Contested water and food crises in Egypt: A cause for social unrest?

Fluctuating wheat prices hit the poorest population worst. Bread provides one third of the caloric intake in Egypt and around 40 % of household income is spent on food.Egypt is currently facing a variety of economic, social and political crises, but there could be even bigger challenges in store just around the corner. With 95% of the country uninhabited and covered by unfertile desert, any threats posed to its few fresh water resources in turn represents a threat to all human activities. However, with most eyes at present on Egypt’s political situation, few are giving environmental problems much attention, seeing them as something to tackle after the political situation has stabilised, and thus failing to see the crucial link between environmental and political stability.

The agricultural sector in Egypt constitutes only 14 % of its GDP, but for food security agricultural land is of vital importance. Previously Egypt used to be a wheat exporter, but due to its rapid population growth it has now become the world’s largest wheat importer, producing only 60% of the wheat it consumes. More than half of the imported wheat comes from Russia, but during years of bad harvest, such as 2010, Russia sold 40% less wheat than normal to Egypt, causing unexpectedly high prices. Such fluctuating food prices are often followed by food riots and social unrest, as has been analysed by a group of researchers in a paper called ‘The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East’.

Their analysis of the links between food prices and the so-called Arab Spring fits well to the case of Egypt, concluding that “widespread unrest does not arise from long-standing political failings of the system, but rather from its sudden perceived failure to provide essential security to the population”.

Aside from bad harvests abroad, water scarcity poses the biggest threat to food security in Egypt. Scarcity of water can be either physical, for example, if the flow of the Nile decreases, or economic, for example, when there is a lack of means to distribute the water either by pumping or by use of proper infrastructure. Economic water scarcity might become a bigger problem for Egypt in the near future, as most agricultural machinery and water pumps are dependent on cheap, government subsidised fuel to make a profit If the subsidies are cut, as desired by the IMF, agriculture will become even less profitable, leaving production to bigger farmers only. Sinking groundwater tables mean that deeper wells and more oil to run the pumps are needed, a development with which small farmers simply cannot keep pace.

The fuel subsidies have negative effects on the environment in form of increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, which in turn causes problems such as droughts and rising sea levels.

Essentially most production in Egypt relies on the Nile, and so far its continuous flow has been secured by ensuring that Ethiopia leaves its share of the Nile unutilised. Whenever Ethiopia has mentioned its plan to build dams for hydropower and irrigation projects, Egypt has repeatedly threatened to show its military strength in response. President Anwar Sadat has been quoted as saying that “Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war.” For the Muslim Brotherhood party currently in power in Egypt, water remains a top national security priority. But with Ethiopia now enjoying more stable international relations, Egyptian threats to bomb dams along the Nile seem increasingly irrational. The Nile Basin Initiative was founded in 1999 to set up a transboundary water management institution to ensure a fair division of water resources, but so far the main players Egypt and Ethiopia have had a hard time recognising each other’s rights over the Nile.

The Grand Renaissance Dam, a giant dam currently under construction in Ethiopia, might change the availability of water in Egypt. Its holding capacity will be less than half of the High Dam in Aswan, but it can still give Ethiopia a hegemonic position in the Blue Nile basin, as 86% of the Nile has its origins in the Ethiopian mountains. The impact of the Grand Renaissance dam on Sudan and Egypt is largely contested as researchers from the two countries publish contradicting data. The immediate effects will to a large extent depend on how quickly Ethiopia decides to fill it up. Filling the dam in one go could stop the river flow for 1.5 years, but Ethiopian sources claim they intend to fill it over a period of at least five years. The negative impact also depends on how many of the planned 500,000 hectares of new irrigation schemes in Ethiopia are realised. A decrease in the water flow into Lake Nasser, the lake created by the High Dam in Aswan, could lead to water shortages, a decrease in electricity generation and a reduced industrial production. Aswan High Dam alone produces 22% of the electricity in Egypt.

The irrigation canals often constitute of water which contains industrial waste, pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals, as well as solid waste from households.Some regions in Egypt, however, do not rely on the flow of the Nile. Under the vast Western Desert lie huge groundwater resources, which occasionally reach the surface as lakes, smaller springs and oases. These fossil water reservoirs, called the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Systems, are also a transboundary water resource, shared with Libya, Chad and Sudan. Many Egyptians like to see this aquifer as a possible replacement for the Nile and want it to be used for grand-scale projects to “green the desert”, similar to President Nasser’s “New Valley” project in the 1960s. Aimed at resettling a very substantial number of Nile Valley farmers to the western oases, it, like many other large national projects, failed.

Climate change is another relevant factor, potentially causing a change in rain patterns in the Ethiopian mountains where most of the Nile’s water originates. Rising sea levels are also causing problems in the delta on the northern coast where saline water is encroaching on farmland, leaving more and more soil infertile or flooded.

So what possibilities does Egypt have to secure its water resources and food security? As long as the country is growing more dependent on increasingly expensive imported food, the political instability and social unrest is likely to continue or worsen. The government has, however, recognised this threat, setting a target of producing 75% of its wheat consumption by 2017. If Ethiopia, upon completing the Grand Renaissance Dam, starts irrigating its potential farming land, thus leaving Egypt with a decreased water flow, Egypt could also look into agricultural investment possibilities in Ethiopia, like it has done in Sudan. However, the productivity of current farmland in Egypt could be preserved, or even increased, if soils are regenerated by implementing environmentally sustainable agricultural methods. An increased effort to improve relations with the neighbouring states in the Nile basin would also improve Egypt’s possibilities to continue its role as “the gift of the Nile”.


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