Every drop counts: Why is Egypt losing so much of its drinking water? With the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a rapidly increasing population and the real and growing threat of climate change, the efficient use of water will only become more vital in the years ahead. The trouble is in Egypt, ‘water’ and ‘efficiency’ are words rarely used in the same sentence. While it’s an uphill struggle to quantify just how much water is lost, experts and officials we spoke with all agree that outdated agricultural techniques and potable water leakages are resulting in large and increasingly unsustainable levels of water loss.
First off, where are we getting our water from? Data published by state statistics agency Capmas (pdf) tells us that Egypt had access to a total of 80.25 bn cubic meters (bcm) of water in FY2018-19, the majority of which (55.5 bcm to be precise) was provided by the Nile. We also had 13.65 bcm from treated wastewater and another 9.45 bcm from groundwater.
And how are we using it? The data shows that agriculture alone consumed 61.65 bcm of water in 2018-2019, while drinking water accounted for 10.70 bcm, and industry used some 5.4 bcm.
So how much drinking water is wasted? The most accurate estimate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 28-29%, Mamdouh Raslan, chairman of the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater in Egypt (HCWW), told Enterprise. The figure was arrived at through analysis of the company’s billing: HCWW’s output of drinking water in FY2018-19 reached 8.9 bcm, while the company ‘sold’ only 6.4 bcm — a deficit of 28.7%. While some experts we spoke with dispute the methodology — including May Al Ibrashy, who heads the Built Environment Collective that runs the Megawra project with the government — they do not dispute the extent of the problem. NGO reports cited by the Guardian put the figure at 35%, an amount that could be used to provide fresh water to an additional 11 mn people.
There are two main reasons for this leakage problem, according to what we’re hearing.
#1- An old network of ancient pipelines. The country’s pipeline infrastructure has suffered from chronic underinvestment and has been left to deteriorate over the past 30 years, House of Representatives Housing Committee member Amin Massoud told Enterprise. Even when investments were pumped into the existing 200k km pipeline network, they were not based on feasibility studies, leading to projects failing to reach completion, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly said back when he was housing minister in 2016.
#2- Illegal building: While the aging pipeline network is playing its part in water loss, illegal buildings are the real culprit, Raslan says. This is evident, he says, when surveying the service quality in different areas. For example, Zamalek neighbourhood is fed by a 100-year old pipeline, but problems rarely occur, whereas 10-year old pipelines in other areas where illegal buildings are common are constantly suffering leaks. In Giza, where illegal buildings have been erected without proper licenses, some 37% of fresh water is leaked, says Mansour Badawi, chairman of the Giza Water Company.
Illegal taps are straining the drinking water network for everyone: In the wake of the turmoil that followed 2011, many buildings were erected illegally without obtaining the proper licenses. Egypt’s building codes bar illegal buildings from accessing utilities, so the owners of these buildings resorted to digging into the ground and tapping into the pipelines themselves, Madbouly said back when he was housing minister in 2016. This raises the pressure on the network and leaves it prone to problems that extend to residents living in licensed buildings.
Taps are going dry intermittently nationwide: Whether you live in Cairo or nearly anywhere in Egypt, chances are you have experienced a water outage that has lasted at least for a few hours. Outages in the Greater Cairo area and elsewhere have been well documented and covered in the local press, which note that these could range from a few hours or even up to a few years.
Others do not even have access to drinkable water at all: At least 4% of cities and up to 25% of villages in Egypt are not even connected to water pipelines and have to rely on digging and building water pumps to reach water, Raslan told Enterprise.
New cities could ease the pressure: Since the network is not centralized, building new cities and housing projects does not increase the pressure on existing networks, says Hussein Sabbour, founder of Al Ahly Sabbour for Real Estate Developments. In every new development announced by the government, a dedicated potable water station and a wastewater treatment plant is always included in the development plan. The new capital’s water grid, for instance, is built entirely separate from Cairo’s, says Sabbour, whose company is overseeing the construction of the new capital’s water and wastewater infrastructure. Once people start moving there, pressure on the old network could ease gradually, he adds.
Involving the private sector and cutting subsidies may provide economic solutions: The state is heavily subsidizing water bills, selling it at EGP 2 per cubic meter, which puts all the burden of maintenance and building new lines on the government, Raslan said. In FY2020-2021, the government has allocated EGP 19.1 bn for water and wastewater projects alone across the country, while revenues are forecast to barely reach EGP 3 bn. The solution, he says, is to further involve the private sector in the process and restructure the subsidy scheme.
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