“Egypt is embarking on the biggest desalination and water treatment project in its history,” said President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a speech. “We cannot allow a water shortage in Egypt and we have to be prepared so that all citizens across the country get their share of water for both farming and drinking.” This statement coincided with growing concerns over an impending water crisis as construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam progresses and negotiations between the two countries have not so far resolved any of the technical disputes. While this project is presented as a contingency plan, its ability to make up for lost Nile water if the impasse persists is put to question.
Ahmed Fawzi Diab, expert in water strategies and professor at the Cairo-based Desert Research Center, said that the project has nothing to do with the construction of the Renaissance Dam and will by no means make up for the water shortage caused by the dam. It is rather to deal with current shortage. “Egypt is currently suffering from an annual shortage of 30 billion cubic meters,” he said.
“In order to face this shortage, we need to treat sewage and agricultural wastewater which are directly discharged into the Nile.” Diab added that soon enough another 30 billion cubic meters will be needed owing to the agricultural expansion Egypt is witnessing as well as the expected population growth. “That is why while this project constitutes a positive step towards solving Egypt’s water problems, it should have been done much earlier.” Regarding desalination, Diab said that Egypt needs four stations, each of which producing four billion cubic meters annually. “The real challenge here is the enormous financial cost, which might hinder the realization of those projects on the ground.”
Desalination expert and professor of water chemistry Hossam Ahmed Shawki agreed that the project is required to solve current problems apart from future ones to because by the Renaissance Dam, yet admitted that the dam played a role in pushing the project forward. “The construction of the dam alerted us all to the necessity of looking for alternatives to Nile water which we now depend on almost exclusively,” he said. Shawki explained that Egypt’s share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic meters and another seven billion come from subterranean water while the country’s needs exceed 80 billion. “That is why the desalination of sea water was seen as one of the best choices, especially that it depends on an inexhaustible source.” Shawki added that Egypt’s production of desalinated water was 20-30 thousand cubic meters daily 25 years ago then kept increasing until it reached 130,000 one and a half year ago, is currently 250,000, and is expected to reach 700,000 in three years’ time.
“A few months ago, the Hurghada desalination station started operating and is now producing 180,000 cubic meters daily.” Shawki noted that desalination in Egypt started in coastal areas where potable water was needed for resorts, but with the new project stations will be spread across the country. “Desert areas, on the other hand, can depend mostly on subterranean water and there was a previous successful example in Algeria. Also, the desalination of subterranean water is cheaper than the desalination of sea water.”
Inevitable construction of the Jonglei Canal
According to water expert Nader Nour al-Din resuming the construction of the Jonglei Canal, which would make use of water wasted in the swamps and divert it to the main river channel, is now inevitable. “This canal will produce around 20 billion cubic meters,” he said. “Egypt has good relations with South Sudan, where the canal is now located, which would help move the project forward. It is also as important for South Sudan as it is for Egypt since it will provide irrigation water for hundreds of thousands of acres.” This project, Nour al-Din noted, still faces a lot of challenges that are not confined to sources of funding. “The project stopped before because of the war between the Sudanese government and South Sudan rebels and now the political situation in South Sudan is not very stable,” he explained. “If further clashes erupt, the project will be threatened once more.”
Sudanese water expert Salman Mohamed Salman underlined other challenges that are likely to hinder the implementation of the canal project. “Locals in the area where the canal is to be dug have for long objected to the project and staged several protests because they believe it will harm them,” he said. “The canal will obstruct the movement of the cattle in the area and is likely to have a negative impact on the amount of rain in the region.” The amount of rain in the area is determined by the water evaporating from the swamps, which will decrease when the water is diverted. Salman also noted that the swamps in this part have been designated an ecological zone, which makes the construction of the canal even more difficult now.
Safwat Abdel Dayem, advisor to the Arab Water Council, detailed the losses expected to be incurred by the Renaissance Dam in addition to the already-existing water shortage. “According to research, our share of Nile water will decrease by 5-10 billion cubic meters annually and the water stored in the High Dam will also be affected,” he said. “This will have a negative impact on agriculture both in terms of consumption and export.” Abdel Dayem explained that is Egypt share of Nile water decreases by five billion cubic meters, the losses of the agriculture sector will amount to 75 billion Egyptian pounds. “This loss will reach 150 billion Egyptian pounds if our share decreases by 10 billion cubic meters.”