Egypt has a water problem—and no, it’s not only the GERD

By Yaniv Cohen / Atlantic  Council
October 27, 2019


The much-talked-about Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the mega-dam threatening to leave Egypt thirsty, is just the latest straw straining the camel’s back. Egypt’s water stress has been building up long beforehand. The Nile River, a once seemingly unending water resource serving Egypt as a dependable and mighty lifeline for millennia, now barely reaches the Mediterranean Sea. It is being drained—not so much by the GERD, which began filling only last July—but primarily by exponentially growing populations whose needs have ballooned to outstrip the Nile’s capacity, and who now bear the risk of simply not having enough to drink.

From the standpoint of the Egyptian government, this risk is both domestic and international. There is a real possibility that water scarcity, affecting Egypt’s agriculture economy and food prices, will factor into renewed anti-government protests mirroring those that led to the 2011 revolution. Yet, the water scarcity strains not only Egypt’s water-dependent economy, but also its relations with its neighbors upstream. The coming years will test Egypt’s resilience to water stress, its ability to adapt, and the strength of international diplomacy.

Population growth, now a moderate 2 percent per year, is the primary driver of Egypt’s water stress, as measured in units of water per capita. Between 1960 to 2020, Egypt’s population grew from twenty-seven million to over one hundred million, leading per capita water supply to quarter. By 2025, water supply is estimated to drop below five hundred cubic meters per capita, a very low level that hydrologists typically define as “absolute scarcity.” Climate change is playing a role, too, resulting in more rainfall in the south of the Nile basin, but also in more hot and dry years on average. Taken together, the trends of population growth and climate change reveal a bleak picture of the future of water sufficiency in Egypt, with no signs of reversal.

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Declining per capita water availability is bound to impact Egypt’s rural population directly. Egypt’s agriculture sector accounts for only 11 percent of GDP, but it employs about a quarter of the population and supports the livelihoods of nearly a quarter more. This water-stressed sector, sustaining about half of Egypt’s population, also consumes 86 percent of Egypt’s freshwater withdrawals. Ultimately, water availability limits agricultural production potential and the amount of income the sector can sustainably support. If current trends continue, an increasing amount of Egypt’s already rural poor population could go jobless or struggle to make ends meet as a direct result of the agriculture sector’s unquenched thirst.

Additionally, the declining per-capita water availability will increase Egypt’s food security risk. Once a breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Egypt now imports about 40 percent of its food consumption in monetary terms, making it one of the most food-import-dependent countries in the world. Wheat and corn are consistently both the most produced and most imported crops in Egypt, demonstrating that the country’s inability to meet its most basic food needs domestically is not for lack of trying. After cereals, the amount of land used to produce fruit—much of it for exports—is a distant second. Global price shocks to staple crops can create severe shortages in Egypt and increase food prices drastically, and the declining per-capita agricultural production could make these price shocks more severe.

There is little Egypt’s government can do at this point to halt population growth or climate change quickly, yet there is plenty it can do to mitigate other drivers of water scarcity, as well as its effects. A 2009 government publication estimated the efficiency of water conveyance and irrigation in Egypt at 70 and 50 percent, respectively, meaning that simply fixing leaks and switching from surface to drip irrigation techniques can save vast amounts of water.

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Indeed, the Egyptian government has been pursuing water-saving efforts, launching its second National Water Resources Plan in 2017. The plan envisions investing $50 billion by 2037, of which Egyptian authorities have so far committed about a third of the funding. Recently, authorities have begun enforcing change by fining farmers with inefficient irrigation practices. However, a widespread transition to drip irrigation is still fraught with farmers’ financial barriers and skepticism of leaving behind trusted irrigation methods.

There is also potential to quadruple the amount of the treated wastewater, which could increase water availability by five percent or so. Sourcing water through desalination is expensive and is only a competitive option as an alternative to transporting water large distances. Egypt is currently investing $2.8 billion to increase its desalination capacity by roughly 0.88 BCM/yr (billion cubic meters a year) by 2025—an incremental increase upon its renewable water resources of 57.5 BCM/yr.

Additionally, Egypt can address the possible harsh consequences of water scarcity by preparing for potential increases in rural unemployment and food price shocks. It can prepare for increasing rural to urban migration by providing targeted job training and ramping up job creation in industry and services. More workers cannot add to Egypt’s agricultural output when it is maxed out due to water restraints, so creating alternative jobs will be crucial. Of course, this is easier said than done. Egypt has been struggling to develop and diversify its economy for many years. The best risk mitigation of uncommon but impactful risks, such as food price shocks, is usually some form of insurance. Food price hikes can be insured in various ways, such as by creating a storage of national food reserves, an emergency fund for subsidizing food imports, or trade agreements to secure food imports at fixed prices.

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While there is much Egypt can do to mitigate risk domestically, its water problem ultimately relies on the activities of its upstream neighbors, too. This reliance is increasingly a source of tension in the region, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia, as the GERD dispute remains unresolved after nearly a decade of negotiations. The GERD may constitute a single, non-continuous water withdrawal project, but the dispute is not just about the dam’s filling and operation. Throughout the negotiations, Ethiopia has been challenging Egypt’s claim to a Nile inflow of 55.5 BCM/yr, which has been promised to Egypt in bilateral agreements with Sudan going back a century. It is a difficult dispute to resolve prominently because it serves as a front to the more fundamental regional problems of water scarcity and allocation.

Upstream, the populations of the Nile countries are growing at an even faster rate than Egypt’s, and their water demands can expect to increase accordingly as they strive to develop their economies. Further water withdrawal projects will likely rise in the future, and it remains entirely uncertain how Egypt can continue fending them off.

While the GERD appears to challenge Egypt’s water supply, it is but the last of developments that seek to extract water in a drying basin where economies are simply outgrowing nature’s water capacity. The region, it seems, is reaching its limit. It will be important for countries in the Nile basin—and for Egypt especially—for the entire region to swiftly adopt water saving solutions and slow the increasing water demand. For this reason alone, the Nile countries have an imperative to cooperate multilaterally rather than compete for unilateral solutions.

Yaniv Cohen is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a former intern at the Atlantic Council.

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