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For too many Egyptians, the cup of clean drinking water is always half empty

Egyptian mother cups her hands under a running tap in her yard to let her her daughter 6 drink, in the village of al-Jendaya, in the Bani Mazar province, in the Minya governorate some 200km south of Cairo on 5 April 2016. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
Egyptian mother cups her hands under a running tap in her yard to let her her daughter 6 drink, in the village of al-Jendaya, in the Bani Mazar province, in the Minya governorate some 200km south of Cairo on 5 April 2016. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

I suffer a lot in my efforts to obtain water. We bear the costs in full because if we didn't, we would never get water. I can no longer bear this. If you go into people's homes here, you would wonder how anyone lives in these places.

The families of Najah Ihsan and Abu Al-Ola are representative of around 1.2 million Egyptians who have no supply of drinking water. They struggle to get even a single cup of fresh water, which is very scarce. This is down to the scandalous waste in Egypt's water supply system.

Using open source data, we can see how the mismanagement of drinking water in Egypt has led to a decline in the share of water available for every individual. This has led to a rise in the percentage of the population deprived of water or with minimal access to it.

Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of the population with access to drinking water for 24 hours a day was constant at approximately 95 per cent. However, the percentage of the population without access to this key utility increased threefold during the same period. From 380,000 people in 2014 — 0.41 per cent of the population — the figure rose to 1,180,000 — 1.2 per cent of the population — in 2018. That's an increase of 800,000 people, according to the annual report of the Egyptian Drinking Water Regulatory Agency.

Sherif Abu Al-Ola from the Nagaa Salem district is one of those people without this utility; he relies on getting water from one of his neighbours on a daily basis. Despite this, it is not enough for his family of eight. "The water we drink is of the same quality as the water we give to livestock, but what are we going to do about it?" he asked. "It's all in the hands of God."

The population and types of water services

Large quantities of water are wasted during the distribution process due to losses through the supply networks. The average annual loss is three out of every ten litres produced by the waterworks. As a result, the share of drinking water per capita per year decreased from 86 cubic metres in 2011 to 63 cubic metres in 2018.

To determine why this is I traced the journey that drinking water makes, starting at its source and the annual reserves, through the process of transportation, desalination and distribution. I concluded with an examination of the state's expenditure on this facility. It was revealed that there were deficiencies at every stage and this was the cause of the decline in the share of water per capita. It also highlighted the reason for the discrepancy in the share between individuals and communities in different governorates.

The percentage of drinking water is constant, but the number of those deprived of the service is on the rise

Egypt's water resources come from the River Nile, the source of seven out of every ten litres of water in the country. Approximately two litres come from the reuse of wastewater while the remaining litre is derived from groundwater and rainwater. This is according to the 2019 report published by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation. The total of these resources was more than 80 billion cubic metres in 2019, compared with approximately 74 billion cubic metres in 2011.

Water resources in Egypt

Source

Despite this increase, the percentage of drinking water out of total usage has remained almost constant in recent years at thirteen per 100 litres. At the same time, water used in industry has increased three and a half times since 2015 to reach seven per 100 litres, instead of only two per 100 previously.

Water uses in Egypt

Najah Ahmad is a teacher who lives in the village of Ash Shawriyyah in the Nagaa Hammadi district in Qena. "Our village is supplied by water pipes coming from a neighbouring village, but the supply is either weak or intermittent," she explained. "The pipe fittings are old and some of them are made of iron. This has worn out over time, leaving some residue in the water."

She added that there is a motor to pump the water up because without that, it would not reach them at all. "We also put a large tank on the roof of the house, and it must be filled every day."

Najah downplays her suffering compared with the situation of her sister who "suffers more" because her house is on the second floor. "In the summer, she gets water from distant spots, filling jerrycans and carrying them all the way upstairs."

Some women cannot carry jerrycans or buckets, she added, so they put them in wheelbarrows that are used to transport bricks. "I often suffer like them in the search for water because the tanks empty quickly, and sometimes the motor cannot pump the water. We buy empty barrels and fill them with water and allocate one or two to the bathroom and the same amount to drinking. Most women suffer from back pain as a result of carrying jerrycans for long distances."

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Image of a wheelbarrow

Nadia Ihsan* has devoted her life to helping those who do not receive water regularly through a charity association in Qena. She says she does this because, "Many villages do not get water, and there are villages that drink salty water. We are trying to support some through desalination plants."

Recently, her association succeeded in connecting 150 water pipe fittings in the district of Nagaa Hammadi and in Al-Marashda.

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Pictures of installing water fittings

Despite the positive side of the work of Nadia's association, people also suffer because of other issues. "Water is not the only problem but is one of many problems. If you go into people's homes, you wonder how they are living. It tires me out, and my nerves can't take it any more. What do we know about these people?" She is both angry and sad.

Losses through the water supply network

Before water reaches the consumer, it is processed by various types of water plants, including surface waterworks, wells and desalination plants. However, the amount available to the consumer is less than the amount produced by these plants. This is due to leaks in the supply networks.

The loss of water is one of the main reasons behind the waste of drinking water. The annual rate of loss exceeded 2.6 billion cubic metres between 2014 and 2018. This means that there are more than three litres wasted for every ten litres produced by all the various waterworks.

Percentage of loss through the supply network

Ahmad Ridha, the media officer of the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater, explained two reasons for the loss of water: "There is natural loss due to the laws of physics as a result of network washing operations, and this is a recognised percentage. Water loss also happens as a result of broken pipes, and the company is working hard to find ways to deal with these. Some water is lost because of violations in using networks as happens in buildings which violate the regulations. There are campaigns to target these infringements and to issue immediate reports of violations."

With the increase in drinking water to 731 million cubic metres per year, every extra litre of water that is produced means a loss of three litres. This means that there are no tangible benefits from this small increase.

The percentage of water loss through supply networks has been increasing over the years. In 2011 it was around a quarter of the total amount of water produced, but it was more than a third (34 per cent) in 2018, according to the Central Agency for Mobilisation and Statistics.

Dia'a Al-Qoosi, a water expert and advisor to the former Minister of Irrigation said: "In Japan, the loss reaches only five per cent. If the strainers funnelling water towards the purification plants are efficient, they would not allow a lot of residue to permeate and then clog the filters. Additionally, if malfunctions, even in the case of new pipes, were addressed immediately, water loss would decrease. The supply networks, valves and flushing gates must all be renewed periodically."

One study indicates that the economically acceptable level of water loss ranges between five and ten per cent depending on the source of the water. In his email response, the Vice President of the Middle East Water Forum, Hassan Abul Naja, expressed his view that the acceptable rate in Egypt should be less than 20 per cent.

The media officer of the Holding Company justifies the loss as follows: "The company takes measures to reduce losses all the time. There are leak detection programmes, such as the district metered area (DMA), which zooms in on a specific area and follows standard measures to reduce the loss. First, we make sure that meters are installed and that additional problems in the networks are handled. This procedure has been followed in many areas and produced very good results that greatly contributed to reducing water waste."

Cairo and Alexandria experience the highest loss

In 2018, the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said topped the list of water loss through water supply networks. Each governorate loses approximately 64 litres out of every 100 litres produced. This is many times the losses in 2011. Cairo lost 17 litres for every 100 litres it produced, while Alexandria lost 35 litres, and Port Said lost only 11 litres per 100 produced.

Interactive map of the loss through the supply networks in each governorate

Al-Qoosi attributes the huge losses in the governorates of Cairo and Alexandria to their geographical nature. The terrain leaves them with the longest network of pipes and worsens the crisis in the event of a breakage or explosion. "If we compare the lengths of the networks between Cairo and the Oases, for example, the lengths in the capital are 35 times longer," she explained.

Interactive map of the loss of water per capita

Waterworks: the source of the crisis

There are various types of waterworks, including surface waterworks, wells and desalination plants. The total number indicates that during the above mentioned seven years, the number of waterworks increased annually by an average of 44, but dividing them according to the type of water shows a different reading.

The total number of waterworks, stations and plants, and their types

Nile water is the main source of surface water. In 2011, the total number of surface waterworks for the Nile was more than two thousand, but this had dropped by more than 50 per cent by 2018. According to data revealed by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, more than 1,100 waterworks disappeared steadily during this period at a rate of 161 every year.

Despite the significance of the numbers, the media officer of the Holding Company for Drinking Water refused to acknowledge the problem and claimed that, "Waterworks are in service all the time; the situation is not the other way around. No waterworks goes out of service; rather, some are improved. Surface waterworks in particular do not decrease in number, but this may happen in the case of private aquifers if the level of salinity in the water increases. This is done after a permit is obtained from the Ministry of Health."

Rasha El-Khouli, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Heliopolis University, explained that the decline may have occurred because a number of waterworks had halted operations in order to be replaced or renewed. This might include changing the technology used in them or modernising outdated production methods.

The situation is different with drilled well pumping stations. The number of these increased by a tenth, from 1,456 stations in 2012 to more than 1,600 in 2018, with an average annual increase of 25 pumping stations. Only the number of New Valley stations were available in the 2011 bulletin.

The number of drilled well pumping stations and their increase in governorates

As for desalination plants, they increased by about one plant per annum, bringing the total in 2018 to 44, compared with 35 in 2011. The latest year for which the annual bulletin for drinking water and wastewater was issued was 2018. According to Ridha, after that, "There was a big surge in the number of desalination plants."

The figures discussed above covers the number of waterworks, stations and plants of all kinds, but what about their production capacity on the ground?

Each waterworks has a design capacity that represents its maximum capacity, and an actual capacity that shows the true function on the ground. In 2011, surface waterworks showed a significant difference between the two capacities in most governorates, and this brought the average actual capacity overall to 61 per cent, but this difference narrowed in 2018 to become 75 per cent. However, the waterworks in 14 governorates, that is almost half of all governorates, operated at less than this average.

An infographic video that combines a diagram of the capacity of surface waterworks and a diagram of the capacity of wells in 2018

These numbers help to focus on the level of production capacity. According to Ridha, the design capacity of the waterworks takes into account future plans. "There is a general plan up until 2030, and it takes the needs of residential areas into account based on expected expansion and the rise in population numbers. Accordingly, the design capacity of the waterworks takes these elements into consideration since we are unable to build new works every day. Therefore, a waterworks is designed with a capacity that can encompass a number of years while actual operation is done according to the current population needs."

As for the drilled well stations located in 20 governorates, the average operation at actual capacity was 31 per cent of the design capacity in 2012, which increased to 50 per cent in 2018. Eight governorates worked at less than this percentage with Matrouh and Qena using the least of their capacity. These governorates worked with only five per cent and seven per cent of their design capacity. The governorates of Upper Egypt make up half, that is, five of the 10 governorates that are at the lower end of the scale. Dakahlia was the only governorate that surpassed 90 per cent operation rate, a figure that was attained by Beni Suef right behind Dakahlia in ranking, followed by North and South Sinai.

Ihsan, who is in charge of the charity association in Qena, said that people sometimes resort to pumping up water on a private initiative, even though it is salty water of poor quality. "Hence, we try to provide desalination plants all the time, so that they can drink such water and use well water for other needs."

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Pictures of the purification plant

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Photo of the pump

"We strive to improve the amount of water produced in terms of quantity and quality at all times," explained Ridha. "If there is an opportunity to serve an area with drilled well stations, we do that. Sometimes, if surface waterworks enter service and can cover the designated areas with groundwater, then we close the wells and content ourselves with surface water."

Decreasing production leads to a decline in shares

Data indicates that the total amount of water produced between 2011 and 2018 did not witness a major development in terms of quantity; there were slight fluctuations from year to year. However, a comparison between the first and the last years shows that for every 100 litres produced in 2011, 98 were produced in 2018. This is not commensurate with the continuous increase in population numbers; hence, there is a need to produce more rather than less.

Accordingly, the share per capita decreased from 110 cubic metres per year in 2011 to 89 cubic metres per year in 2018, a decrease of a fifth. The total amount of water produced in 2018 was more than 8.7 billion cubic metres. The governorates of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Dakahlia produced about half of this at 48 per cent, while the remaining twenty-four governorates produced the other half.

The share of the water produced per capita varies greatly in governorates. In South Sinai, the share per capita was 28 times greater than that in Port Said and 14 times more than in Suez. These two are the two governorates with the lowest share of the product per capita, followed by Qalyubiyya, Minya, Sohag, Monufia, Asyut and Beni Suef and Qena. Naturally, this has affected water consumption. Comparing the two years of 2011 and 2018 reveals that for every 100 litres consumed in 2011, 88 were consumed in 2018, a decrease of 12 per cent. In this way, the share per capita decreased by about a quarter, dropping from 86 cubic metres per year in 2011 to 63 cubic metres in 2018. The average daily consumption per capita of 239 litres in 2011 decreased to 175 litres in 2018.

The average share of water consumed and produced per capita

An infographic video that combines a graphic of the share per capita in each governorate and a graphic that compares the consumed amounts in 2011 and 2018

El-Khouli explained the sizable disparity between governorates: "It is not due to one factor but to several factors that are subject, for example, to social and living standards. These result in the difference in the volume of consumption."

Al-Qoosi, on the other hand, believes that raising awareness about the need to ration consumption is essential. "If only one tap leaks water, it wastes 3 cubic metres in a year. If we assume that we have more than 10 million housing units with nearly 50 million leaking taps, it means that 150 million cubic metres per year are wasted. Wasting dirty water is a mistake, but wasting clean water is a sin."

The comparison between consumption in 2011 and 2018 shows that only about eight governorates experienced an increase per capita. Most of these were a small percentage.

Ihsan cited an example of the dire situation of a particular village and its access to water. "A village called Hindi only receives water through tanks belonging to the government. These are brought by tanker trucks every 10 or 15 days when people fill up jerrycans and then wait for the vehicles to pass again."

Photo of children filling water from tanker trucks

State spending on maintenance is low priority

Drinking water utility is under the wing of the Ministry of Housing and Population. The Executive Body and the National Authority for Potable Water and Sewage are responsible for offering, awarding, financing and supervising drinking water projects. The first entity is concerned with the governorates of Greater Cairo and Alexandria while the second is in charge of the remaining governorates. In the state's general budget from 2010 to 2020, the total expenditure on water supply amounted to more than 94 billion Egyptian pounds, that is, more than US $9 billion per year. The National Authority's share of this was about two-thirds. According to the budget figures from the fiscal year 2017-2018, the amount of US $9bn represents three quarters of the state's public spending on the facility.

Costs cover wages for workers, grants and benefits in kind, and the purchase of goods and services. The share of maintenance expenditure came to an average of nearly 70 million Egyptian pounds per year. This means that for every 100 million pounds of expenditure, less than one million is designated for maintenance. Although the National Authority's expenditure is double that spent by the Executive Body, the difference was great in terms of maintenance. For every 100 million pounds that the Executive Body spends on maintenance, the National Authority spends only one million, although it is in charge of 23 governorates, compared with only four governorates under the Executive Body.

An infographic video that combines a graph of the percentage of maintenance expenses from the total expenditure of the Executive Body and the National Authority

On the other hand, neither organisation has any financial surpluses; rather, they both suffer from a large deficit between expenditure and revenue.

An infographic video that combines a graphic of the expenditure and revenue of the Executive Body for Drinking Water and the National Authority for Potable Water

What about the Holding Company that is primarily responsible for operating and maintaining the waterworks, stations and plants?

The average total cost of the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater is more than 6 billion Egyptian pounds annually; this includes expenditure and other items. An average of 400 million pounds is spent on service supplies, including maintenance among other things, according to the Annual Bulletin for Economic and Statistical Indicators for Public Enterprise and Public Sector Companies. This bulletin is issued by the Central Agency for Mobilisation and Statistics.

As such, for every 100 million Egyptian pounds that the company spends out of "total uses", only six million is allocated for service supplies, that is less than one-tenth. Calculating this percentage from the "total production costs" means that for every 100 million pounds, there is a total of 15 million pounds of service requirements. This is less than one-fifth of the amount that was spent between 2008 and 2016.

A graph showing the value of service supplies out of the total uses in the Holding Company

The company's media officer said: "The sums allocated for maintenance go entirely towards that. There are operating requirements, such as electricity, chlorine and alum. Sanitation plants need chemicals for treatment. All these sums are continuously monitored by the Central Auditing Organisation."

Ridha stressed that these amounts are not assigned randomly, but according to the general plan that determines the number of waterworks, stations, plants and networks and their cost in each governorate. "They are also updated in five-year plans in addition to an annual plan on the basis of which budgets are approved. There are mechanisms for determining all of this."

However, the 2017-2018 report of the Egypt Water, Sanitation and Consumer Protection Agency highlighted the financial challenges that have affected the amount of funding required for maintenance and operation. These challenges limited the ability to improve performance. There are also technical challenges such as "the inefficiency of the replacement and renewal programmes, the weak periodic maintenance programmes and the lack of technical expertise. All these have led to a high rate of water loss, irregularity in service, low water quality and the inability to extend drinking water and sanitation services to deprived and poor areas."

The water problem remains a nightmare for millions of Egyptians. The solution lies in executive and practical steps that need to be taken in the transport of water, desalination and maintenance of water facilities that would limit the loss of water and leakage.

*Nadia Ihsan is a pseudonym

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