Egypt must preserve its lifeline by tackling the water crisis now

Egypt’s tryst with the Nile has been a classic case of too much water bringing destruction and too little bringing drought

Ehtesham Shahid
Ehtesham Shahid
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The Nile has been a lifeline for Egypt at least since the time of the pharaohs. Yet, despite the world’s largest river travelling for over 4,000 miles in the vicinity, water is now considered “scarce” in the country with the highest population in the Arab world.

According to one estimate, Egypt’s per capita annual supply of water is expected to drop from 600 cubic meters to 500-cubic-meter threshold in 2025, the level categorized “absolute scarcity” as per international norms. This is an alarming situation as United Nations’ Africa Water Vision 2025 says the interdependence between water availability and development is exemplified by the link between water and poverty.

Some of these can be attributed to the pressure of a rising population and shifting climactic conditions. However, there is a developmental element to it as well, which can be labeled as human intervention. Since time immemorial, annual floods would dump rich silt on the banks of the Nile, making the lands fertile. This silt deposit is said to have made this region one of the richest agricultural areas in the world and the basis of one of the most ancient human civilizations.

However, things changed with dams beginning to regulate the flow of the Nile. The most prominent example is the Aswan High Dam of the 1970s. The Aswan helped in providing about a half of Egypt’s power supply and improving navigation along the river, but also, arguably, created conditions that have resulted in Egypt today becoming the world’s largest wheat importer.

This chain of events is often blamed for many traditional farmers today seeking alternate employment to survive. Even farmers who survived have been forced to use fertilizer as a substitute for the nutrients that no longer fill the flood plain. Untreated industrial and agricultural wastes, sewage, and municipal waste-water making their way to the river have made things worse.

Egyptian economy has always relied heavily on the agricultural sector for food and other products. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it provides livelihood for about 55 percent of the population and employs 30 percent of the labor force. In other words, Egypt’s tryst with the Nile has been a classic case of too much water bringing destruction and too little bringing drought.

While technology has been routinely finding solutions to address challenges faced by urban societies, it’s the farmers who need help simply because they find themselves relegated to the background in terms of resource allocation. Indeed efforts have been made to help poor farmers enhance their productivity, some of whom have yielded good results.

Egypt’s tryst with the Nile has been a classic case of too much water bringing destruction and too little bringing drought

Ehtesham Shahid

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), for instance, has optimized and validated a number of technology packages to benefit farmers in various places in the world, including Egypt. The government says it is restructuring state agricultural lender to make it more accountable. It is also setting up a commodities exchange where small farmers are expected to be some of the main sellers.

Egypt has a battle at hand to ensure adequate conditions for its farmers. Like many other parched lands around the world, it needs to mitigate water scarcity, implement conservation techniques and control water pollution. The country also needs to implement more efficient irrigation techniques. Another challenge at hand is tackling the issue of Ethiopia building a dam and hydroelectric plant upstream that may cut Egypt’s share of the Nile.

These challenges are going to be absolutely critical for farmers of Egypt, and the country as a whole, considering it continues to be a predominantly rural population. Finding answers to these are indeed more important than hunt for gold that is going on in the country’s deserts.

Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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