Egypt’s troubled water management

World Water Day is 22 March. This global event focuses attention on the importance of fresh water, and advocates for a more sustainable management of water resources. On this occasion, Dalia El Fiki, a student in Masters of Global Affairs at the American University of Cairo who currently studies  Water Policy and Governance at the National University of Singapore, wrote an analysis on Egypt’s misguided water management program, and offers alternatives to escape what she calls a governance crisis.

Doom is looming; the Nile is our only source of water; we don’t have enough money to finance new sustainable technologies; our infrastructure lags behind in light of increasing water demands. This is the story we have been told repeatedly.

However, it is not true.

Yes, as a developing country, Egypt has limited access to funding, and yes, our infrastructure requires urgent upgrading. But the Nile is not our only source of water, and we are not dealing with a water crisis — rather, it is a crisis in governance. 

The water shortage we experience is not related to demand, but rather to poor infrastructure and management practices, which result in gross losses within our water systems.

A study conducted by Professor Mohamed Allam of Cairo University and Ibrahim Allam of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) suggested that 29 percent of our water is lost through the our mismanaged water system, mostly due to evaporation and outflow.

MWRI estimates that agriculture utilizes approximately 80 percent of the nation’s annual water supply, and remains the greatest polluter. So far, the government has offered few incentives to encourage farmers to manage their agricultural requirements in a way that emphasizes sustainable water use, either by saving water or maintaining water quality.

While drip irrigation can provide a quick fix to the issue, we need to bear in mind that the installation and maintenance costs are prohibitive for the average farmer.

So why not provide economic incentives for its use, or impose stricter regulatory measures on farming?

Surely agricultural water also falls under the auspices of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, and can therefore be managed appropriately with one set of consistent and implementable policies?

Wrong, and this lies at the very heart of the main structural issues facing the nation’s management of its water resources over the past decades.

There at least eight declared ministries that deal with water resources, including the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Health.

Other stakeholders such as the Ministry of Electricity and Energy and the Ministry of Industry and Foreign Tradealso play an important role, as water is used for generating electricity, and is also an essential component in industries like cement, ceramics and textiles.

In a centralized system, what we would expect is cooperation across the board between the multiple ministries in charge. But the picture is quite different in Egypt’s case — the mandates and objectives of each ministry are so different that,  while one ministry may push for a new approach that would result in sustainable water use, another will often vehemently oppose it, although they promised cooperation.

Couple that with lax legislations on environmental protection, industrial and agricultural waste management, then the wastewater becomes non-renewable and consequently increases pollution.

So what is the solution?

It all comes down to governance. The country has 40 billion cubic meters of groundwater resources, according to the MWRI. A better management of agricultural runoffs and their recycling could create an additional source of water.

The fact that our government has all its eggs in one basket is very problematic, as solely focusing on maximizing the Nile water led the government to invest massive amounts of money in failed projects like the Toshka Valley Project. This project’s initial aim was to increase Egypt’s arable lands from 6 percent to 35 percent of the national territory by using a system of canals to divert the waters of Lake Nasser to the Libyan Desert. Although the government spent LE7 billion on this project, it achieved few tangible results.

What we really need at this point is a new vision that looks beyond the comfortable and easy solutions of relying on Nile water. More money should be invested in desalination, efficient groundwater extraction and proper management, as well as reducing demand.

Desalination is an expensive option, but it could provide some relief to Egyptians who feel extremely threatened whenever other Nile Basin states — who are entitled to manage their water sources as they deem necessary — decide to build a dam or review the Nile water treaty. It would also create a new industry in the country, contributing to much-needed jobs for the unemployed.

Alternative water resources are pivotal. We need to stop our shortsightedness and look at the long road ahead, and how we will be managing a rapidly growing population that is increasing by 2 percent each year.

If our government does not have enough money to cover the costs for ambitious desalination projects or water treatment facilities, then the private sector could be a viable partner.

For our technological requirements, our water engineers, environmental experts, policy makers and economists need to form a working group that can come up with local solutions to our water crisis.

We don’t need to import talent from overseas, we just need to cooperate and to push for better governance, transparency, accountability and a more long-term approach to our water resources.

Water is our country’s most precious resource, and should be treated that way. The Nile should not be taken for granted and the pollution of water resources needs to be dealt with seriously. Industrial and farmers should be fined for malpractice and our laws need to be implemented or amended to reflect the importance of water.

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