Egypt’s Weak Water Fight

It is well known that any limitations to Egypt’s water supply, a vital resource and sometimes a matter of national security, has been aggressively opposed by officials keen to protect the Nile’s badly needed fresh water.

But in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution in 2011, it is becoming increasingly clear that Egypt is not only squandering its  water supplies to the detriment of other African countries who get a much smaller share of the river’s water, but that Egypt’s growing population is demanding more water to cover its unsustainable farming practices. 

Ten countries are involved in a decades-long conflict over Nile Water rights and billions of cubic metres of water. On one side, seven East African countries want more water from the Nile, and on the other stands Egypt and Sudan, who get 90% of the river’s water under colonial-era accords and strongly oppose the move.

It is no surprise then that Egypt has repeatedly said it will reject any deals that do not preserve its historic, and dominant, water rights.

Just this week, Egyptian minister of irrigation and water resources Mohamed Bahaa Eddin said the country refused to sign the Entebbe Framework Agreement, which would redistribute Nile water shares among Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

Even though Egypt get’s the lion’s share of water, which stands at 51 billion cubic meters annually, the quota still does not satisfy its needs.

In fact, the country indicated this week it needs another 7 billion cubic meters to meet domestic demand.

Rebel Economy spoke to Karim Assir of the Signet Institute, a Cairo-based think tank, on why Egypt’s demands to not only keep its dominant share of water but also fight for more underlines deeper problems for the country. [Text within square brackets are additions by Rebel Economy]:

How does Egypt use water inefficiently? 

Karim Assir (KA):

The choice of using flood irrigation [a dated method of irrigation where gallons of water are literally pumped over crops], as well as the choice of cultivating water inefficient crops, and the agricultural sector puts the biggest strain on this country’s resources.

I think anyone who lives in Cairo also sees the way water is used improperly each morning, when shop owners and bawabs [the Arabic word for “doormen”] hose down cars and sidewalks, and while this may be just an anecdotal example it highlights a major issue which is that water is not viewed as a scarce resource here.

In addition, the wealthier Egyptian households become, the more water they will likely consume water directly – i.e. through heavier use of household appliances, landscaping etc, or indirectly, i.e., through consuming more food, products which have heavy water footprints.

What is the biggest strain on water resources?

KA: Wheat crops require lots of water.  As does rice and other staples of the Egyptian diet, but demand for these crops is also very high. It is not be a good use of the country’s resources to become self sufficient in these crops. [That is despite calls from the government to move toward self sufficiency and boosting domestic production to lessen the burden on imports].

The natural water resources that Egypt has (Nile and groundwater resources) available are put under stress by a growing population, and given that this dynamic won’t change in the future, the problem threatens to become more severe.  The majority of Egypt’s population is settled inland, along the Nile, which makes supplementary sources of water like desalination a less viable option for the Egyptian government, since water would have to be pumped from the coast and would add significantly to its cost.

The tariffs on water do not help.  As with everything here, water is subsidised. Egyptians pay about 20% of the actual cost entailed in producing and delivering water to households.

How can the state alleviate these pressures and inefficiencies? 

KA: The government’s approach to water scarcity has been inaction, as with many other issues, and their options are limited. However, one proven way to begin limiting demand for water is to increase its price, so that’s one place they could start.  Encouraging the cultivation of water efficient crops and landscaping would help. Also, Egyptians need to be made aware that water is scarce, otherwise they really have no incentive to use it more efficiently.

All these factors combined make it difficult for Egypt to argue that it should maintain its share of the Nile water, let alone ask for more, since other Nile Basin countries face similar structural problems and high demand for water.

Even though water is subsidised and cheap for all to use, like Egypt’s other subsidised goods (oil, gas and food), the richest reap the benefits. Water inequalities have become more stark following the revolution and slums across the country are suffering from lack of resources.

If Egypt wants to viably argue for a better deal with its African neighbours, the best place to start is at home. Increasing the price of water would instantly mean a reevaluation of farming methods. Flood irrigation would be limited and therefore the types of crops grown would change. Part of the problem is mismanaged food subsidies and an agricultural sector that has to import wheat to meet demand.  If this system was overhauled, it would alleviate pressure on farmers providing subsidised bread.

Of course, this must happen in unison with a framework of policies that will provide new crops in place of the old, and deep education for Egyptians to highlight that water is a non-renewable resource that does not flow endlessly.


  • Posted January 15, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    A couple of things: the Egypt Independent article from which you’ve drawn the figure of 51 BCM for the Egypt’s Nile Quota is (shocker!) inaccurate. The actual figure is 55.5 BCM. (But hey, if it makes you feel better, you’re still a good deal closer than the state information service, which must have misplaced a decimal point several years ago, and lists the quota as 5.5 BCM, a widely-cited figure:

    Also, the Egyptian government has consistently, and for years, rejected the Entebbe Agreement, boycotting the 2010 talks that led to it. So I’ve been a bit baffled by the way the local media is reporting this as a breaking story just because SIS sent out a release. If anything, the actual news in the Xinhua interview is that Egypt and China are cooperating on irrigation projects, and that the two countries are discussing what role China, and more importantly Chinese-funded development projects, will play in determining how water is allocated among Nile Basin countries in the future.

    Still, I’m glad people are discussing this issue.

  • Worldview
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Why should african countries from where the nile originates have to put up with these egyptian bullying anymore based on some treaty the british colonists jacked up. They have no right. Why should we suffer to keep some fat overeating arabs living in the desert on our water – and they waste it.

  • Ahmed
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    You’re missing a couple of important points re this analysis/discussion:

    – The bulk of Egypt’s water consumption is for agriculture, which is by no-means metered and hence is provided to farmers free of cost. The only cost associated would be that of irrigation pumps or irrigation-related machinery. Metering is almost impossible to implement on Egypt’s irrigation network and hence you would need to tax the use of water though other means (e.g. placing a sales tax on different crops)

    – The use of flood irrigation is most common in Egypt’s Nile delta. Due to rising sea levels and increased use of fertilizers, we have a huge soil salinity issue in these lands, which makes the use of flood irrigation inevitable.

    – The Nile loses several billion cm every year to evaporation and seepage -investing in our canal networks and perhaps turning some of them into pipes might go a long way into saving some water.

    – Wheat isnt really the main culprit crop, rice and sugar cane are the worst offenders.

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