ASSIUT, Egypt—Egyptian researchers are exploring innovative solutions to some aspects of the country’s water-scarcity problem, including projects that seek to make the use of water in agriculture more efficient, to devise affordable ways of desalinating brackish water, and to recycle the “gray water” produced by laundries. But weak public funding for these projects makes it difficult to carry them out.
One promising new project aims to cut in half the amount of water needed to cultivate rice—a significant issue as rice crops now consume more than 10 billion cubic meters of water a year, or one-fifth of the 55.5 billion cubic meters of water that Egypt claims as its annual share of the Nile River’s flow. But that claim is coming under pressure as disputes intensify between Egypt and other nations that share the Nile and its headwaters.
Egypt’s economy, especially agriculture, depends almost entirely on water from the Nile. Even with its current allotment, Egypt faces a deficit between available water resources and current uses. Its per-capita water resources—about 660 cubic meters per person per year, according to a 2014 report—are already below the global “water poverty” line and approaching the threshold the United Nations defines as “absolute scarcity.”
The water politics of the region and the heavy use of water in growing rice underscore the importance of projects like one led by Mohamed El-Sayed El-Hagarey. El-Hagarey, a researcher at the Desert Research Center of Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, was honored last year by the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, an international organization based in New Delhi, for devising a plow and planting technique that can save about half the amount of irrigation water needed to grow rice.
“Rice needs to be continuously immersed with water until it reaches 10 to 15 centimeters above the soil surface,” said el-Hagarey. “This causes significant loss of water and fertilizers.”
El-Hagarey’s new plow forms V-shaped trenches in the soil, and a seeding tray that follows the plow deposits rice seedlings into the furrows. The trenches are then filled with the water necessary for the plants’ growth. This amount is much less than the irrigation water used in traditional rice cultivation, in which the entire field is flooded.
The new technique was tested in a field in Kafr El-Sheikh, a governorate famous for rice cultivation in Egypt. “The results were satisfactory, with the crop increasing by 4.6 percent and the use of water decreased by 50 percent,” said el-Hagarey.
Egypt’s concerns over its water resources have increased since 2011, when Ethiopia began building its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, a major tributary of the Nile. The new dam, now nearing completion, will create a reservoir that ultimately is expected to hold more than 60 billion cubic meters of water. It will take years to fill the reservoir, and that process threatens to reduce the flow of fresh water downstream to Sudan and Egypt.
“This will cause the desertification of three million acres of land in Egypt,” said Nader Noureddine, a professor of water resources and land reclamation at Cairo University. That’s an area equivalent to 51 percent of the country’s agricultural land, he said, and its loss would worsen the nation’s food gap.
Other Sources of Fresh Water
Another option for providing fresh water is desalination, but that technology typically has been considered too slow and expensive for widespread adoption.
At Alexandria University, researchers are testing a technique that they believe can filter and desalinate highly saline water in a short time and at a reasonable cost. The new technique relies on “membrane evaporation,” a process in which water is filtered through a membrane to remove large particles and then heated. The evaporating steam is condensed to remove small impurities before collecting the clean water.
“The membrane can be easily made using cheap components, which makes it an excellent choice in Egypt,” said Ahmed El-Shafe’i, an assistant professor of agricultural engineering and bio-systems at the University of Alexandria and one of the researchers involved in testing the technique.
“This method can be applied in remote areas because it only requires providing membranes for the filtration process and then the heat to evaporate the filtered water,” said el-Shafe’i.
Other scientists are working on projects for treating and reusing “gray water,” which includes the wastewater from commercial laundries as well as from domestic bathtubs and washing machines, and even the runoff from washing cars.
Egypt produces about 10 billion cubic meters of gray water per year, says Wael Abdel Mo’ez, a professor of chemical engineering at Minia University who has developed a device for cleansing it of chemicals that can damage sewage networks.
The device separates oil and grease from the water, then uses a chemical treatment to remove any industrial detergents, heavy materials and other residues. Finally it performs a sterilization process to eliminate bacteria and other biological contaminants, so the water can be recycled for industrial or agricultural use.
“In this way, 80 percent of the water can be restored to be used in washing, provided there are underground tanks in the laundries to collect the outgoing water after cleaning,” Abdel Mo’ez said.
Financial and Logistical Hurdles
Despite the diversity of projects seeking solutions to the water-scarcity problem in Egypt, putting them into practice has been hampered lack of funding and other problems.
El-Hagarey, the researcher whose plow project won an international award, financed his research at his own expense, but needs more money to develop the machine. “The cost of the machine is 100,000 Egyptian pounds — about 5,000 U.S. dollars,” he said. “But I am seeking greater funding from the government to develop it and make it suitable for commercial use.”
Abdel Mo’ez needs more than money to see his gray-water purification project succeed on a large scale. “Besides funding, the government must pass legislation that forces building owners to allocate separate gray-water drainage,” he said.
Hossam Abu El-Nasr, a professor of agriculture at Assiut University, says he believes that researchers have developed models that can reduce waste, reuse water, and manage water resources better. But research alone is useless, he said.
“There is no real encouragement from government institutions, which invariably argue that there is no funding budget, even though the water crisis is worsening one day after another,” he said.
The ministry of agriculture’s budget amounts to 545 million Egyptian pounds ($30.8 million) for the 2016-17 fiscal year. But the Agricultural Research Center’s budget was reduced sharply this year, to 3 million Egyptian pounds ($170,000), compared to 70 million pounds (about $4 million) the previous year. The Desert Research Center’s budget was reduced from 32 million Egyptian pounds ($1.8 million) to 4 million pounds ($226,000).
The reduction in research funds “is very large and unjustified, especially with our urgent need to increase agricultural production amid droughts, climate change and the shortage and pollution of Egyptian water resources,” said Noureddine, the professor of water resources and land reclamation at Cairo University.
Others called for more cooperation between government and academic research centers. “Every ministry has research centers that work separately from other centers, and there is no coordination with university research centers,” said Ali el-Bahrawi, a professor at the department of irrigation and hydraulics at Ain Shams University’s college of engineering. “Efforts to carry out research and cooperate in their implementation must be consolidated.”
Hani el-Nazir, the former head of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Egypt’s ministry of higher education, agrees with el-Bahrawi that research successes in Egypt are mostly individual and lack governmental support and institutional cooperation. “Government spending is very weak on research,” he said. “The efforts of institutions to conduct real research at a large level must be combined.”
“This article is part of the science journalism project “Schreiben über Wissenschaft of the Goethe-Institut and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), supported by the German Federal Foreign Office. More information can be found at https://www.goethe.de/egypt.”