According to the Joseph narrative in the Book of Genesis, the sons of Jacob who were living in Hebron experienced a severe famine that lasted for seven years. Word was that Egypt was the only kingdom able to supply food, and thus the sons of Jacob journeyed there to buy goods.
Although flooding from the Nile River, since biblical times, has supplied Egypt with fresh water, that country is drying up. Egypt could face extreme water scarcity within the decade due to population and economic growth and will import more water than the amount supplied by the river that runs through Cairo if changes in its water economy are not made. Perhaps Egyptians will ask the State of Israel for supplies of desalinated water, just as Jordanians do today?
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of civil and environmental engineering have just written an article published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications under the title “Past and future trends of Egypt’s water consumption and its sources.”
The researchers conducted an historical reconstruction of where the water supply in Egypt is going under conditions of population growth and a developing economy. The research provides recommendations of ways Egypt can sustain and leverage water supply for a more sustainable future.
Today, there are 100 million people living in Egypt, many thousands of them on gravestones in cemeteries due to the lack of housing. The population has increased five-fold since 1950 when there were only 20 million residents.
Agriculture is an important sector of the country’s economy, and for millennia the Nile supplied Egypt with more water than needed. Approximately 90% of the water from the Nile goes towards Egypt’s agricultural production, but as the population grew and the economy expanded, demand on water also increased.
“When you have more people, you need more food, but also as the economy gets better and trade connections improve, the nature of people’s diets also changes”, says Catherine Nikiel, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering and lead author in the study. “You have people who might start consuming more meat and consuming just different things than they did in the past, which impacts their agriculture.”
The co-author of the study was civil engineering Prof. Elfatih Eltahir.
The historical reconstruction allowed the researchers to take a detailed view into the past and future trends of consumption to see where the water demand is increasing. The key innovations of the study are in the detailed year-by-year reconstruction of trends in water use down to the individual crop level, the improved understanding of the factors that drive these trends, and the use of this context to project water demand into the near future based on empirical demand relationships. The detailed diagnosis of water use in Egypt facilitates identification of opportunities for water saving, water reuse, and improved water use efficiency in general, they continued.
Following expansion of the Sahara Desert, thousands of years ago, and migration of native populations to shelter in the Nile Valley, an intimate relationship developed between an emerging Egypt and the Nile. This connection has manifested in historical, political, ecological, and hydrological dimensions.
However, Egypt’s fast-growing population and developing economy have strained already scarce water resources through dietary changes and municipal and industrial consumption. Egypt is facing external pressures on perceived water rights, limited national water resource availability, and a struggle to fashion a sustainable development vision for its future. The current policies regarding irrigation in the New Lands, the current rate of water reuse, and the level of success achieved in reducing fertility rates will not be enough to close the demand gap in the future, they wrote.
Starting in the 1970s, once Egypt started using all the water the Nile could provide them, they started importing more food. A large proportion of their crops of wheat and maize are really water-intensive to grow, need a lot of area, and can’t support efficient irrigation methods. Egypt eventually started importing as much corn and wheat as they grew. The researchers then began to see how much Egypt is importing compared to how much they are using and predicted that within the decade, they will be importing as much virtual water as they’re pulling in from the Nile.
“We know that their imports are rapidly increasing so that at some point, the balance shifts to a situation in which they’re actually more dependent on external water than on internal water,” said Nikiel.
The authors also recommend how Egypt can leverage water resources.
“By shifting production from high water use low-cost crops such as corn, maize and wheat to higher value lower water requirement crops like fruits and vegetables, which are very profitable on the market, and better suited to really high-efficiency irrigation methods and selling those for profits to import maize and wheat, they can potentially shift that balance even further,” added Nikiel.
The researchers stated that the future of water in Egypt is reliant on external cooperation with its neighbors and its own ability to optimally manage internal demand and use of water. The researchers noted that “adaptations are ultimately in Egypt’s best interest, as they allow for continued growth and prosperity with more careful management of resources. Egypt has the chance to be an example for other developing water-scarce nations, and a leader in the Nile Basin. If changes are not made it will soon serve as an ecological cautionary tale with implications for the entire region.”