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Evaporating Time: Cooperative Solutions to Egypt’s Water Problem

Alan Grad


A brief look at the news headlines regarding Egypt tells a story of poor governance, extrajudicial killings, military brutality, oil exports and a meagre record of tourism security. However, a very different, and rarely mentioned, problem that has been slowly brewing for the past century is one of acute water shortages in this historical breadbasket of the Mediterranean. It poses a true challenge for the upcoming generations as water shortages are set to increase in scope and severity. Egypt is steadily on the path of crossing the UN boundary of “absolute water scarcity” by 2025 with its current population of a hundred million, which is set to increase by almost seventy percent by 2050. The water supply per capita has already dropped by half since the late 1970s, affecting freshwater and food costs. Bearing these dangers in mind, the necessity to design cooperative solutions ensuring Egypt works with other riparian states to ensure water security and safeguard against droughts and famines is undeniable.

Egypt is steadily on the path of crossing the UN boundary of “absolute water scarcity” by 2025 with its current population of a hundred million, which is set to increase by almost seventy percent by 2050.

The preponderant water source of the region, the Nile, accounts for 98% of total water supply in the country as there is virtually no rain, making the situation in Egypt very different to that of the other basin countries. Under treaties dating back to colonial times and established with no say from the upstream states, Egypt and Sudan were awarded a large proportion of the Nile water, most of which originates in the Ethiopian highlands. Although the conflict over water lay dormant for most of the last century, it has recently flared up as Ethiopia committed to a push for the development of its hydropower capacity with the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The project was paired with the construction of a reservoir able to hold more than a year’s water supply of Egypt. As the artificial lake fills up over the coming decade, the supply downstream will be reduced, further undermining the fragile water distribution schemes in place. This assertion of independence has resulted in the Egyptian side sabre rattling that culminated in Mohamed Morsi, then President, threatening armed intervention. He said of the Nile, “If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative”. The talks aiming to renegotiate the river’s water distribution were resumed after the coup d'état in 2013 but broke down again in November 2017 as the Ethiopian dam nears completion.


This unique situation calls for unique solutions. One simplistic avenue of action available to the government is to actively limit the water-intensive agriculture, which consumes as much as a quarter of the Nile’s water available in Egypt. However, even barring the questions of the economic ramifications of a sudden change in food prices in a country where 6 million are undernourished, any such policy would be deeply disruptive. As about a quarter of the working population is involved in the agricultural sector, top-down pressure to explicitly limit food production through licensing, or limiting the amount of water diverted to irrigation would bring about an immense increase in unemployment, poverty. It could potentially arouse political unrest of the kind that has thrown Egypt into military dictatorship since 2013.


Engineering concrete projects that would noticeably increase the water supply in the country directly is hardly viable. What could be accomplished in Singapore using Malaysian water or in China through a series of grand canals is near impossible in North-Eastern Africa, if only for lack of any neighbours with significant water surpluses. The changing climate in the region will not be a positive influence either, with the already minimal precipitation set to fall further and evaporation rates growing, the water supply will keep decreasing.

The changing climate in the region will not be a positive influence either, with the already minimal precipitation set to fall further and evaporation rates growing, the water supply will keep decreasing.

A recent proposal released by the government envisages building water desalination plants along the coast to supplement its water endowment, but the initiative appears to be too little, too late. The project seeks an investment of $51 billion in water desalination plants along the coast of the Red Sea. It is set to expand the current desalination capacity tenfold, but by the end of their construction these would still only provide for less than 1% of the water demand in the country. Still, even if the project were to be expanded dramatically, bridging the 30 billion cubic metres gap between demand and supply would require around 60% of Egypt’s current energy consumption to power the plants under today’s technology.


Ultimately, Egypt will have to look to its neighbours upstream to help. Fortunately, the possibilities for cooperation are plentiful. For one, while the Nile appears currently to be the only viable source of drinking water for Egyptians, other countries of the basin experience average rainfall that amounts to more than ten times the water required by their populations, in addition to having access to other water sources. However, without international coordination and significant investment, all of these states will continue to tap into the most accessible reservoirs available, to the demise of their neighbour downstream.


Some of the ways in which Egypt could secure a more ample supply of water is through investing in its neighbours upstream, particularly South Sudan and Ethiopia. As of now, Egypt is legally entitled to source some 60 billion cubic metres from the river which, while being significant, is not enough. Exchanging a greater quota of the Nile water for financing alternative water catchment and purification systems in Ethiopia that would reduce the consumption upstream is one possibility. Another could involve restarting a shelved project of circumventing the Sudd swamps in South Sudan, with an artificial canal. Yet currently, almost half of the water in the Sudd swamps is lost to evaporation and what remains available to the local population is polluted beyond potability. The project, coupled with the construction of an artificial reservoir would not only reduce losses to evapotranspiration, but also decrease the impact of droughts and famines such as the one that affected half of the East Africa’s population in 2017. Yet another possibility would be to invest in more efficient use of the plentiful rainfall in the south of Sudan proper in exchange for some of the Sudanese 20 billion cubic metres of the Nile river quota.


In the long run it is clear it will still be necessary to explore domestic solutions, reducing agricultural output and exploring alternative water sources such as seawater. Still, as the countdown to the next deadly and disruptive drought runs down, what the Nile basin desperately needs is cooperation. However, regardless of what combination of the above policies emerge as solutions, for them to be achieved all parties need to come around, sit down and discuss the conflict in a civil way. Toning down the verbal aggression seems to be a good start.


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