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Egypt’s Water Crisis: Current Situation and Future Trends

Nile delta pollution
Photo 1: 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, Flicker)

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.[1] Per capita water availability is expected to continue dropping to 534m3 by 2030, below the international water poverty limit.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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 2: 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.[5] 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. [6] 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 [7].

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%).[8], [9]

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.[10] 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.[11], [12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

[1] Drainage Research Institute, 2010. Monitoring and Analysis of Drainage Water Quality Project, Drainage Water Status in the Nile Delta Yearbook 97/98. Technical, No.52.
[2] FAOSTAT, 2013. Country Profile Egypt.
[3] FAO, 2014. AQUASTAT.
[4] Abdel-Dayem S, 2011. Water quality management in Egypt. International Journal of Water Resources Development 27(1):181-202.
[5] Radwan L, 1998. Water management in the Egyptian delta: Problems of wastage and inefficiency. Geographical Journal 164(2):129-138.
[6] Badawy, H. A. (2009) Effect of expected climate changes on evaporation losses from Aswan High Dam Reservoir (AHDR), Thirteenth International Water Technology Conference, IWTC 13 2009, Hurghada, Egypt.
[7] Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, 2014. Water Scarcity in Egypt.
[8] Badawy, H. A. (2009) Effect of expected climate changes on evaporation losses from Aswan High Dam Reservoir (AHDR), Thirteenth International Water Technology Conference, IWTC 13 2009, Hurghada, Egypt.

[9] Radwan L, 1997. Farmer responses to inefficiencies in the supply and distribution of irrigation requirements in delta Egypt. Geographical Journal 163(1):78-92.
[10] Alnaggar D, 2003. Water resources management and policies for Egypt’. Workshop on Policies and Strategies Options for Water Management in Islamic Countries (Tehran), December 2003.
[11] Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, 2014. Water Scarcity in Egypt.
[12] Hussona S and Abdullah A, 2014. Water quality assessment of Mahmoudia Canal in northern west of Egypt. Journal of Pollution Effects and Control 2(2):121.
[13] Wagdy A, 2008. Progress in water resources management: Egypt. Proceedings of the 1st Technical Meeting of Muslim Water Researchers Cooperation.
[14] Elbana T, Bakr N and Elbana M, 2017. Reuse of treated wastewater in Egypt: Challenges and opportunities. In Negm A (ed.) Unconventional Water Resources and Agriculture in Egypt. The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, vol 75. Springer, Cham.