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28/08/2018 – Country Focus / Egypt / The Nile / Sustainability / Food Security

Sustaining the ‘Gift of the Nile’


One of the oldest intensively cultivated areas on earth, the Nile Delta spawned an entire civilisation in an otherwise uninhabitable land, but the impact of modern-day conditions has raised grave concerns about its future – and Egypt’s. Gemma Kent reports on the inextricable link between the flow of the Nile and Egyptian food security, and explores the projects being touted as sustainable solutions.


Thousands of years ago, the Nile’s annual flooding would deposit nutrient-rich soil on the surrounding land, creating fields so fertile that they would yield enough food to feed every person in Ancient Egypt plentifully – with some to spare. The river’s life-giving capacity led to the Greek historian Herodotus describing Egypt as the “gift of the Nile”, and over the centuries that followed it fulfilled an indispensable role as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean.


Today, however, the ancient waterway is struggling under the weight of 21st century demands, particularly those imposed on it by Egypt’s mushrooming population, which has increased by more than 40 per cent since the early 1990s. In 2000 the UN forecast that the country would reach 96 million inhabitants by 2026, but it passed that point last year, a decade early, and the government is now projecting a population of 127 million by 2030 – if efforts to bring down the fertility rate fail. “It’s the bomb of the Middle East,” cautioned Mona Khalifa, Professor of Demography at Cairo University.


Considering 97 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile, this staggering growth rate in what is already the most populous Arab nation is putting a strain on the most vital of resources. The 660 cubic metres of water per person currently supplied by the river is already one of the world’s lowest annual per capita water shares, but there are fears that by 2025 supply could fall below the 500-cubic-metre threshold considered “absolute water scarcity” by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).


Battle for the Nile


Egypt’s relentless population boom – and associated urban sprawl – only exacerbates the other problems affecting the Nile, which include decreased water flow and rising sea levels as a result of climate change. According to a multi-year study published in 2017 by the Geological Society of America (GSA), the plains of the Nile Delta currently sit just one metre above sea level, making them vulnerable to uneven rates of submergence. While the construction of flow-altering barrages such as the Aswan High Dam has reduced sediment deposition, facilitating erosion and saltwater intrusion, the sea level is rising by about three millimetres annually – leading to an overall submergence rate of around one centimetre a year, says the study.


Compounding those concerns is the prospective impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), currently under construction in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which is causing tensions between Egypt and its neighbours. While Sudan stands to benefit from cheap electricity and improved irrigation when the 6,000MW power plant is operational, experts say the Nile’s freshwater flow to Egypt may be cut by 25 per cent during the filling of GERD’s reservoir, which is likely to take at least three years. With work on the project currently more than 65 per cent completed, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi recently agreed to adopt a joint vision regarding the dam.


Thirsty work


In combination, these developments indicate the likelihood not only of a drinking water shortage but also a growing food deficit in Egypt, which was ranked 27th out of 34 countries globally by the 2017 edition of the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.


Indeed, Egypt’s agricultural sector is unique in that over 95 per cent of its production is derived from irrigated land, and the waters essential for its irrigation originate outside of the country’s borders. With its activity heavily concentrated on a narrow T-shaped strip of land along the Nile and the coast around the Delta, the sector consumes more than 85 per cent of Egypt’s share of Nile water, rendering it especially susceptible to the effects of external influences on the river. “Priority for water supplies will always be for drinking and domestic use, and as the population rises, there will always be more demand for this; any cuts in the case of demand exceeding fresh water supply will be from agriculture,” advised Safwat Abdel-Dayem, Professor Emeritus at the National Water Research Centre.


Moreover, although agriculture’s contribution to Egyptian GDP has fallen in recent years, the sector’s economic impact remains significant. According to ‘Drought characteristics and management in North Africa and the Near East’ – a report published this year by the FAO – agriculture provides livelihoods for 55 per cent of Egyptians, many of whom rely on small plots of less than 0.4 hectares, while the sector in its entirety accounts for around 14.5 per cent and 20 per cent of Egypt’s total exports and foreign exchange earnings, respectively. 


Industries related to agriculture – such as processing, marketing and supplies – account for a further 20 per cent of GDP, says the report, which adds that “any water flow deficit…invariably undermines this sector and economic growth”. Certainly, as Egypt’s dependence on food imports continues to grow, the economy will only become more exposed to fluctuations in global food prices.


Transforming the sand


Egypt clearly has substantial room for improvement when it comes to managing its precious water resources, ranking below countries such as Jordan and Morocco in the World Bank’s ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture 2017’ report. Last year the government began taking more stringent steps to tackle the nation’s water shortage when it drafted a controversial new water resources and irrigation bill, which calls for penalising farmers who grow water-intensive crops, including rice, outside the land plots authorised by the government on an annual basis. 


The new bill follows the ongoing implementation of the Farm-level Irrigation Modernisation Project, which aims to increase awareness of water conservation methods while improving equity in access to higher-quality water for small-scale farmers in certain areas of the Nile Delta. “Technology by itself will not be enough to achieve the objective of sustainable agricultural production. You need good management and awareness as well,” noted Prof Abdel-Dayem.


The government is also rolling out schemes aimed at expanding the area available for agriculture in Egypt – currently only 3.8 per cent of total land, according to the World Bank. Through the ambitious ‘1.5 Million Feddan’ project (one feddan being approximately an acre) launched in late-2015, the government intends to modify around 630,000 hectares of land in the Western Desert to make it suitable for agricultural use, with plans to distribute the land to university graduates, local companies and foreign investment firms, who will enjoy tax incentives on rents for a decade. At the start of 2018, Oxford Business Group (OBG) reported that irrigation wells had been drilled and crops planted in a pilot area of 4,200 hectares, with the next phase set to realise an additional 5,000 wells.


Not wasting a drop


Critics of the project are concerned that a huge hike in groundwater pumping in the Western Desert could rapidly drain the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the world’s largest known fossil water aquifer system, which lies beneath the reclamation area. With no way of replenishing the aquifer, the 630,000 hectares of new farmland would be forced to cease production when their wells run dry. “The country is big enough for a million feddans” of new farmland, said Daniel Leroux, CEO of Saudi-owned agribusiness Kadco, “but where is the water?”


Indeed, while schemes such as 1.5 Million Feddan constitute an encouraging attempt to increase production, sustainability remains a crucial consideration when cultivating land outside the fertile band around the Nile. “In Egypt, the cultivated area is about 25 per cent former desert, and we see the fertility index per feddan decreasing because most new cultivated area is primarily desert, an expansion trend among both public and private players,” advised Richard Tutwiler, Director of the Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment.


To that end, in February President Sisi launched the first phase of a project to build 100,000 greenhouses across seven different regions of the country. During the inauguration of the first 1,302 greenhouses, which will grow fruit and vegetables that demand less irrigation, the President emphasised the importance of preserving agricultural water, stressing that “Egyptians must be careful with every drop of water they use”.


Fish farming in the desert


While prudence is paramount, innovation must also play a leading role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural future for Egypt, and one technique showing particular promise is hydroponics. Said by some to have been used in the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, hydroponics removes the need for harmful pesticides while also allowing for water conservation, making it an attractive option for modern-day Egypt. Amr Bassiouny, Chief Executive of Egyptian Hydrofarms, grows salad greens at his farm on the outskirts of Cairo, where he uses 90 per cent less water than traditional methods – and obtains better yields. “This is important in Egypt because we have scarce water resources, so you’re able to grow large quantities with much less use of resources,” he explained.


Other innovative companies are combining the cultivation of plants in water without soil with the practice of fish farming, resulting in an emerging aquaponics trend in the country. In fact, Egypt is already considered one of the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region’s leading countries in aquaculture production and water management, according to the FAO. “You feed the fish and the fish feed the plants,” said Farris Farrag, founder of Bustan Aquaponics, the first commercial aquaponics farm to be established in Egypt. “We’re trying to address, in our own little way, the inefficiencies of agricultural water use in Egypt.”


A semi-closed ecosystem that capitalises on the symbiotic relationship between plants and fish, aquaponics reduces water usage by around 95 per cent compared to normal irrigation, and has the advantage of potential establishment on the roofs of buildings or any limited space that is exposed to the sun. On the downside, it remains an expensive system to set up, and requires holistic knowledge, meticulous maintenance, and a reliable electricity supply. For international investors looking to take advantage of Egypt’s potential as an export hub, however – on account of its strategic location and free trade agreements with the EU, Turkey, COMESA and other MENA countries – aquaponics represents a lucrative opportunity.

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