It has been two years since the Egyptian populace toppled their dictator of three decades with resonating, populist chants for “bread, freedom and social justice.” While freedom and social justice are still a possibility for the people of Egypt, bread could become harder to come by. Egypt has been suffering from severe water scarcity due to the uneven distribution and misuse of resources, and wasteful irrigation techniques. Furthermore, Egypt’s growing population coupled with its weakening grip on the Nile River could lead to an arid future with reports from the United Nations suggesting that Egypt could run out of water by the year 2025. It’s a crisis that could threaten the country’s very existence.
Egypt controls the majority of the water resource extracted from the Nile River due to a colonial-era treaty, which guaranteed Egypt a 90% share of the Nile, and prevented their neighbors from extracting even a single drop from the Nile without permission. However, countries along the Nile such as Burundi, and Ethiopia are taking advantage of the political strife that has engulfed Egypt and are gaining more control over the rights for the Nile. With the Nile supplying 95% of Egypt’s freshwater, losing some of the water supply can cause additional problems for Egypt. However, the most concerning tribulations that are affecting water scarcity in the country are rapid population growth, inefficient irrigation techniques, and water pollution.
Egypt’s population is mushrooming at an alarming rate. It has increased by 41% since the early 1990’s, and even with the country currently facing a variety of difficulties the population is still rapidly increasing. Reports by the government suggest that around 4,700 newborns are added to the population every week, and according to further projections the population will grow from it’s current total of 80 million to 98.7 million by the year 2025. This rapid population increase intensifies the stress on the country’s water supply in two ways: The first is through personal use like drinking, showering, and cooking. The second is through an increase in food demand, which in turn increases the level of water required for irrigation.
Egypt receives less than 80 mm of rainfall a year, and only 6% of the country is arable and agricultural land, with the rest being a hyper-arid desert. This leads to excessive watering and the use of wasteful irrigation techniques such as flood irrigation [a dated method of irrigation where gallons of water are pumped over the crops]. Today, Egypt’s irrigation network draws almost entirely from the Aswan High Dam, which regulates more than 18,000 miles of canals and sub-canals that push out into the country’s farmlands adjacent to the river. This system is highly inefficient, losing as much as 3 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year through evaporation. This could damage the country on several fronts. Not only will this affect the country through water and food stress, but also through unemployment. A further decrease in water supply would lead to a decline in arable land available for agriculture, and with agriculture being the biggest employer of youth in Egypt, water scarcity could lead to increased unemployment levels.
As agriculture, industry, and urbanization develop among the human population, so too do the side effects associated with these practices increased, namely in the form of various pollutants. Agricultural and industrial runoffs, and municipal sewage water are dumped into the Nile River, gradually making its water unfit for human consumption.
Sewage water from slums and many other areas in Cairo is dumped back into the river untreated due to lack of water treatment plants that would treat the wastewater before it is released back into the river.
Agricultural runoffs frequently contain pollutants from pesticides and herbicides, which have negative effects on the river and the people using it.
Industrial runoff is often highly toxic, containing heavy metals that can combine with the suspended solids in domestic wastewater to form muck.
A bleak future:
The water issue in Egypt has reached crisis levels where by 2020 Egypt will be consuming 20% more water than it has, and with its loosening grip on the Nile, water scarcity could endanger the country’s fragile structure. Therefore, governments and the entire population of Egypt must act fast to mitigate water scarcity and develop plans that would install more efficient irrigation techniques, and control water pollution in order to avoid a disaster. However, if progress is not made soon, it is only a matter of time until the population floods into Tahrir Square and starts the second revolution.