Egypt’s Water Crisis and Degeneration of Nile

pollution-nileEgypt is struggling to cope with water shortages and food production. It is expected that Egypt’s per capita annual water supply will drop from 600 cubic meters today to 500 cubic meters by 2025, which is the UN threshold for absolute water scarcity. Egypt has only 20 cubic meters per person of internal renewable freshwater resources, and as a result the country relies heavily on the Nile for its main source of water. Water scarcity has become so severe that it has been recorded that certain areas in the country could go days without water, with pressure sometimes returning only for a few hours a week. The country can no longer delay action and must act now.


Agriculture contributes roughly 15% of Egypt’s GDP, and employs 32% of Egypt’s workforce with rice being the biggest produce in the country. Rice is an important part of an Egyptian family’s diet. However, the cultivation of rice is very water intensive. On average about 3000 liters of water is used to produce 1 kilo of rice. This number can vary depending on climate, soil type and water management practices.

The government has restricted cultivation of rice to an area of 1 million acres (farmers were previously able to use most of the Nile Delta for cultivation) in specified areas of the Nile Delta. The government has even resorted to taking drastic measures as spreading incendiary compounds on rice fields cultivated outside the area allocated by the government. This has caused outrage and demonstrations by farmers who insist that the area allocated is not enough for them to be able to make ends meet. This type of tension caused by the lack of water was one of the catalysts of the Arab Spring in 2011/2012.

To alleviate population tension and unrest the government has been trying to increase water supply by exploring with reusing treated agricultural and municipal wastewater for agriculture. However implementation of such initiatives is not being applied fast enough to cope with the rising demand. Government must enforce new irrigation methods in the country (Egyptian farmers still rely heavily on flood and canal irrigation in the Nile Delta) as well as smart agricultural practices such as using less water intensive crops. Resorting less water intensive water crops could drastically cut water used in agriculture and help increase water supply.

Pollution of the Nile

The Nile has been a lifeline for Egypt at least since the time of the pharaohs. Yet, despite the world’s largest river’s importance to the country, its water is being polluted by various sources, and pollution levels increasing exponentially in recent years.

The degeneration of the Nile is an issue that is regularly underestimated in Egypt. With so many people relying on the Nile for drinking, agricultural, and municipal use, the quality of that water should be of most importance. The waters are mainly being polluted by municipal and industrial waste, with many recorded incidents of leakage of wastewater, the dumping of dead animal carcasses, and the release of chemical and hazardous industrial waste into the Nile River.

Industrial waste has led to the presence of metals (especially heavy metals) in the water which pose a significant risk not only on human health, but also on animal health and agricultural production. Fish die in large numbers from poisoning because of the high levels of ammonia and lead. Agricultural production quality and quantity has been affected by using untreated water for irrigation as the bacteria and the metals in the water affect the growth of the plant produce, especially in the Nile Delta where pollution is highest.

Industrial pollution is wrecking havoc in Nile

Industrial pollution is wrecking havoc in Nile

Of course the pollution of Nile is a complex problem that has been continuing for more than 30 years and the government is trying to implement stricter rules on the quality and type of waste/wastewater dumped into the river to reduce the pollution of the Nile. However, swift and decisive action must be taken towards cleaning the Nile, such as treating the wastewater prior to disposal, and placing stricter restrictions on industries to dispose of their waste safely and responsibly. This issue cannot be ignored any further as the continual increase in population will cause an increase in demand on Egypt’s dwindling water resources. Every drop of water counts.

The Blue Nile Dam

Another challenge at hand is tackling the issue of Ethiopia building a dam and hydroelectric plant upstream that may cut into Egypt’s share of the Nile. For some time a major concern for Egypt was Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile watershed, which is a main source of water for the Nile River. Construction of the Renaissance Dam started in December 2010, and has the capacity to store 74 to 79 billion cubic meters of water and generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity for Ethiopia a year. This creates major concern for Egypt, who is worried that this damn would decrease the amount of water it receives (55.5 billion cubic meters) from the Nile River. Egypt is concerned that during dry months, not enough water will be released from the GERD thus decreasing the water received downstream. This will greatly hinder Egypt’s attempts to alleviate the water shortages during those months.

Earlier this year, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan assigned two French companies to prepare a report on the impact of the dam on the three countries. This report will clarify the affects the Dam will have on downstream countries. The results of this report are yet to be released. 


In case of business-as-usual scenario, Egypt runs the risk of becoming an absolute water scarce country in less than a decade. Therefore Egypt has a battle on its hands to ensure adequate conditions for its population. Like many other water scarce countries around the world, it needs to mitigate water scarcity by implementing smart conservation techniques, adopting water saving technologies, and control water pollution. With climate conditions expected to get drier and heat waves expected to become more frequent in the MENA region, Egypt cannot afford to neglect its water conservation policies and must act immediately to meet the population’s water demand.


Sources of Information

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About Amir Dakkak

Amir Dakkak, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, is an Environmental Scientist at AECOM. His main passion is water scarcity and water sustainability in the MENA region. He runs the blog Water Source that addresses water problems and sustainability. Amir has worked with Emirates Environmental Group on various environmental issues including water scarcity.
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