Around 98% of Egypt’s population is concentrated along the Nile Valley and Delta, and this clustering highlights Egypt’s dependence on the river as a source of water. The population of 100m consumes between 105bn and 110bn cu metres of water a year, while the Nile’s annual flow is around 55.5bn cu metres a year. The vast majority of the country is desert, and the dry climate and arid landscape mean that there is a heavy reliance on water from the Nile for agricultural irrigation. An estimated 80% of Egypt’s water is used by agriculture, the majority of which is sourced from the Nile. Indeed, only 2% of the water supply is rain fed.
Meanwhile climate change is an ongoing concern, with the UN World Food Programme projecting that the country could lose 30% of its food production in the southern regions by 2040. There has been evidence that heat waves have already reduced productivity in regions such as Fayoum, where farmers have reported they now need to use more water for less land.
Rising temperatures compounded with unsustainable irrigation methods are expected to lead to heightened levels of water scarcity. An August 2018 report from the Washington, DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute found that the North African country will suffer from water scarcity and a fall in grain productivity of 11% by 2025 if irrigation practices are not improved. As of late 2019 the annual water quota dropped below 550 cu metres per person, meaning that Egypt is experiencing water poverty.
Around 36.5bn cu metres of water was used in irrigation in 2018, down 12.9% from 41.9bn cu metres of water used in 2017, according to figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. The statistics agency attributed the decrease in use to a reduced area of cultivated land in both the winter and summer harvest seasons.
The government is responding to the threat of water scarcity through many programmes, with the National Water Plan 2017-37 investing $50bn in strategic projects. One clear change is the movement away from traditional irrigation methods to alternative water-reducing irrigation technologies. The authorities are turning to two such methods – sprinkler and drip irrigation – as alternatives to surface, canal-based irrigation. While the pressurised systems are more efficient, their implementation costs tend to be higher, a consideration that is a significant deterrent in poorer areas.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in 2016 sprinkler and drip irrigation accounted for around 5% and 6% of irrigation practices in Egypt, respectively. The vast majority of governorates relied solely on canal systems, with only Alexandria, Matruh, Ismailiyah and Giza having more than half of their irrigation systems pressurised.
In April 2020 Egypt announced an $11.6m programme to modernise irrigation systems in 3140 ha of plantations in Upper Egypt. The plantations’ surface irrigation systems will be upgraded to drip irrigation. At the same time the government is working to line 20,000 km out of 55,000 of canals in the Nile Valley and Delta. The improvements will save an estimated 5bn cu metres of water in seepage losses. While the canal project was originally slated to be completed by 2030, in April 2020 the government announced the timeline would be pushed up to 2022.
Recent innovations in water management include the construction of desalination plants that will allow for the use of seawater in agriculture. In April 2019 the Egyptian government announced a $75m investment in two seawater desalination plants in the Suez Canal Economic zone. The first plant, slated for completion in 2020, will produce 20,000 cu metres of water per day, and the second, to be built following the completion of the first, is expected to produce 130,000 cu metres daily. Together, the two facilities would boost the economic zone’s desalination capacity from 100,000 cu metres to 250,000 cu metres a day.