Convention designated the lake as a nature reserve due to its importance as a wetland, fishery and resting area for migrating birds to and from Europe. The 62.78km2 Lake Edku in the western part of the Nile Delta is the main source of fish and irrigation in the delta. As a results of discharging a high amount of irrigation and wastewater with high concentration of nutrient to the lakes, these lakes have experienced rapid eutrophication in recent years, which is threatening the aquatic life and reducing the lakes’ economic value.[9], [10]

Egypt’s Water Crisis: Current Situation and Future Trends

Nile delta pollution
Photo 2: Egyptian woman washes clothes on pollution Canal at the Nile Delta town of Al-Borollos, 300 km north of Cairo in 2008. (Source: Nasser Nouri, Flickr)

The average per capita freshwater availability in Egypt has been steadily declining from about 1,893m3 per year in 1959 to about 900m3 in 2000 and 700m3 in 2012. This puts the country below the World Bank’s water scarcity threshold of 1,000m³ of renewable water available per capita per year.[11] Per capita water availability is expected to continue dropping to 534m3 by 2030, below the international water poverty limit.[12] According to the government, Egypt’s population is predicted to reach 98.7 million by 2025, further increasing the competition for water. Developments in Sudan, Ethiopia and other riparian countries could impact water availability to Egypt.[13]

Economic growth is also threatening the quantity and quality of Egypt’s water resources, exacerbating the existing issue of shallow groundwater contamination from industrial chemicals and excessive fertilizer and pesticide use. In addition, farmers still overwhelmingly practise inefficient flood irrigation, which results in evaporative loss and over-irrigation, causing soil damage and rises in groundwater tables.[14] According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Egypt already uses 127 per cent of its water resources and will need 20% more water by 2020. This means that 27% of the water used is imported via food and other products, and this could rise to 47% by 2020.

Nile pollution
Photo 3: Garbage accumulating at the end of a branch canal, Nile Delta, near Alexandrie (Source: François Molle, Flicker)

The United Nations predicts that Egypt could be water scarce by 2025. Assuming continued population growth and taking into account the land reclamation projects in the desert and the fact that more than 50% of the cereals consumed are already imported, Egypt cannot meet its food demand by relying on Nile water for irrigation.[15] Adding to this precarious situation, surface water evaporation in Lake Nasser is thought to exceed the earlier estimated amount. The current average evaporation rate is 7 mm and it is expected to be 7.3 mm by 2050. [16] In other words, Egypt is already utilizing most of the Nile’s flow, and it plans to use even more. According to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, there is a deficit in the national water budget of about 19.5 BCM [17].

In addition, Egypt is affected by climate change, which is impacting the entire Nile basin. Economic developments in upstream countries and measures they might take to adapt to climate change are likely to put more pressure on water resources in Egypt. Several studies have shown that the Nile is highly sensitive to temperature and precipitation changes, mainly because of its low runoff/rainfall ratio (4%).[18], [19]

To overcome the shortage, the government relies on water reuse techniques, particularly for irrigation. Currently, 10% of irrigation water is reclaimed agricultural drainage water. Reused wastewater amounted to 2 BCM in 2017.[20] The government plans to upgrade the existing secondary wastewater treatment plants to save a total of 11.67 BCM water through tertiary wastewater treatment and reuse. However, the technologies used in these plants are energy-intensive and not always appropriate in developing countries due to social and economic issues.[21], [22] Re-using of wastewater for domestic uses is likely not acceptable by local users in Egypt, let alone for using it for drinking purposes. Moreover, these treatment techniques are not economic. Furthermore, improper treatment and reuse of poor-quality treated water can lead to soil pollution as well as surface water and groundwater contamination.[23] The government recently committed to extend the use of natural methods such as wetland and soil aquifer treatment techniques, which are known to be highly efficient and cost-effective.[24]

Nile Pollution: Causes and Solutions

Water pollution in Egypt
Photo 4: Al Max is one of the several areas that have been affected by environmental pollution due to the chemical and petroleum industries, Alexandria, Egypt. (Source: Mohamed Osam, Flickr)

Water quality degradation is a major issue in Egypt and is threatening human health, economic development and social prosperity.[25] Polluted water not only impacts human health directly when consumed but also indirectly when used to irrigate food crops. A high level of contaminants in irrigation water increases the concentration of these contaminants in soils and subsequently in fruits and vegetables.[26]

The severity of the pollution problem varies between different water bodies depending on: flow, use patterns, population density, the extent of industrialization, availability of sanitation systems as well as social and economic conditions.[27] Discharge of untreated or partially treated industrial and domestic wastewater, leaching of pesticides and fertilizer residues, disposal of solid wastes and navigation are potential sources of pollution.

Since the construction of the Aswan High Dam, water quality in the Nile has become largely dependent on the water quality in Lake Nasser and less dependent on water quality fluctuations in the Nile’s upper reaches. Water released from Lake Nasser generally exhibits the same water quality with minor seasonal variation and the same overall characteristics (low organic and heavy metals content). [28]

Downstream changes in water quality are primarily due to a combination of land and water use as well as water management interventions such as: (a) different hydrodynamic regimes regulated by the Nile barrages, (b) agricultural return flows and (c) domestic and industrial waste discharges, including oil and waste from passenger and river boats. These changes become more pronounced as the river flows through the densely populated urban and industrial centres of Cairo and the delta region.[29]

The Nile is a significant source of drinking water. However, the consequences of anthropogenic activity, including agricultural runoff and industrial and municipal waste, are causing increasing pollution. For example, the section of the river from Aswan to the el-Kanater Barrage receives polluted water from 124 sources, of which 57 are industrial and the remaining 67 are agricultural drains. In addition, 239 wastewater treatment plants discharge 1.3 MCM annually into the river.[30]

Heavy metal contamination of surface water is a particularly serious ecological problem due to the metals’ potential toxicity for humans and the environment.[31] Not only are the metals non-degradable but they can also bioaccumulate through the food chain.[32], [33], [34]

Further, predicted decreases in the water budget in Egypt as a result of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will reduce the dilution strength of the Nile, effectively concentrating the pollutants.[35]

Continuous discharge of contaminants, mainly nutrients and heavy metals, has impacted the river’s health and ability to self-purify. More sophisticated treatment methods are needed to produce drinking water of adequate quality. The current water treatment plants do not always function properly as a result of poor maintenance and improper operation. Even when water treatment is satisfactory, drinking water can be contaminated by leaks in the distribution network.[36] Similarly, more than a third of drinking water is lost during distribution due to the antiquated pipes. If unaddressed, the combination of water scarcity and pollution could result in one of the worst water crises Egypt has ever experienced.

Pollution egypt
Photo 5: Egyptian's using a plastic barrels to take water from a polluted Canal at the Nile (Source: Nasser Nouri, Flickr)

Besides the social concerns associated with a water shortage, pollution of the Nile is becoming an obstacle to development and economic growth. Urgent action is needed to curb this phenomenon, such as the inspection and monitoring of industrial, irrigation and domestic discharge facilities to ensure compliance with Egyptian laws, while taking into account the country’s development requirements. The government has begun to introduce new water regulations. It is also replacing outdated and ineffective treatment techniques to improve the quality and availability of treated wastewater.[37] A new code for the reuse of treated wastewater according to its quality has also been issued. This will allow wider application of wastewater effluent,rather than using it for wood trees only.[38]

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[38] Hassan K and Tippner J, 2019. Acoustic properties assessment of neem (Azadirachta indica A. juss.) wood from trees irrigated with secondarily treated wastewater BioResources 14(2):2919-2930.