Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
The long negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the terms under which the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be filled and operated have shown little sign so far of agreement.
Egyptian official discourse warned that the GERD could impact the country stressing that Egypt is largely dependent on the Nile for its freshwater resources. The Nile represents 72.7% of the annual water resource (55.5 billion cubic metres). In this contribution to the Debating Ideas – African Arguments GERD series, I argue that Egypt’s water crises extend beyond the potential impact of the new dam. The water, spatial and social injustice issues resulting from it need to be considered to understand the actual water challenges of the country.
Revolution of thirst
In 2007, following disruption in drinking water service provision for 21 days, about 10,000 people of Borg al-Burullus village, in the Delta (300km north of Cairo) blocked the coastal highway. The protesters claimed that their water was diverted to tourists vacationing in the Baltim resort, an urban middle-class tourist attraction and coastal town. The discrimination against local residents in favour of urban vacationers was cited as a major reason for the indignance and subsequent protests.
That same year, water-based protests spread in six other governorates. In local newspapers and in the mainstream media, these protests have taken on the title “Revolution of Thirst” (In Arabic: ثورة العطش Thawrat al-Aṭash). Protests over water have been rising since 2007 according to the Masresspress archive and Social Justice Platform (SJP). In 2018 SJP reported 162 water-related protests.
In Egypt the drinking-water supply is growing substantially. In 2018, coverage reached 98% in urban areas and 95% in rural area. However, while access to drinking water is Egypt is almost universal, inequality is more pronounced in sanitation services, as the percentage of those connected to the sewage network in urban areas is 90.6%, compared to 28.5% in rural areas.
The success of achieving universal drinking-water coverage hides two important implications for water access. The first is the absence of interruptions, and the second is water free of pollutants.
On the one hand water cuts and interruptions are still frequent. In 2018, the Egyptian Water and Wastewater Regulatory Agency, a government agency, received 300,000 complaints centred around water cuts. The main reason behind these cuts is drinking water losses in networks, with about 29% or 2,600 billion cubic metres of produced water lost in 2018 alone due to network malfunctions and breaches. These malfunctions are mainly the result of unequal distribution in investments. While the state spends less than 72 million Egyptian pounds on network maintenance, it spent 14 billion to deliver fresh Nile waters to the new administrative capital with a capacity of 1.5 million cubic metres per day.
On the other hand, water pollution generates sanitation problems. According to UNICEF, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death among children under five in Egypt every year with between 3,500–4,000 diarrhea-related deaths. Journalistic reportage in 2011 stated that approximately 80% of Assiut residents drink unclean water. According to the Egypt State of Water Report, the Nile receives discharges from 43 agricultural drains of the 76 sewer systems; but only ten out of those 43 drains comply with national regulatory standards. The spatial inequality of access to clean water is manifest in the distribution of water shares between the different governorates. For instance the share of Sheikh Zayed’s city water supply (one of the new richest neighbourhoods in Cairo) is 16 times the share of Minya; capital of the Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt (Upper Egypt).
These socio-spatial inequalities are also on the rise because of the state’s water privatization agenda. In the last five years the Egyptian government has approved an increase of domestic water tariffs of up to 100%, prompted by the IMF and rhetoric of scarcity related to the GERD. Water price increases coincide with an increase in the poverty rate. In 2018, inhabitants living below the national poverty line reached 32.5% with more than half of Upper Egypt’s rural population falling within that impoverished category. According to Shimaa M. Wahba’s recent study, increased water prices mainly affect the poor and exacerbate inequality as water-pricing policies have lower impacts on rich households’ water consumption habits.
Reclaiming agricultural land from the desert
On one of the Egyptian government’s tourism marketing sites the Egyptian Minister of Tourism confirms that Egypt is ready to receive golf tourism. This coincided with the government’s amendment of the Agriculture Law to limit the areas of rice cultivation in the northern Delta to preserve water. When the rice cultivation ban was approved, there was general acceptance by the urban middle classes of the decision, and it was passed without parliamentary opposition under the cover of the GERD crisis.
Rice is the main nutritional source for millions of farmers. It is the only food crop in which Egypt is self-sufficient, unlike wheat, where Egypt imports half of its needs and remains the number one importer of wheat in the world. The decision that limits the cultivation of rice also threatens land degradation in the northern Delta, as rice cultivation provides an agro-ecosystem that prevents land salinisation. Former Irrigation Minister Nasr Allam indicated that there are 40 golf courses in Egypt with an area of 40,000 feddans which consume between 600 million to one billion cubic metres of water annually. One golf feddan consumes twice as much water as a feddan of rice. This is happening at a time when Egypt is allocating more water for agribusiness projects. One of the most famous examples is the Toshka project, for which 5 billion cubic metres of Nile water was allocated for land owned by the army and Gulf companies.
Egypt is a very arid country, and the Nile is the main source of water for its 100 million inhabitants. While the dam crisis is not a myth, it has however been used to promote water commodification and socio-spatial inequalities. Its politics also created the conditions for contentious debates about water sovereignty as a national issue rather than access to it as an individual means of survival and human right. It appears that the dam crisis will not affect all Egyptians to the same degree.
*GERD: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam formerly known as the Millennium Dam and sometimes referred to as Hidase Dam is a gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia under construction since 2011. The dam is in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, about 15 km (9 miles) east of the border with Sudan.
The Egyptian Water and Wastewater Regulatory Agency is a governmental entity established by Presidential Decree No. (136) of 2004 to follow-up and control activities related to access to drinking water and sanitation in Egypt.