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Egypt’s farmers on front line in battle against water scarcity

Ali Mahmoud pointed with pride to the lines of black pipe laid over the dark earth of his field in the Belbeis region of Egypt’s Nile Delta. He was preparing to plant it with strawberries and is confident of a good harvest in March.

The pipes are part of a drip irrigation system he installed two years ago on his 1.25-acre plot that delivers the right amount of water and nutrients to the roots of each plant.

“It’s now easier to water the field,” he said. “I need to hire fewer workers and I use less fertiliser. In addition, I get a bigger crop because fewer plants are ruined by overwatering.”

Mr Mahmoud is one of a growing number of smallholders abandoning the wasteful but age-old method of irrigation by inundation, in which the entire surface of a field is watered.

With Egypt facing a future of water scarcity and the crucial agriculture sector accounting for 25 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, the government is desperately looking for ways to cut water use and wants more farmers to follow his example. 

The issue is one of the biggest challenges facing Egypt. The country is contending with rapid population growth of almost 2 per cent annually, climate change is expected to produce sharp fluctuations in rainfall over the sources of the Nile and a new mega-dam being built upstream in Ethiopia has escalated regional tension over rights to its waters.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile has escalated tensions over water access © AFP via Getty Images

About 90 per cent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile and millions of farmers depend on it to irrigate their land. Even before its neighbour’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was conceived, the country was already suffering water poverty, defined by the UN as an annual share per person of less than 1,000 cubic metres of water. Egypt has under 600 cubic metres per person.

Cairo and Addis Ababa have both described the dam as an existential issue. Fraught negotiations with Ethiopia have so far failed to produce an agreement on the volume of water to be released to flow downstream during drought years. Addis Ababa, which started filling the dam’s reservoir in July, has also refused to recognise what Egypt considers its rightful water share based on historical usage — an annual 55.5bn cubic metres. 

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has appealed to the UN and US for help — with the US in response suspending some aid to Ethiopia this year. As concerns mount, Egypt is looking at a range of water-saving measures. “We reuse water once, twice and three times after treating it,” Mohamed al-Sabaie, an irrigation expert who is also a member of the upper chamber of parliament, said.

The government is also accelerating a scheme to line thousands of kilometres of canals with concrete to cut seepage and evaporation, and has limited cultivation of water-intensive crops such as rice. 

But to have any significant impact, it needs to persuade millions of farmers to switch to more efficient methods. “Only countries with plentiful rains can afford the luxury of irrigation by inundation,” said Mr Sabaie. “This is not available to us, so we need to change the dominant culture. Modern irrigation saves 30 to 40 per cent of water usage.” 

An irrigation canal south of Luxor. Thousands of kilometres of the channels have been lined with concrete to cut water seepage and evaporation © Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

To encourage the mostly impoverished growers to make the switch, the government and state banks are providing low-interest loans to buy equipment. Mr Mahmoud’s system cost $1,500 per acre, but officials say there are cheaper options. The government is also providing advice and logistical support during purchase and installation.

A first phase to cover just over 1.2m acres is under way. Most of this is on reclaimed desert land where farmers face fines if they do not install modern systems. But smallholders who work the “old lands” of the Delta and Nile valley where water is less scarce, such as in Belbeis, are also being encouraged to convert. However, landholdings there tend to be small and the majority of farmers are poor. 

Alaa Azouz, head of outreach at the agriculture ministry, acknowledged that fragmentation of landholdings was a challenge but that collective farming schemes, in which smallholders come together, offered a way to share costs.

“The other challenge is convincing farmers of the new system,” he said. “We know that they need to see successful models of implementation and the increased revenue they provide.”

Ahmed Saber, one of Mr Ibrahim’s neighbours in Belbeis, who grows guava trees and vegetables on less than an acre of land, is sceptical of the benefits of drip irrigation. “It’s too expensive and not suitable for small farms,” he said.

Officials hope those who remain unconvinced will be encouraged by seeing the system at work.

Taha Abou Lasheen, who installed drip irrigation in 2019, did so after seeing it used elsewhere in the Delta. The attraction was not just the savings on water and costs.

“There is a difference in the size of the fruit and in the yield,” he said. “Instead of 20 tonnes per acre before, I now get 30.”


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