Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment and Development magazine

Water Security Beyond the Nile Dam

The heated confrontation over the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would suggest that it is the only source of danger to Egypt’s water security. There is no doubt that Egypt has historical rights to the Nile, upon which its civilization and existence have been built, and that there are legal and moral obligations governing the use of cross-border shared water resources. Therefore, Ethiopia cannot take unilateral actions affecting other beneficiaries. But the dispute over the dam should not overlook other water challenges facing Egypt, especially the huge population explosion, the alarming pollution of the Nile, and the decrease in the amount of water available as a result of climate change. The threefold increase in the population over 50 years, reaching 100 million today, has led to the multiplication of the demand several times over, for an already dwindling water supply. Did Egypt do enough to meet these challenges?

As I followed the unfolding developments related to the Renaissance Dam in recent days, I recalled a meeting in Cairo back in 2010, to discuss drafts of the report entitled "Water: Sustainable Management of a Scarce Resource", which was published by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) at the end of that year. The report called for rationalizing and managing water efficiently, in order to maximize food production while using less water. The report also recommended reducing yield losses in the field, as well as during transportation, storage, distribution and consumption, as the loss at the end of the chain has been estimated at 40 percent of the net production at the source. While agriculture consumes 85 percent of fresh water, more than half of it is wasted due to inappropriate irrigation methods. In Egypt in particular, most of the agriculture in the area extending from Upper Egypt to the sea depends on flood irrigation, which is considered the least efficient method, leading to a large amount of the water wasted, while a shift to drip irrigation is required. One of the necessary measures to manage water consumption is to price it fairly, reflecting its value as a diminishing natural resource.

One of the participants in the debate, a former Minister of Water and Irrigation, categorically objected to the idea of pricing water, because water, in his opinion, is a necessity for life and a natural right of people which should be freely offered without restrictions. While another participant went on to oppose pricing on religious grounds, one of the report’s co-authors, a Saudi researcher, presented a fatwa from a high-level sheikh and prominent Islamic scholar, asserting that water services need to be priced, as a measure to preserve a resource granted by God to guarantee the continuity of life. After a long discussion, it became clear that some of those who opposed the idea of water pricing feared that, accepting the principle itself, might open the door for some upstream countries, such as Ethiopia, to exploit it to demand a price for what they consider as excess of water coming from the source. The panel agreed that the target of water pricing should be the local consumer, be it individual, agriculture or industry, as a measure to rationalize use.

During the same meeting, AFED called for the introduction of alternative food products that use less water than traditional commodities, such as rice, while offering the same nutritional value. This requires serious scientific research, as well as efforts to prepare the society for a possible change in eating habits. The idea was met by some with objection and disapproval, on the grounds that its implementation distresses food habits long established in the community. The discussion was resolved only by the intervention of Mohamed Kassas, a highly respected Egyptian scientist and one of the report authors, who stressed the need to prepare for adjusting the diet in a changing climate, and that any food product which demands excessive water to be grown must be replaced with a matching equivalent. This becomes indispensable if the alternative is starvation.

Between 2010 and 2021 a lot has changed. The issue of water pricing is no longer a taboo, as it has become part of the policies of most Arab countries, Egypt included. Careful use of water and rationalization of the consumption of natural resources became part of Friday speeches in mosques. As for Egypt, where some considered talking about replacing rice with other agricultural products an infringement on a sovereign right, the official policies adopted now impose massive gradual reduction of the areas allocated for rice cultivation.

Still, this is not enough, as it limits the response to spot reactions, while what is required is long-term policies and practical measures that create solutions based on science and innovation. Among these is advancing research on biosaline agriculture and food production in arid lands, with results applied in the field to feed hundreds of millions of people. Other major targets are desalinating sea water, cutting water and food waste, enhancing efficiency and productivity, and introducing alternative food products. It is true that some work has been done on all of this, but it has been very slow and modest, taking into account the severity of the challenges.

The Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had accepted, ten years ago, an offer from an Israeli research center to train farmers in developing countries, on agricultural techniques in arid lands and deserts, as part of a UNEP project. Participating Arab ministers asked to meet with UNEP Executive Director at the time, Achim Steiner, to demand that the agreement be revoked. I suggested, in my capacity as an observer, to compile a list of research centers in Arab countries that are qualified to carry out such a task, and to demand that one of them also be accredited for training. Although the offer was readily accepted by UNEP management, because the agreement with the Israeli center was not exclusive, 11 years later the promised list has yet to materialize.

I relayed this incident to Mohamed Kassas, one of the world’s most prominent experts in dry and arid land, who, at nearly ninety at that time, was still working and receiving students every day at his office in Cairo University. Overwhelmed with grief and disappointment, he responded: “Israel has benefited from the occupation of Arab deserts and dry lands to develop advanced technologies for water management and food production, which brought it to be one of the most experienced countries in cultivating deserts. As for us, the owners of the land, our governments hardly do anything, whether to support scientific research or to apply sound planning and management.”

Supporting Egypt’s just rights and fair share to the Nile waters should not diminish the importance of scientific research, innovation, and good governance, to properly manage a dwindling resource.