Water shortfall means Egypt must import food, minister says

Country has deficit of up to 35 billion cubic metres

Egypt relies almost entirely on the Nile for its fresh water. AFP
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Egypt currently has an annual water shortfall of up to 35 billion cubic metres, leaving it with no choice but to import food, the country's irrigation and water minister Hany Sweilam told parliament on Tuesday.

Egypt relies almost entirely on the Nile for its fresh water. Its annual share of the river's water is 55.5 billion cubic metres under an agreement reached in 1959 with Sudan.

Ethiopia, the source of about 80 per cent of the Nile water reaching Egypt, rejects that agreement because it was never involved or consulted.

At present, the Horn of Africa nation is close to completing the construction of Africa's largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, the river's main tributary.

Egypt fears the dam will reduce its share of the river's water, wiping out millions of jobs and disrupting the food supply of its 104 million people.

Sudan says it wants Ethiopia to provide real-time data on the operation of the dam to ensure that its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile are not affected by an unexpected rise or fall in the volume of water.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly said Egypt had one of the world's lowest water supplies per capita of about 572 cubic metres. He refers to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) as an existential issue.

On Tuesday, Mr Sweilam said that beside Egypt's share of the Nile water, it receives another 1.3 billion cubic metres of rainfall. Plans for the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of hectares need another 8 billion cubic metres, that his ministry plans to secure through recycling, he said.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba, Ethiopia. AFP

“We have groundwater water too, but we need to be careful with that, so we need to recycle irrigation water,” he said.

He did not say which agricultural produce Egypt was importing as a direct result of its water shortage, but the country has in recent years restricted rice growing.

Egypt has also been following conservation policies in recent years by recycling irrigation and sewage water, introducing measures to stop leakage from canals and building desalination plants on its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts.

These policies became more pressing when Ethiopia began building the Gerd more than 10 years ago.

However, Mr Sweilam said Egypt was not affected by Ethiopia's third dam filling last summer.

“That's because God gifted us a historic flood,” he said, without giving details.

Egypt was also barely affected by the first and second Gerd fillings in the summers of 2020 and 2021.

But that did not stop it from continuing to demand that Ethiopia enters a legally binding deal on the operation of the dam and agree a mechanism for dealing with future droughts.

Ethiopia maintains that recommendations, not a binding deal, should suffice.

Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt last held talks on the Gerd dispute in April 2021. That round of negotiations under African Union auspices collapsed when Addis Ababa rejected proposals to engage the US, the UN and EU as mediators.

Updated: January 17, 2023, 6:11 PM
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