Rethinking water: The government is implementing projects to boost irrigation efficiency and expand agricultural space

When it comes to restraints on growth in Egypt’s agriculture sector, those perhaps of the greatest importance are the challenges of irrigation and land reclamation. As such, the Egyptian governments has for decades emphasised improvements to irrigation. Data available up to 2012 shows that 3.65m ha were equipped for irrigation, with an annual growth rate for crop production value per ha of 0.79% for 2007-12 period. Total agricultural production in that same period saw a growth rate of 1.39% in terms of the total value of agricultural production and 1.55% for food production.

New Strategies

In 2015 the African Development Bank approved a $50m loan to the Egyptian National Drainage Programme, covering improvements to irrigation, as well as efforts to promote the use of drought-tolerant, higher-yielding wheat varieties. This is expected to boost productivity by 15-21% for selected strategic crops such as wheat. Average income per ha of farmland is expected to rise by as much as 40% due to the programme.

The World Bank’s Farm-level Irrigation Modernisation project for Egypt, which was first approved in 2010, is working to provide access for up to 140,000 small-scale farmers over approximately 80,000 ha to irrigated water in Mahmudia, Manaifa and Meet Yazid in the Nile Delta. The $190m project was due to be completed in the summer of 2016, but has since faced setbacks, and as of mid-2015 was significantly behind schedule, according to the World Bank, with challenges facing the project stemming from quality control, project management and procurement.

Due to the limited availability of irrigated land, Adel El Beltagy, the minister of agriculture and land reclamation at the time, implemented a field irrigation project to increase the amount of Egypt’s cultivatable land by 7-10% in early 2015, under the auspices of the national project for land reclamation. Improvements over the years to water-efficiency have been marginal, in some cases owing to the fact that there is simply less water to draw on. Hossam El Moghazy, the minister of water resources and irrigation, said in March 2015 that Egypt had entered an era of water poverty, with an annual shortfall of some 23bn cu metres.


The emphasis now is increasingly on raising irrigation efficiency. Egypt’s yearly water supplies are stored in the Aswan High Dam and the country’s national strategy is based on the amount held there – around 55.5bn cu metres – with 80-85% of the water allocated for agriculture. By reusing drainage water, for instance, water can be shifted back to fields for irrigation. The Nile Delta region makes the most use of recycled water. Yet here one finds the challenge of contamination.

And as with agriculture, the principal factor constraining the growth of aquaculture is the availability of water. Drainage water from agriculture remains at present the only water used for farming fish. Yet, in its report “State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014” the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said, “Farmers are requesting freshwater as they reuse this water for crops. Moreover, farmers argue that drainage water negatively affects farmed fish owing to the accumulation of pollutants.” Recycling is more costly, and is currently done for landscaping purposes in places such as New Cairo, but not yet in agriculture. While the technology does exist, the legislation is so far lacking, with no international standards for wastewater re-use such as biological content and guidelines for types of crops. The challenge of monitoring is also yet to be addressed.


Under the banner of improving food security, the government plans to reclaim around 1.6m ha of agricultural space. The first phase of this undertaking entails 404,686 ha in 11 districts, primarily in the Western desert and Toshka regions, is meant to be achieved by drilling for well water located by satellite imaging. Drill locations will be in Owaynat, Toshka, Hala’ib and Shalateen. As such, the Cabinet determined in April 2015 that 176,400 ha from the first phase of the programme will be in the Minya governorate of Upper Egypt and 48,720 ha in Farafra, in the Wadi Al Gedid governorate. Next after these will be Toshka, which is also located in Upper Egypt. A public company will serve as the master developer of the project and be tasked with responsibility for building utilities, basic infrastructure, roads and One aspect of the plan entails expanding cultivated areas through the use of land once utilised by open canals, which should bring in an additional 10bn cu metres of water per year to be exploited in the reclamation and cultivation of at least 121,406 ha of new land, according to a Daily News Egypt report. With funding of around $50m, by January 2015 the International Fund for Agricultural Development said the project had seen development in field irrigation in Beheira, Kafr El Sheikh, Assiut, Sohag and Qena governorates. With much of North Africa’s water resources considered non-renewable, a key question is not only whether the water is there, but whether it can provide for sustainable agriculture if it is indeed found.


The plan is therefore not without some controversy. Mohammed Nasreddine, former minister of water resources and irrigation, commented to Al Monitor in October 2014 that, “There is no groundwater reservoir in Egypt capable of catering to the needs of this project.”

In addition, it might create new problems with only larger players able to afford the level of irrigation and smaller players left out. Roger Pyle, Al Dahra’s chief agricultural officer for Egypt, told OBG, “Small family farms fit well around the Nile Delta region. However, given the costs of pumping water, larger farms are the only feasible option in the more desolate areas of the country.”

Nevertheless, there is significant domestic interest in reclaiming land no matter the challenge, and through private and public cooperation there is momentum to verify the availability of water resources to ensure successful and sustainable solutions. Fathi Geweili, head of the Department of Irrigation at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, was confident that groundwater would be available to cultivate 90% of the programme’s first phase, and the remaining 10% would be irrigated from surface water and the Nile.

A key challenge remains in the form of multiple withdrawal points used by traditional farmers. As such, there are calls for changing the way in which water is allocated. One idea is to form local associations through which a share of water is provided commensurate with plot size. Another consideration is the need to reduce uncertainty over water delivery, which often leads farmers to accumulate water whenever they can, but not in the most efficient way. By reducing uncertainty, water can be distributed and collected in a manner that is less intensive on supply and more efficient in usage.