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Leon Kaye headshot

Egypt: Ground Zero for the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

By Leon Kaye

Not all of the Middle East is blessed (or cursed) with rich reserves of hydrocarbons. Egypt is one example of the disparities in wealth and opportunity that are found between the Mediterranean shores and the Strait of Hormuz.

The country hoped it could find some opportunity in the massive Zohr “supergiant” gas field. But those revenues, coupled with Egypt’s notorious corruption, will hardly be enough to lift many of the country’s citizens out of poverty.

In addition, Egypt’s already scarce resources face more strain as the country’s population has surged to over 90 million. The increase, by many accounts, came at a clip of 2 million a year, thanks in part to the country’s high birth rate -- which ranges anywhere from 2.8 to 3.5 children per person, depending on the source cited.

And analysts say Egypt’s population will continue to grow, approaching 120 million by 2030, and could even double current figures in 50 years. With a poverty rate around 28 percent, and per-capita income ($12,100) hovering between Mongolia and Albania, Egypt will need to produce even more water, food and electricity if its people will even have a shot at living in tolerable conditions.

The problem is that the Nile River Valley, which sustained Egypt since before the reign of the pharaohs, is at a tipping point. The vast majority of the country’s citizens live in the lower Nile Valley and delta regions, which together only comprise 3.5 percent of Egypt’s land mass – the rest is, for the most part, harsh and inhospitable desert.

While 70 percent of the Nile’s water flow originates in Ethiopia, 200 years of development has resulted in what is now less than 10 percent of the Nile’s water actually reaching the Mediterranean.

According to a study launched by the Geological Society of America (GSA), the combination of sea-level rise and the lowering of the delta region’s land due to the increased deposits of sediment spells doom for Egypt’s agricultural sector. The GSA’s research suggests that by the end of this century, as many as 25 miles of the delta’s coastline could be lost, turning much of what was once Egypt’s rich soil into a saline disaster area.

Compounding Egypt’s struggles is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which by most press accounts is close to completion. The massive hydroelectric project, itself subjected to a fair share of geopolitical problems, could exacerbate Egypt’s water woes. The same GSA study estimates that once the dam is fully operational, the flow of fresh water disrupted by Ethiopia along the Nile to Egypt could crater as much as 25 percent.

That impending news comes as Egyptians have long confronted water scarcity. Most of the country’s fresh water is sourced from this iconic river, but the average citizen’s water share is approximately 660 cubic meters, far from the 2,800 cubic meters enjoyed during the 1960s.

The United Nations says that when annual water supplies fall below 1,000 cubic meters per person, a country has plunged into water scarcity. In fact, Egypt is rapidly approaching “absolute scarcity” by these accounts. At this current rate, Egypt’s water poverty could render most of the country uninhabitable by the dawn of the next century.

Egypt has many plans on its drawing board to address these problems. Much of the country’s focus is on the redirection of water from Lake Nasser, the massive reservoir created by the completion of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.

Lake Nasser has long been an inefficient storage solution, as the GSA study noted that it loses as much as 14 percent of its water annually to seepage and evaporation. One project includes the diversion of some of the lake’s storage to a “new” Nile Valley, but as the Guardian reported, that tactic prompted accusations of land grabbing.

Egypt’s indigenous Nubians, many of whom who were relocated after their ancestral homelands were flooded by the High Aswan Dam, say they have been banned from lands that are rightfully theirs. Many are protesting what they see as the Egyptian government’s disregard for human rights by selling land that is rightfully theirs to well-connected investors who are willing to pay a high price.

Renewables could also help reduce the stress imposed on Egypt’s water and energy infrastructure. Abu Dhabi’s Masdar, for example, has invested in both utility-scale and off-grid solar projects as part of the United Arab Emirates' foreign aid program in Egypt. The country has huge potential for the harvesting of solar power, but critics argue that a corrupt government has killed off what was just a few years ago a promising industry.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Egypt’s vast agricultural output, which feeds much of Northern Africa and the Middle East, has been saddled by illegal construction – which will complicate the country’s ability to feed, power and replenish itself with water in the near future.

Image credit: Shaimaa Ahmed Saleh/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye