Egypt looks to the sea to meet its need for water

The country is turning to desalination for water as the Nile is no longer able to support a population that has doubled in the past 25 years as new resorts and industrial development are built. But will the Egyptian people pay more for it?

Egypt moves forward with its privatisation efforts as it vies to attract investment and revive its economy Amr Nabil / AP Photo
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There’s a trend in Egypt that seems to be all-round good news. But let’s make sure the costs are justified.

Over the past few years, the country has been rapidly turning to desalination to meet its most pressing water needs. It started when the government put developers on notice that if they wanted to build seaside tourist resorts they would have to come up with their own water: the government would no longer build pipelines to deliver water from the Nile.

This spawned dozens of small-scale and privately built desalting plants up and down the Red Sea coast and across along the Mediterranean west of Alexandria. A typical plant might produce anywhere from 500 to 7,000 cubic metres a day using reverse osmosis technology, in which high-pressure pumps push seawater through membranes to remove the salt.

Among the main suppliers were Dubai’s Metito and Ridgewood Egypt, a subsidiary of a US venture capital company.

Industry also got in on the act, especially along the Suez Canal.

With Egypt’s population having more than doubled in the past 25 years, its water supply is increasingly scarce. The country is allowed to draw 55 billion cubic metres a year from the Nile, which is pretty well tapped out by the time it reaches the Mediterranean. It gets another 5 billion cubic metres from aquifers and rainwater.

Ethiopia is about to begin filling the reservoir of its Grand Renaissance Dam, which, depending on how quickly it is done, could reduce the flow of the Nile by as much as 20 per cent over the next few years.

With a scenario such as this, desalination begins to look extremely attractive. The cost of desalting seawater has fallen to between US$0.50 and $1 per cubic metre worldwide and looks set to get even cheaper.

New industries and other facilities setting up in the Suez Canal Economic Zone are now expected to get the bulk of their water from desalination.

Last year, the army commissioned construction of three 140,000 cubic metre per day plants. One will be at the southern entrance of the Suez Canal at the new city of Al Galala being built on a mountain overlooking the Gulf of Suez. A second will be at the canal’s northern entrance near the industrial zone of East Port Said and the third near El Alamein on Egypt’s north coast.

“Egypt is going fast in desalination,” says Hosam Shawky, a director at the Egyptian Desalination Research Centre. “It plans to reach 500,000 cubic metres of capacity in three years and 1 million cubic metres in seven years.”

The government has also been installing a series of plants along the Mediterranean coast at Marsa Matruh, which has little fresh water of its own. A pipeline delivers Nile water to the city but people have been tapping into and pilfering from it – as a result, only 40 to 60 per cent actually reaches Matruh. Three of the plants will have a daily capacity of 24,000 cubic metres. One came on stream in 2013, a second is due this summer while the third is still in the planning stage.

Even if the water is sold at the international rate of between $0.50 and $1 per cubic metre, desalted water is far more expensive than what Egyptians are used to paying and the water will only be practical at the high end, such as residential and industrial use. Desalinated water is far too expensive for agriculture.

The government charges a typical household about 1 Egyptian pound for a cubic metre and often much more in the new satellite cities that have been built around Cairo. Farmers, who consume 70 per cent of all water, get theirs for free.

A way to drive down the price of desalinated water, says Mr Shawky, would be to reduce the amount of power needed to push it through the reverse osmosis membranes. Newer membranes need less pressure and thus less power, which makes up 35 to 40 per cent of the water’s cost. A cubic metre of water can now be produced with 3.5 to 4 kilowatt hours of power, down from 6 to 6.5 kilowatt hours 20 or 30 years ago. Companies are working on ways to increase the lifetime of membranes and get them to work under even less pressure.

Egypt’s future is almost certainly in desalination. But the government should eventually begin charging more for traditional sources of water to reflect its real value, something that will not be popular among a population that has enjoyed free water for millennia.

At the same time, it must monitor desalination plants, whose brine and hot run-off can harm the marine environment, to ensure their negative effects are minimal.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 27 years

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