Leaking water pipes, evaporation and a rapidly growing population may be significant concerns for those trying to manage and plan water supplies in Egypt, but compounding such problems – and forcing Egyptians to rethink how they use water – is the threat posed by downstream countries which also want to take more water from the Nile, say observers. “Egyptians have to adapt to less water every day,” said Rida Al Damak, a water expert from Cairo University.
Egypt has a population of about 85 million, and receives an annual Nile water share of 55.5 billion cubic metres, according to experts. Around 85 percent of that water is used in agriculture, but a lot simply leaks away.
According to a 2007 research paper by Fathi Farag, an independent water expert, Egypt loses two billion cubic metres of water to evaporation, and three billion cubic metres to grass growing on the banks of the Nile and on river islands.
Around 40 percent of the remaining water – used domestically and in industry (2.3 billion cubic metres) – is lost to leaking pipes and drains, while 2.5 billion cubic metres are used to generate electricity, the paper says.
“If you calculate all this amount of lost water, you will discover that Egyptians are left with a fraction of what their country receives every year from the Nile,” Farag told IRIN. “This can also show why we should start to worry.”
For farmers like Hamdy Abuleinin, who was able to irrigate his 2.1 hectares of rice only after an argument over water with neighbours in Sharqia near Cairo, this year has proved difficult. “Finding water for irrigation is becoming a daily worry for farmers here,” he told IRIN.
A 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan gives Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water, but according to Maghawri Shehata, an adviser to the irrigation and water resources minister, population pressure means the country is already facing a shortfall of 10-15 billion cubic metres annually, and “plans by upstream countries to redistribute the water will be very harmful to Egypt”.
According to the Nile Basin Initiative countries that share the Nile River basin have demanded the revision of colonial-era agreements that allot the bulk of the river’s water to Egypt and Sudan and allow Cairo to veto upstream projects.
Egypt does not recognize a recent agreement signed by Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, that seeks to allow irrigation and hydroelectric projects to go ahead without Cairo’s consent. Ethiopia, for instance, is planning a series of dams along the Nile to generate electricity.
In March, Ethiopia announced the construction of the Renaissance Dam, which aims to be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. Experts like Mehari Beyene, writing for the International Rivers network, however, say the dam, which is being constructed near the Sudanese border, has raised concerns about its environmental and human impacts.
Haytham Awad, an irrigation engineering professor from Alexandria University, said Ethiopia’s plan to construct dams along the Nile would reduce Egypt’s current share by five billion cubic metres annually, but he thought this might be manageable if Egypt could cooperate with Ethiopia and buy some of the electricity generated.
Protests over water shortages in Egypt are nothing new especially in July and August, the hottest summer months. On 11 October a 16-year-old farmer was killed in a dispute over water in the southern governorate of Aswan.
Farmers like Abuleinin worry about the future for his seven children. “Fights over water sometimes become physical as water becomes scarcer and these fights might entail loss of life. But the alternative for us is to starve.”