High cost of water supply overshadows Egypt’s ambitious plan for desert cities

Egypt is the gift of the Nile, but the river is pretty well tapped out. Not much of it reaches the Mediterranean anymore. If you take more water out of it somewhere, that means you have to take less out somewhere else.

The burgeoning Sixth of October City on the outskirts of Cairo lies about 150 metres above sea level. Dana Smillie for The National
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Egypt has been drawing up plans for an endless stream of new luxury housing projects in the deserts around Cairo, blooming with artificial lakes, golf courses, swimming pools and fountains.

Has anyone been contemplating where and how all these developments will get their water?

Palm Hills, Egypt’s second-largest listed real estate developer, said in March that it was pressing ahead with its 10,000-feddan (4,200 hectare), 150 billion Egyptian pound (Dh72bn) October Oasis project at Sixth of October City north-west of Cairo, with 100,000 homes to be built in its first phase.

Palm Hills boasts that 70 per cent of its Sixth of October projects are allocated for “luscious greenery and multifaceted creative landscapes”.

Rooya Group has brought in the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid to build the commercial centre at its 6 billion Egyptian pound Stone Park development, which is to include 1,430 homes on 190 hectares in New Cairo. New Giza is building on 630 hectares in Sixth of October.

On Tuesday, the government signed an agreement with Arabia Group, which will invest 35bn pounds to develop 234 hectares in Sixth of October.

Westown, Eastown, Madinaty, Al Rehab, Allegria and Uptown – the list of high-end developments expanding across the desert seems to go on forever.

And the giant of them all is the new US$300bn Cairo Capital, which is to occupy 700 square kilometres east of Cairo and house 5 million people, surrounded by “lush gardens”.

Golf courses have been popping up all around Cairo. A single 18-hole golf course can easily slurp up 5,000 cubic metres of water a day. And the water loss from swimming pools because of evaporation is enormous in the desert’s arid climate.

Egypt is the gift of the Nile, but the river is pretty well tapped out. Not much of it reaches the Mediterranean anymore. If you take more water out of it somewhere, that means you have to take less out somewhere else.

That would include water for the 4 million feddans of land that the government last year said it was planning to reclaim from the desert for agriculture.

Supplying water to cities along the Nile is easy. But once you are out in the desert there is a high lift that has to be taken into consideration. The water has to be pumped up from the Nile, which is very expensive.

Sixth of October is about 150 metres above sea level, New Cairo about 200 to 300 metres and the new Cairo Capital about 300 metres.

"There has been little accounting for how much it costs to get water to the new towns," said David Sims, an economist and urban planner. His book, Egypt's Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster?, was published this year.

The government has been having a hard time delivering water to developments already in place. The districts in and around New Cairo have had regular water cuts in the decade or so since people began living there, particularly in the peak summer months, forcing residents to arrange for deliveries by water tankers.

Various plans have been put forth to add to Egypt’s water supply, including desalination, tapping aquifers and even diverting water from the Congo River into the Nile upstream.

The most practical solution is to make better use of the water already being taken out of the Nile. This means charging residents a price that reflects the cost of providing it. This would encourage people to fix their leaky pipes, consume less at home and decrease the size of their gardens.

It might also put pressure on the government to improve its water management of agricultural and residential use.

The idea of the government diverting resources to ensure water deliveries to luxury gated communities to subsidise the tiny portion of society living there seems outrageous.

If the government starts charging more for water, that means the cost of living in the new cities will increase a little bit, decreasing the pool of people who can afford to live there just a little bit as well. The government is also committed to raising diesel and petrol prices, making the vehicle-based lifestyle of the new cities less attractive.

This may mean that the vast plans for desert cities may have to be curtailed.

Many of the new cities are finding it difficult to attract residents. Based on data from the 2006 census, between 60 and 70 per cent of their units were unoccupied, said Mr Sims. “There are more housing units than people living there.”

The government has indeed been trying to increase water prices in some new cities. It has been installing water meters in some areas and is gradually increasing prices. It recently raised the price of water to commercial users in Sheikh Zayed City to 4.25 Egyptian pounds per cubic metre from about 3.20 pounds, said a manager.

At such prices, desalination begins to look attractive. The cost of desalinating seawater has fallen to between $0.50 and $1 per cubic metre worldwide and looks set to get even cheaper. It is now the main source of water for tourist villages along the Red Sea. Still, the cost of pumping it uphill could keep it prohibitively expensive for the areas around Cairo.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years.

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