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‘Absolute Scarcity’: A Look Into Egypt’s Turbulent Water Crisis

July 11, 2022
Cairo among 11 cities most likely to run out of drinking water due to pollution: BBC - Egypt Independent
Photo Credit: Egypt Independent

As the world struggles against a scarcity of resources, Egypt awaits the onset of a dangerous predicament: a complete lack of water security. For millennia, the Nile supported growth and development from the sweeping banks of Upper Egypt to the clustered, populous Delta; civilization in the region was not only a supplement of water, it is a direct result of it. Images of the river appear prolifically in literature and art, embedded in the sound of Egypt’s national anthems. Egypt has, time and time again, been crowned “the gift of the Nile.”

However, Egypt’s aggregate population of over 102 million is now at risk of drought—the natural and the unnatural kinds.

Said outright: Egypt is in the midst of a worsening water crisis.

According to a 2021 UNICEF report, Egypt has battled an annual water deficit of approximately seven billion cubic meters over the past few years; by 2025, the country may potentially “run out of water” entirely. Between tensions southward, with the quick-climbing, controversial Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Egypt’s arid nature, and the overwhelming realities of climate change, there is an imminent need to discuss the issue in functional rather than fatalistic terms.

Though Egypt might not be alone in this struggle—an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in “complete water scarcity” by 2025—it becomes increasingly concerning the longer one observes local statistics. Many families in Upper Egypt and poorer governorates are connected illegally to the national water network. No less than 10 percent of these villages cannot afford the costs to integrate necessary technologies or connect themselves to the wider, nation-level infrastructure.

Nubia, Upper Egypt | Photo Credit: Thales Botelho de Sousa

In addition to poverty gaps and socioeconomic segmentation, Egypt as a whole has struggled with water renewability. By 2017, the country was already operating below the level of water scarcity, according to the Falkenmark Index; the total renewable water resource per capita was 628 cubic meters per year, a number under immense strain today due to a swelling population—one which continues to grow at over 1.8 to 2.1 percent annually since 1989.

It is estimated that by 2025, Egypt’s water supply will dip below five hundred cubic meters per capita, a state hydrologists define as “absolute scarcity.” With climate change creating even drier conditions for Egypt, it becomes apparent that regional water scarcity will continue to be a chronic issue.

“The coming years will test Egypt’s resilience to water stress, its ability to adapt, and the strength of international diplomacy,” writes the Atlantic Council. A statement made true by the Nile Basin’s strained water politics, Egypt’s dependence on agriculture, and the historical geopolitical instability of the region. The situation calls for solution-oriented approaches which focus on mission-critical elements, such as adopting climate-resistant water management policies, informed by an understanding of compound climate extremes. While there are inevitabilities that come with climate change on a global scale, motions must be made in order to mitigate the onset of issues Egypt is unprimed to face in the upcoming decades.

Local Development min. dismisses heads of Marj, Helwan districts - EgyptToday
General Mahmoud Shaarawy | Photo Credit: Egypt Today

In May 2022 Egypt’s Prime Minister of Local Development, General Mahmoud Shaarawy, presented an itinerary of government plans to rationalize water use, desalinize seawater, and purify local lakes. This is in addition to various national projects aimed at lining water channels, transitioning to modern irrigation systems, and employing better water conservation etiquette across the institutional level.

The statements were made hand in hand with necessary diplomacy; “[…] water in the African continent should be a tool for cooperation and construction, not for discord or tension between people,” affirmed the minister.

Earlier in 2018, the government allotted EGP 900 billion in favor of a water management plan that extended over the course of 20 years. However, despite the substantial budget, Egypt’s crisis continues to worsen. Absolute water security in the Nile Basin, it seems, is an imminent threat that accompanies, if not supersedes, soaring food costs and present inflation rates.

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