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Egypt farmers fear rising social tensions over scarce water

October 31, 2022 at 4:51 pm

Farmers inspect the wheat plants during their production process in Nile Delta province of al-Minufiyah, Egypt on 25 March 2022. [Stringer – Anadolu Agency]

For three decades, brothers Ramadan and Mamdouh Othman have grown summer crops of maize, olives and cucumbers on their Nile Delta land in Egypt’s northern governate of Fayoum.

But, over the past year, the amount of water in the canal that supplies their sandy 3-acre (1.2-hectare) farm in the village of El-Shawashna has fallen 40 per cent.

The brothers blame bigger farms upstream, which they say are taking more than their fair share of water to compensate for shortfalls caused both by recurring droughts and the filling of a new Ethiopian hydropower dam on the Nile River.

“It is a complete disaster for us,” said Ramadan, 44, noting half the summer harvest had been lost.

“It is really getting worse,” added Mamdouh, 51, as he and his brother carefully watered their crops with that day’s limited supply. “If we lose more water than that, we will not be able to live.”

Egypt is facing worsening water shortages as climate change brings more extreme heat and drought – and now many Egyptian farmers and climate change experts fear the new dam upstream will only exacerbate the threat.

READ: Egypt wheat reserves sufficient for 6 months, says minister

More widely, across much of the Middle East and North Africa, freshwater supplies are dwindling, in part as climate change impacts strengthen, and analysts fear rising tensions over shortages.

With limited supplies of freshwater needed for many purposes – farming, household use, industry, power generation and nature – growing competition could push to the edge people already struggling with poverty, aging water infrastructure and poor water governance, said Iranian environmental scientist, Kaveh Madani.

“Climate change … makes water scarcer, dries up wetlands, and makes farming more challenging,” said Madani, recently appointed incoming Director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health at the United Nations University.

“This will, in turn, lead to unemployment, tension and forced migration and, ultimately, more conflict,” he predicted.

Hotter, more dangerous

Global temperatures have risen more than 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times and are now swiftly approaching a 1.5C degrees of warming mark, that scientists fear could herald a transition to far costlier and deadlier climate change impacts.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, a pact among nearly 200 nations, set a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C.

But, with fossil fuel use still rising globally, despite pledges to slash emissions, 1.5C of warming could be passed within a decade, top climate scientists say.

They fear that could trigger irreversible ecological tipping points, from surging sea levels as polar ice melts to spiking temperatures as methane – a potent driver of warming – escapes thawing permafrost.

A hotter planet is also expected to spark more extreme weather, crop failures, species extinctions, migration, conflict and soaring personal and financial losses for many people around the world.

As negotiators gather in Egypt early next month for the COP27 UN climate change conference, which aims to make progress on slowing global warming and dealing with its impacts, Egypt’s farmers say they are already feeling the heat.

Higher temperatures, poor water management and population growth are key drivers of a worsening water crisis in the country, analysts say.

Egypt today has 560 cubic metres of water available per person each year, less than a third of the amount available 50 years ago, according to government data.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could lead to bread shortages across parts of the Arab world - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could lead to bread shortages across parts of the Arab world – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

That puts the country well below the 1,000 cubic metres per person the United Nations uses to define a country as water scarce.

Nearly all of Egypt’s freshwater comes from the Nile and 85 per cent of the country’s share of the river is consumed by its agricultural industry – one reason many Egyptian farmers see the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a threat.

When Ethiopia started to fill the reservoir for its $4 billion project in 2020, it said it aimed to finish in five years. Egypt has asked for a slower fill, over 10 years, to keep more water moving downstream.

But the countries – along with Sudan, which has expressed concern about the dam’s safety and the impact on its own dams and water stations – have so far not reached an agreement.

To date, experts say, Egypt has been able to make up any shortfall in its supply of Nile water as a result of the GERD’s filling by using water stored in its own Aswan High Dam, as well boosting recycling of water.

But that is not a long-term solution, said Abbas Sharaky, who teaches geology of economically valuable minerals at Cairo University.

“If people are not feeling the impact right now … they will, for sure, feel it when the Aswan Dam runs out or when a major drought hits the country, which is normal amid severe climate change,” he predicted.

If the GERD is swiftly filled by 2025, Egypt’s access to water could drop so drastically that the Nile Delta could permanently lose half its agricultural land, said Karim Elgendy, a climate expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“This could affect agricultural productivity, increase unemployment and lead to displacement and migration,” putting added pressure on neighbouring countries suffering their own water shortages, he said.

‘Hanging on by a thread’

The small village of Fedemen in Fayoum governate used to be lush with mango orchards, but farmer, Hossam Abu Zeid, is now watching his only source of income shrivel up before his eyes.

Last year, nearly all of his crop was wiped out by extreme heat, and this year, 80 per cent was lost after larger farms upstream took more water than usual from the local canal to make up for the drier weather.

The losses cost him about 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($10,260) in lost income, he estimated.

Abu Zeid said he has heard of local farmers fighting over scarce water.

“Some are taking more water than the others, and this is causing tension. If this continues, it will not bode well for social stability,” he predicted, as he sat beside his wilted mango trees, their fruit wrinkled and brown.

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In a report published in February, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a warming climate could escalate tensions in countries unable to adapt to the changes.

“Climate variability and extremes are associated with more prolonged conflict through food price spikes, food and water insecurity, loss of income and loss of livelihoods”, the report said.

Some analysts believe Syria’s ongoing civil war was triggered in 2011 by drought linked to climate change, though that view has been disputed in recent years.

But Madani said there’s no doubt Syria, Iraq and Iran are all struggling for steady supplies of freshwater because of the combination of growing drought, poor governance and lax water management.

All three countries are now “water bankrupt”, he said.

That leaves vital systems that provide citizens with food, water and energy “all hanging on by a thread”, Madani said.

Fighting back

To try to fix its water troubles, Egypt is rolling out a nationwide water management strategy, set to run through 2037. It includes building desalination systems and sewage treatment stations that aim to turn saltwater and wastewater into freshwater.

Last year, the country also launched a 300 billion Egyptian pound ($15.3 million) New Delta project to develop a coastal agricultural area of almost 1 million feddans (1 million acres), a few kilometres west of the current Nile Delta.

Officials say the aim is to take pressure off the country’s existing breadbasket, where rising seas and unfettered construction are eating away at farmland.

But Sharaky, the Geology Professor, said these efforts could end up worsening social tensions.

The cost of the projects – likely to be paid for in part through taxes and higher commodity prices – could hit ordinary Egyptians as hard as any loss of Nile water due to climate change or the GERD, he predicted.

READ: Egypt asks local businessmen to help counter rising prices

“Yes, rising temperatures will reduce freshwater and, yes, Ethiopia’s dam will affect Egypt’s Nile water share,” he said.

But measures to combat shrinking water availability also “come at a huge cost”, he said.

As well, if the region keeps warming rapidly, Egypt and other nations in the Middle East might not be able to adapt quickly enough to keep up with coming changes, he warned.

Vital infrastructure that was not built for the likely extreme heat of the future means that buildings, roads, bridges and water and electricity systems could start to fail, requiring heavy new spending and potentially exacerbating poverty, hunger and tensions.

“If we head towards 2 degrees Celsius of warming, chaos … can be expected,” he predicted. “It will be a complete disaster.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.