Egypt breathes life into the desert

31 January 1997


They call it the biggest bulldozer in the world. In charge of this 750-hp earthmover is Anwar Khafagi, whose task is to carve a 30-metre- wide canal out of the sand and rock of southern Egypt to transport water from Lake Nasser to the ‘New Delta’, in the heart of the Western Desert.

Khafagi and his team of fellow workers in the state-owned Mosahemat Beheira Company are being treated as national heroes in the Egyptian media - news of the birth of his first child, a daughter named Iman, was given front- page treatment in the Cairo press on 18 January. His family are making the long trip down from Kafr el-Sheikh, in the old Delta, to unite Khafagi and his daughter. They will be part of a veritable pilgrimage to this ambitious worksite, inaugurated by President Mubarak on 9 January.

The Egyptian leader himself says he plans to come down to Lake Nasser once a fortnight to monitor progress. Teams from heavy equipment suppliers like Komatsu of Japan will also be jostling for the attention of Khafagi and the Public Works & Water Resources Ministry officials supervising the project, along with representatives of the 60 or so companies looking to win the contract to build the pumping station that will lift water into the canal.

Other visitors will include a delegation from the World Bank, which the government says may provide finance for the scheme, making amends for its historic decision in 1955 not to back the Aswan High Dam.

The attitude of the bank will be a litmus test for the project, not so much as regards its financial viability, but, more importantly, with respect to the host of hydrological, environmental and geopolitical questions it has raised.


In Egypt, the chorus of approval for the scheme has all but drowned out the few dissenting voices. Among international water specialists, however, it is a different story. Incredulity is the most common reaction of academics in Europe and the US who have studied the Nile over the past 30 years. The prospect of taking large quantities of water out of the Nile before it reaches Aswan, and pumping it into the desert for land reclamation purposes, runs counter to every rule in the hydrologist’s handbook. ‘It is like building a railway line to nowhere,’ says one British specialist. A study on options for Nile water use in Egypt, prepared for the government by UK and Egyptian scientists four years ago, concluded that ‘by far the best policy to guarantee water security for Egypt is the curtailment of the proposed reclamation programme.’ With the New Delta project, the government has done precisely the opposite, and committed itself to a significant expansion of reclamation.

Reduced to their essentials, the main questions raised by the scheme are:

Is there enough water? - The government says the estimated 5,000 million cubic metres a year (bcm) a year taken from Lake Nasser will be offset by savings elsewhere in the system. These will be effected by cutting the area planted with rice by 30 per cent, reducing sugar cane cultivation in favour of less water-intensive sugar beet, upgrading the existing irrigation and drainage systems to eliminate seepage, and making greater use of recycled wastewater. Measures are already under way to achieve these savings. Cropping patterns are being changed, a massive programme of lining irrigation canals and drainage ditches is under way, and new sewage treatment plants have been built or are planned in most major cities and towns throughout Egypt.

Government officials have emphasised that the New Delta scheme is not an opportunistic response to Lake Nasser’s reaching its record high level in 1996, following years of above-average floods. They note that the pumps for the new system will be placed at 147.5 metres above sea level - some 30 metres below the lake’s present surface level.

What if Sudan and Ethiopia used more Nile water? - The basis for all discussion about the availability of Nile water is the agreement signed with Sudan in 1959. This assumes a natural inflow of 84 bcm a year (bcm/y), of which 55.5 bcm goes to Egypt, 18.5 bcm to Sudan, and 10 bcm is estimated to be lost through evaporation. There is no allocation to Ethiopia. Since the construction of the High Dam, Nile flows have fluctuated wildly. But the average flow over the past 100 years has been about 90 bcm, suggesting that Egypt could expect a small surplus over its allocation more often than not.

Sudan has never managed to use more than 14 bcm/y. However, if political and economic stability were to return to Sudan - current trends are not promising in this regard - there would be a powerful rationale for expanding irrigated agriculture on soils far more suitable than Egypt’s deserts. Stability in Sudan would also revive interest in the Jonglei canal project, aimed at speeding the White Nile’s flow through the Sudd swamps, and thereby cutting evaporation losses.

But the most insistent claims for an extra allocation of Nile water are coming from Ethiopia. The populations of Egypt and Ethiopia are now roughly the same, at 60 million. But the rate of growth is higher in Ethiopia, and its population is forecast to reach 120 million in 2025, compared with about

100 million in Egypt. Plans for a series of dams on the Ethiopian stretch of the Blue Nile and its tributaries were first drawn up in the 1950s by US engineers. It is only now, with more settled political conditions prevailing in Ethiopia, that these plans can be seriously considered.

Ethiopia’s plans would entail using some 12 bcm/y for irrigation. The impact on Egypt and Sudan would be mitigated by the fact that evaporation losses would be reduced. One suggestion for a new Nile Waters agreement has the shares of Egypt and Sudan falling by just 3 bcm/y each, to accommodate the extra 12 bcm/y for Ethiopia.

Egypt has long regarded itself as the supreme authority on Nile water use, and has not disguised its concern about Ethiopia’s aspirations. Cairo’s official position is that any such plans deserve detailed and serious study - effectively a policy for procrastination. It has even been suggested that Egypt’s espousal of the New Delta project might be linked to the tussle with Ethiopia. ‘Some knowledgeable observers do not take seriously Egypt’s announced plans to reclaim an additional 1 million hectares by 2000, but see it as an attempt to lay claim to additional water supplies which can be relinquished in future negotiations at relatively little cost,’ write US water specialists Dale Whittington and Kingsley Hayes1.

Is land reclamation a waste of water? - Most academic literature on the subject is anti-reclamation. It is criticised as expensive to develop and operate, and less economical because the water tends not to be returned to the system. However, views are starting to change. Techniques have improved, much of the investment is now coming from the private sector, and more suitable crop varieties are being planted on the new lands.

The government also emphasises that the new projects have the economic benefit of relieving population pressure on the choked Nile Valley. This applies both in the New Delta and in the recently inaugurated Salam Canal scheme taking water into north Sinai.

An additional argument in favour of the Western Desert scheme is that the canal will follow the course of underground aquifers. This offers the possibility that water used to irrigate the reclaimed land will help recharge those aquifers, giving the scheme an element of sustainability.

How will the scheme be financed? - The costs of digging the canal and building the pumping station are estimated at $800 million. Some funds have already been pledged by Abu Dhabi, and the World Bank and US Agency for International Development are studying the possibility of adding to that as yet unspecified amount. However, aid finance is not crucial. The present strength of Egypt’s financial position is such that it could raise the necessary funds from domestic banks, or even through an international bond issue. This contrasts with Egypt’s own position in the 1950s, when it was forced into an alliance with the Soviet Union to finance the High Dam project. It also contrasts with the position of Ethiopia, which stands little chance of going ahead with its dam projects without substantial foreign aid.

1 Agricultural Development in the Middle East, edited by P Beaumont and K McLachlan, 1985. John Wiley & Sons.

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