The lifeblood of Egypt is running dry
The clock strikes five on a hot and dry fall morning when 60-something Ali al-Faqi makes his way through the darkness to meet up with four other farmers at the mosque of his Nile Delta village. By the dim glow of the flickering streetlights, the anxious group sets off on the mile-long trek to their fields just north of Cairo. Holding their breath, they peer into the 8-foot-deep irrigation canals to see if they've finally filled with the promised Nile River water.
Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians worshipped the Nile River Goddess Anuket as the “nourisher of the fields” whose summer floods turned the desert green. Today, their descendants are more likely to seek solace from Allah and irrigation agency bureaucrats. But still their lives remain inexorably tied to the health of the world’s longest river.
And recently, the Nile has been hanging them out to dry. The month of October is supposed to mark the tail end of the flood season, when heavy rainfall in the mountains of Ethiopia flows more than 2,000 miles downstream to bring the Egyptian desert to life. But at the time of Al-Monitor's visit to the delta, the canals, or mesquas, used to irrigate Faqi’s 3-acre plot have already been empty for weeks, devastating the seven-member family’s livelihood. Water-intensive rice plants have been replaced with sturdier staples, but to no avail; everywhere Faqi looks, tomato and corn crops are shriveling up, while unripe bananas fall off the trees to rot on the ground.
For more than 15 days, I have been visiting the land to get my share of water,” Faqi laments. “But I cannot find it.”
Farmers aren’t the only ones affected by the dropping water levels. Such scenes of desolation play out up and down the river. In Cairo, urbanites struggle with weak water pressure and garbage-clogged canals. Along the river’s banks, abandoned boats attest to a dying fishing industry. In the tourism heartland around Luxor and Aswan, cruise ships remain docked, unable to navigate the river’s shallow waters. At the Nile’s source in distant Ethiopia, diplomats haggle over international water quotas, as the river’s life-sustaining waters give way to grief and strife.
“The water situation in Egypt is critical,” said Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Ati. “We have reached a point where the available water quantities set the limits for economic development. We have become one of the driest countries in the world.”
Egyptian civilization emerged more than 5,000 years ago as heavy summer rains in the highlands of East Africa carried vast amounts of high-quality silt to the lower reaches of the Nile. The resulting soil proved particularly fertile, giving birth to a lush green ribbon that snakes through some of the world's driest lands. In a country that receives less than 8 inches of rain along the coast — and almost none at all south of Cairo — the Nile continues to fulfill 90% of Egypt's water needs.
But surging population growth along the Nile compounded by the devastating impact of climate change threatens disaster as more and more people compete for a dwindling resource. Today, Egypt faces an annual water deficit of more than 20 billion cubic meters (5.3 trillion gallons). That's the difference between the amount of water that people, crops and industry need and what’s available from the Nile in addition to limited quantities of groundwater, treated wastewater and desalinated water.
For millennia, the Nile Delta between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea has been marked by intensive agricultural use. Today, about 86% of Nile water that flows to Egypt is still used to grow food, with the $28 billion agricultural sector accounting for about 12% of the economy. Agriculture is also the cornerstone of food security, as the government relies on its domestic production to avoid overdependence on foreign sources. In a telling sign of the vital national interests at stake, Egypt transferred responsibility for Nile disputes with its African neighbors from the Water and Foreign Affairs ministries into the hands of Egypt's intelligence and security chief in 2010.
Despite being a national priority, the agricultural sector is one of the hardest-hit victims as Egypt runs out of water. Since 1991, employment in the agricultural sector has dropped from 44% to less than 27%, in part due to farmers abandoning their unprofitable lands to look for work elsewhere.
The country's failure to feed its people has transformed the former breadbasket of the Roman Empire into the world's largest wheat importers: The country imported 12.5 million metric tons (13.8 million US tons) of wheat and flour from April 2018 to April 2019 — 50% more than it produced — according to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). To make matters worse, farmers are increasingly growing crops in the desert as the country loses fertile land to urbanization.
An Egyptian farmer walks past his crops damaged by drought at a farm formerly irrigated by the Nile River, in el-Dakahlia, about 75 miles from Cairo, June 4, 2013 (photo by Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
The government is looking at ways to avoid catastrophe, including by encouraging the use of less wasteful but more expensive pressurized irrigation methods, such as drip and sprinkler systems, which account for a little more than 10% of irrigated lands in Egypt (versus 58%-65% in the United States). At the same time, however, government policies also encourage the production of water-intensive cash crops, notably cotton.
Faqi’s parched fields are a case study of all that is going wrong as the Nile dries up. His village of al-Hamoul lies in the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, the largest rural tract in Egypt’s agricultural heartland. The governorate’s 275,000 cultivated acres have long produced an abundance of field crops and grains, along with fruits and vegetables as well as livestock — a cornucopia made possible by a complex network of canals and pumping stations stretching more than 500 miles from Lake Nasser to the Nile Delta. But the miracle of irrigation is just as often a source of misery for farmers at the end of the line.
“At the beginning of the agricultural season, we sow our seeds and hope to get a suitable share of water or no water rationing,” Faqi said. “Sometimes we try to delay cultivation to reduce pressure on water demand, or to cultivate the land repeatedly. But these solutions are temporary and useless most of the time.”
Without irrigation, desperate farmers are turning to other sources of water, including tapping aquifers and other sources of underground water whose salinity can damage the soil. Others are reusing agricultural drainage water by using small diesel pumps to lift water from ditches and return it to irrigation canals for reuse, increasing the available water supply but potentially contaminating the irrigation network with polluted water.
Damage to the irrigation network was evident on a tour of al-Hamoul last fall. Most canals were almost completely dry, and irrigation machines lay dormant. Idle farmers threatened to turn on one another.
“Sometimes,” Faqi noted, “we fight and argue with the owners of lands that overlook the same irrigation source to take turns in irrigating the lands.”
The government is well aware of the impact on farmers.
“We are distributing the available water to lands,” Ashraf Mohammadi, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation in Kafr el-Sheikh, told Al-Monitor. “It is like using one cup of water to hydrate dozens of people.”
“We have reached a point where the available water quantities set the limits for economic development. We have become one of the driest countries in the world.”
In a bid to address the water deficit, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation recently initiated a set of austerity measures. The 20-year plan aims to rationalize consumption, encourage water reuse and increase the use of desalinated water in coastal cities.
“Reused agricultural drainage water has become an integral part of the water balance in Egypt,” Mohammadi said, “given the impossibility of relying solely on Egypt’s quota of Nile water.”
The ministry has also taken more drastic measures, including ordering farmers to curtail the production of high-yielding but water-intensive cash crops. In January 2018, the area allotted to rice cultivation was reduced from 1.1 million acres to 750,000 acres, devastating the livelihood of Nile Delta families. As a result, the USDA's Cairo bureau forecast rice production to drop to 3.3 million metric tons (3.6 million US tons) in the 12 months through September 2019, down 1 million metric ton (1.1 million US tons) from the 2017-18 estimate.
“The decision deprived me of growing rice this season, and not enough water rations were provided to grow other crops,” Faqi said. “The government decided not to allow us to grow rice, without giving us any instructions regarding other crops we can rely on to preserve land fertility. Many acres turned into fallow lands, and rice cultivation in the governorate is now history.”
The impact of dropping water levels can be felt far beyond the Nile Delta. In the Faiyoum oasis village of al-Gomhouria, 150 miles to the south, large cracks scar the dry earth as thirsty crops wither in the sun.
“The village’s agricultural lands barely produce enough to cover our consumption needs,” Shaaban Abdul Rahman, a farmer in his early 40s, told Al-Monitor on a recent visit. “We had warehouses for all kinds of grains grown in our land, and now we have to travel to nearby centers to buy our food needs.”
Abdul Rahman recalled when his father received a 3-acre plot as part of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s land reforms of the 1950s. At the time, he said, farming met the needs of the whole family. But recent water woes are leaving him no choice but to join the growing rural exodus in hopes of finding a doorman job in the city.
“I have no other option but to move to Cairo,” Abdul Rahman said, “until the state finds a solution to the water crisis and life returns to our lands.”
Thousands of years before the Pan-African Highway aimed to connect Egypt to the rest of the continent, the Nile was a busy thoroughfare that helped build the pharaohs’ glorious cities. An endless procession of barges carried valuable limestone hundreds of miles from quarries as far south as Aswan and beyond, giving birth to the great pyramids at Giza and the temples of Memphis and Thebes.
Today, the river’s dwindling fortunes are having the reverse impact on modern Egypt’s struggling cities. Dropping water levels are creating shortages for both residential and industrial customers, fueling economic losses and social strife. As impoverished rural residents abandon their desiccated lands for the promise of jobs and services in the city, they’re putting even more strain on already overextended urban water systems.
“Migration to the city is the fastest solution for the new generation in the countryside, especially with the collapse of the agricultural profession because of water scarcity,” said Mohamed Mohieldin, a specialist in water issues at Menoufia University north of Cairo. “Massive migration to the cities without planning is the main reason for overloading the main services like water and power, which causes bottlenecks in [both] slums and middle-class districts.”
Shahira Hussein, a mother of two who lives in an apartment about 6 miles from downtown Cairo, can attest to the daily struggles as water shortages reach crisis levels. “The problem started two years ago,” Hussein recalled in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We were surprised by water cut for three consecutive months."
Since then, she said, water has only been available for about three hours a day, even though she pays about $100 per month for the service.
“During the few hours when the water reaches the tap, I try to store as much as possible for my family's needs, but it is such an onerous task,” she said. “I have had to leave home many times and stay with my relatives when the water totally cut, especially during summer. Living without water is impossible, especially with children.”
And the quality of the water that is reaching households is only getting worse, as dropping water levels contribute to higher concentrations of agricultural and industrial waste and other forms of pollution. “Water also is unclean and unfit for drinking or using in food preparation,” Hussein noted. “We depend on bottled water, which adds financial burdens on my family.”
The Egyptian government blames unconstrained population growth and illegal construction for the service disruptions. With districts in Cairo and Giza experiencing repeated water cuts, local authorities have raised prices and adopted restrictive measures, including fines of up to 500 Egyptian pounds ($30) for people who waste water by leaving garden hoses open, washing their cars in excess or spraying water in front of their shops to get rid of dust. Residents have answered with their own makeshift solutions, including using pumps to capture underground water or building water tanks on the roofs of buildings.
“History shows that Egyptians are good at circumventing the law,” Mohieldin said. “Failing to deter wasteful water practices … will complicate the crisis.”
Ancient Egyptian accounts describe a Nile River teeming with wildlife. In Sakkara, the 4,200-year-old tomb of vizier Mereruka displays reliefs of hippopotamuses battling crocodiles while fishermen gather bountiful harvests in their nets.
Today, scientists estimate that half of all fish species have vanished from the lower Nile, including the snub-nosed Oxyrhynchus, a sacred fish specimen ancient Egyptians knew to catch and release. Many have disappeared from Egyptian waters just in the past five decades, with the construction of the Aswan High Dam being blamed for impeding fish reproduction and blocking the flow of sediment 1,000 miles downstream. That in turn has caused the Nile Delta to recede and the Mediterranean’s salty waters to advance, to devastating effect.
The human impact can be witnessed first-hand on Qursaya, just a short ferry ride from the bustling heart of Cairo. On a recent tour of the 150-acre island’s banks in his modest wooden boat, Mohammed Siraj recalled a time when fishing sustained the couple of thousand people who still live on the island.
“The Nile was the primary source of fish for the Egyptians,” Siraj told Al-Monitor. “But the constant drought and low water levels almost depleted the river’s fish wealth.”
Siraj, 50, has been fishing since 1985. The past two years, he said, have been the worst in living memory, with some days’ catch adding up to less than 2 pounds of tilapia and little to nothing else.
Government statistics bear this out. While data is sparse, the USDA reported a 4.5% decline in Egypt's wild catch between 2014 and 2015, which it blamed on overfishing.
A cropped Oxyrhynchus sculpture from 664-332 BC (photo by Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
“Fishing has become a tiring job with an income that barely covers basic living needs,” said Siraj, the breadwinner for a family of five. “The Nile is our lifeline. Islanders are mostly fishermen or farmers. The Nile water shortage is a living nightmare. We are in a battle with nature that will only stop when the water situation improves.”
As a result, the banks of Qursaya are cluttered with wooden boats abandoned by island residents who have gone to search for a new source of income. The scene repeats itself from Aswan to the Nile Delta, as thousands of struggling fishermen assess their options amid a bleak future.
Some, like Siraj, have taken to blaming the government. The Ministry of Agriculture, he said, used to release fish larvae into the river five times a year. But that has not happened for the past three years. “The government,” he said, “has [come] to lose interest in protecting the river’s fish resources.”
But Mahmoud Salem, the head of operations and production administration for the General Authority for Fish Resources Development — an international public-private partnership — suggested fishermen take some of the blame. “We just don’t have the budget, so we stopped supplying the Nile with fish larvae,” he told Al-Monitor. “Fishermen also don't give the fish the opportunity to grow and reproduce in the river [and] we couldn't just ban fishing during their growth season.”
Relief fragment showing fishing scene, 2649-2100 BC, Tomb of Kaaper, Sakkara, Egypt (photo from Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Further complicating matters, the government has a vested interest in seeing the fishermen of Qursaya fail. The military has its eye on the island as prime real estate for development, prompting deadly clashes with residents.
As the wild catch continues to drop, fish farming has taken the lead and now makes up 80% of Egypt’s fish production, mostly Nile tilapia, grey mullet and carp. The country now has the world’s ninth-largest aquaculture industry (and the largest in Africa), with a market value of more than $2 billion.
But here too water scarcity is causing problems. Every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of farmed fish requires 25 cubic meters (6,600 gallons) to produce, putting more strain on the scarce resource, according to a 2016 study published in Aquaculture International. Floating cages in the Nile itself is no longer an option, the study states, as the river has become unsuitable for aquaculture due to pollution from “inorganic nitrogen, organic substances, phosphorous and heavy metals.” Instead, the focus is now on intensive pond aquaculture, which is preferred for its high rate of return on water use.
“In Egypt,” the study says, “the water resources, both fresh and brackish water, are the major constraints on further development, with use for potable water and land crop production having priority over aquaculture activities.”
British tourism pioneer Thomas Cook all but invented the Nile cruise in the 1870s when he cornered the market on steamer crossings and proceeded to set up hotels in Luxor and Aswan. One hundred and fifty years later, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made the global fascination with the mystic river a cornerstone of his campaign to fix Egypt’s economy.
Now he just needs the Nile to cooperate.
In recent years, dropping water levels have repeatedly stranded cruises sailing to Upper Egypt’s archaeological treasures, infuriating tourists and devastating boat owners’ bottom lines. Water scarcity has replaced terrorism as the greatest risk to tour operators’ livelihoods.
“The main threat to the tourism season now is the disruption of navigation in the Nile due to shallow water,” said Ahmed Abdel Ghani, a cruise ship owner whose boat has been docked for the second year in a row.
Water levels hit their nadir during the winter months, at the height of tourism season. Many visitors visit Luxor and Aswan and the archaeological sites along the river’s banks by booking cruises in December and January, Abdel Ghani said, most notably during New Year’s celebrations.
But dropping water levels have made many of those sites inaccessible by boat.
“Sometimes a cruise ship will remain stranded in the river for more than three days before the arrival of rescue units to provide tourists with other means of transportation,” Abdel Ghani noted. “For the tourists, a sudden change of program … is disappointing and frustrating. Nile cruises will bear the brunt of such incidents in the coming tourist seasons.”
All too often, visitors end up missing a large part of their tour program since they are unable to access cities such as Kom Ombo and Arment, which cruise ships now have trouble reaching. As a result, the Nile tours become limited to trips to major archaeological sites such as Luxor and Aswan. Disappointed tourists who had to cut short their tours are unlikely to recommend a Nile cruise to their friends.
Cruise line operators such as Ghani incur multiple losses every time navigation is disrupted. They have to secure alternative land transportation for the disgruntled tourists, and running aground risks major damage to a ship’s hull and engine, with huge maintenance and repair costs.
Abdel Ghani estimates the daily loss for cruise ship owners from a disrupted trip at around $5,000. That’s a big hit for a boat carrying about 100 tourists paying an average of $80 per night for a weeklong or 10-day cruise.
Even hard-fought improvements in the country’s safety reputation risk backfiring.
Egypt launched an ad campaign targeting new markets during last year’s soccer World Cup and recently resumed flights with Russia grounded after a deadly Islamic State bombing in 2015. Across Upper Egypt, Abdel Ghani said, tourism sector workers had been looking forward to the recovery. But now they have their doubts.
“Ahead of this year’s tourist season, intensive preparations started on about 90 cruise ships for the New Year's celebrations, and many tourism programs were launched. A high demand was registered for these tours by international tourism partners and agents. Unfortunately, once again, low water levels hindered navigation and most of these tours risked suspension,” Abdel Ghani said. “The specter of water shortage may cause us more losses than before.”
Cruise ship owners aren’t the only ones who rely on the Nile to deliver a steady stream of tourists. Aswan and Luxor also rely on a busy winter season to sustain hotels, restaurants and local markets that sell souvenirs and traditional products.
The tourism sector water needs represent another challenge for the Egyptian government, which plans to attract 20 million tourists a year by 2020. More tourist facilities means more water consumption in the form of golf courses, swimming pools and industrial lakes in tourist-friendly cities.
The situation has attracted the government’s attention. After some 40 cruises between Luxor and Aswan were affected by navigational restrictions during the 2017-18 winter season, Sisi called a meeting of his tourism and water resources ministers. He pledged to develop an “integrated plan to secure Nile River navigation” including “a routine purge of the river bed by dredges, placing guiding signs and restrictions on cruise owners in order to guarantee the highest possible safety for passengers.”
Ironically, the government’s own policies that prioritize agriculture and drinking water over other uses are part of the problem.
Cruise boats remain docked along the Nile River shoreline on Oct. 23, 2013, near Luxor, Egypt (photo by Ed Giles/Getty Images)
Currently, Egypt’s National Water Resources Management Plan proscribes the release of exceptional quantities of water from Lake Nasser for river navigation. Instead, the minimum daily water release set at 75 million cubic meters (almost 20 billion gallons) is distributed to potable water stations throughout the country, with part of it allocated to agricultural lands.
Ever since the Aswan High Dam went into operation in the 1970s, the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation has followed an annual practice known as the “winter closure,” for 40 days between December and February. During this period when irrigation needs are at their lowest, water is trapped in Lake Nasser and canals are emptied out for maintenance and development. As a result, water levels in the Nile and its branches decrease significantly, causing some usually submerged islands to break the surface.
The policy aims to conserve water for the summer months amid the shortage crisis. But it has created its own set of disruptions, stranding boats, exacerbating water pollution and killing fish.
Hundreds of miles south of Aswan close to the Blue Nile’s source in northwest Ethiopia, farmer Issa, a farmer in his 20s, is much more upbeat about the river’s future.
Residents of his village of timber and palm-leaf huts have always relied on untreated rainwater and mountain runoff for drinking and bathing water. But construction of Africa's biggest hydroelectric power plant near the border with Sudan has sparked dreams of clean water and reliable energy. Once complete, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, will flood some 650 square miles of forest, an area about four times the size of Cairo. Ethiopia estimates the dam will generate 6,500 megawatts of electricity and help the country of 110 million people reach middle-income status.
Al-Monitor toured the villages of Bisha, Guba, Teba and Sherkole in the Benishangul-Gumuz region where the dam is located in July 2016. Issa, a farmer whose land was expropriated for the dam project, said he’d heard about job opportunities for local workers and was excited about the prospect of helping build a better future for himself and his community.
A world away in the corridors of power in Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo, diplomats and regional leaders are dealing with a whole different set of concerns as they try to strike a deal on water rights affecting tens of millions of people. Ethiopia's dam aspirations date back to a 1964 feasibility study conducted by the US Bureau of Reclamation, which first identified potential sites. Construction finally began in 2011. Once complete, it will take anywhere from five to 15 years to fill the reservoir of 70 billion cubic meters (18.5 trillion gallons), which is equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Blue Nile at the Sudan border.
The talks are a matter of national security for Egypt, where the vast majority of people live along the banks of the river. Under a 1959 water sharing agreement with Sudan, Egypt is allotted 55.5 billion cubic meters (14.7 trillons gallons) of water annually from the Blue Nile, which accounts for 85% of Egypt's Nile water. (The smaller White Nile tributary joins the Blue Nile in Khartoum.) At the time, Egypt’s population did not exceed 20 million people. Now, that same amount is supposed to meet the water needs of 100 million Egyptians.
And it's not just Ethiopia that has designs on the blue gold coursing through the land. Sudan is particularly interested in diverting the Nile to irrigate fertile lands used to feed the water-poor Gulf states. Across the region, geopolitical tensions are rising as heavily populated countries fight over an increasingly scarce resource.
Northeastern Africa has been down this path before. During the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, Egypt turned to the Soviet Union to help build the High Dam at Aswan to better control flooding. Furious at being left out of regional negotiations over water quotas, impoverished Ethiopia began eyeing its own dams. Tensions thawed in the early 1990s, leading to a 1993 framework providing that “each party shall refrain from engaging in any activity related to the Nile waters that may cause appreciable harm to the interests of the other party.”
However, the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak by Egyptian Islamists while he was visiting Addis Ababa in 1995 reignited tensions. In 2001, Addis Ababa announced its intention to establish several development projects on the river as part of its national water strategy. Ethiopia also mobilized upstream countries to fight the quota system, signing a pact with five other African nations in 2010 that allows them to conduct projects along the river without Egypt's prior consent. Plans for the GERD itself were confirmed in April 2011.
Over the past eight years, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have held numerous technical, political and security meetings to try to reach a deal that would minimize the dam's impact on the downstream nations' water security. Despite the creation of a trilateral committee in 2012, however, tensions remain high, fueling political instability back in Egypt that has only made it harder to reach a compromise.
The dam was one of the issues that fueled popular anger at Mohammed Morsi during his short stint as Egypt's first democratically elected president. Morsi was hammered in the media after Ethiopia began diverting the flow of the Blue Nile to make way for the dam in May 2013.
Security guards look at the construction of Ethiopia's Great Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, some 25 miles from Ethiopia's border with Sudan, June 28, 2013 (photo by Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)
When Sisi was elected president in May 2014, he immediately set about trying to calm the public while also working to improve relations with Ethiopia in an ultimately successful bid to rejoin the African Union (AU), which had suspended Egypt in July 2013 following Morsi's ouster (the AU is based in Addis Ababa).
Under Sisi, Egypt has stressed a diplomatic outcome to the crisis. In 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD, despite the advice of legal experts who argued against joining a document that allowed Ethiopia to strengthen its legal and international position while not explicitly providing for the respect and protection of Egypt's annual Nile water quota. “Ethiopia accomplished its mission when it signed a declaration of principles that gave it sovereignty [over its land and natural resources],” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom told the Ethiopian parliament following a round of negotiations between Addis Ababa and Cairo in 2015. “Egypt,” he added, “did not mention its historical rights of the Nile waters in this declaration.”
Since then, Egyptian frustration with Ethiopia has swelled. Four years since the declaration was signed, none of its 10 clauses — including a requirement to conduct comprehensive technical studies to test the dam's impacts on Egypt and Sudan — have been carried out. Ethiopia even rejected Egypt's demand to delay filling the dam reservoir until the end of the negotiations. The situation remains unchanged even as Egypt's political and security apparatus has taken over from the technical experts, leading to the intervention of the heads of the general intelligence services as a main party in official negotiations for the first time in April 2018.
Back in the Nile Delta, Faqi describes the water shortage as an “epidemic” that is slowly killing Egypt’s millennia-old agricultural tradition. “Our children have left the land and most farmers have sold their property to look for other sources of income,” he said. “If the water shortage continues, there won’t be any agricultural lands left.”