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Wednesday, 19 February 2020

What are lawmakers and regulators doing to avert water wars?

Whatever happened to legislation from years ago meant to help us avert the ‘water wars’? The House happened. Anyone observing the water rationing in South Africa (or who has watched a Mad Max movie in the last 30 years) can see what could happen when a water crisis gets worse. The Irrigation Ministry last year announced a nationwide state of emergency as a result of Egypt’s share of Nile water falling by 5 bn cbm in 2019 due primarily to decreasing rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands. More pressing shortages will also come along with GERD. In our inaugural issue of Hardhat, we noted the government’s efforts to bolster our water infrastructure. Yet we’re seeing a dearth of news on water-related legislation that would address some of the structural problems with how water resources are organized.

You’ll be pleased to know that there are currently three pieces of water-related legislation that aim to do just that. There are amendments to the Drinking Water and Wastewater Act, which punishes wasting water while also setting up the regulatory framework for all the players involved. There is also a new Water Resources Act, that aims to more efficiently manage drainage, runoffs and water usage. Then there are amendments to the Agriculture Act, which would restrict growing crops that consume too much water. Out of the three, only the latter has passed, largely the result of being bogged down in the House of Representatives.

Law #1 — Amendments to the Drinking Water and Wastewater Act: This is essentially the government’s “lay down the law” legislation, where punitive measures are outlined, along with a regulatory framework and a previously-existing supervisory body’s legislative framework, Egyptian Water Regulatory Agency (EWRA) head Mohamed Hassan tells Enterprise. He breaks down the core tenets of the draft amendments as follows:

EWRA to be given regulatory powers over who produces and distributes water: The amendments make EWRA the official regulator governing all those involved in water production and distribution, allowing it to specify which projects the private sector can work on, according to Hassan. Water distribution will remain state-controlled in most major governorates, he adds. Private sector distributors will only be allowed to sell directly to consumers in areas which the government doesn’t fully cover. One example is Sharm El Sheikh, where several private providers work directly with hotels and other establishments in the resort town. Otherwise, the government would purchase water produced in private water plants and handle distribution itself.

That includes powers to issue licenses and enforce the law: EWRA will also be able to issue licenses to water providers and grant them management rights to run water facilities and networks, says Hassan. The law will also grant EWRA the powers to arrest all those in violation of the law, he confirmed.

EWRA will also set prices: The amendments will keep the power to set prices for water producers and consumers firmly with EWRA. Hassan tells us that the agency is currently working on a new price mechanism, but did not elaborate on how that will impact current prices.

New punitive measures in place: The changes would see those who squander public water resources face prison terms, as well as fines of between EGP 20-100k. People caught illegally tapping water systems could see jail terms of up to two years and fines between EGP 1-10k. Those using drinking water for “non-designated purposes,” such as watering roads and gardens or washing cars, could, meanwhile, be subject to terms of at least six months in prison and fines of up to EGP 20k.

Law #2 — The Water Resources Act: The new Water Resources Act would update current regulations on how water can be used. Media reports and a former ministry spokesperson have revealed that the bill will address a number of recent challenges such as the impact of climate change, increased levels of pollution, and dwindling water resources in light of growing demand and rapid population growth.

The 131-article bill would unite disparate laws on water management under a single framework to streamline procedures for different types of water uses, lower waste volumes, and promote better flood and rain water management. There are five brand new provisions in the latest version of the legislation that we’ve seen. The provisions cover the following:

  • A new article on groundwater management and groundwater storage facility monitoring, as well as on regulating inland waterways;
  • A new chapter to protect valleys, maintain rain drainage facilities, and preserve buildings from flash floods caused by heavy rains;
  • A new article to allow private stakeholders to work with the state in managing, operating, and maintaining irrigation and drainage systems;
  • A new article to introduce provisions against acts of vandalism near coasts; and
  • A new article to develop Egypt’s irrigation and drainage systems through “advanced technology.”

Other elements: Besides aiming to address new challenges, the bill would define the roles of all relevant ministries and government bodies, including the housing, irrigation, environment, and health ministries, and update the standards for water distribution and the protection of waterways, Hassan told us.

Law #3 — Another law that supports water conservation is the recently amended Agriculture Act, which granted the agriculture and irrigation ministries greater powers to regulate what can be grown and where in order to clamp down on water-intensive crops. Last year, the Agriculture Ministry said it aims to increase the cultivation area of a so-called “drought rice” to 500k feddans from 150k feddans. This variety consumes 4k cbm of water per acre compared to 6k cbm needed for the traditional rice crop.

Besides laws, the government also has a plan to boost efficiency: in the vein of electricity meters, which the government has been rolling out since 2015, the government has recentely tested new tap covers that will help regulate the flow rate of tap water, according to the holding company's head, Mamdouh Raslan. These devices, which are manufactured by the Arab Organization for Industrialization, are currently being sold for EGP 40 in water companies, and are planned to be rolled out nationwide soon. The government is also working on better mapping out water distribution areas. It will divide the water consuming population into 10k separate regions to better measure and control water waste. This plan is expected to conserve up to 2.89 bcm per day, Raslan said.

So with all this legislation in the works, why have only the Agriculture Act amendments come to pass? The culprit appears to be (surprise, surprise) the House of Representatives. The amendments to the Drinking Water and Wastewater Act were drawn up by the Housing Ministry as far back as 2014, but stalled after several back and forth exchanges between the government and the House Housing Committee. The draft amendments have recently been reworked by EWRA after MPs asked for further clarification, Hassan told us. The MPs wanted clarification on the role of several key stakeholders — including the irrigation, health, and environment ministries, the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater (HCWW) and the National Authority For Potable Water and Sewage — given EWRA’s expanded powers.

Where do we stand? The authority has sent the Drinking Water and Wastewater Act to be finalized by a recently-formed ministerial committee, said Hassan, without providing an estimate for when it will make it to cabinet for approval. “We are hoping to see it submitted to the House during the ongoing legislative session,” which wraps up this summer, Hassan said.

It’s looking only slightly better for the Water Resource Act: The law received cabinet approval in 2017, before being discussed extensively in at least 27 House Agriculture Committee meetings. After sub-level committees were formed to resolve some of its contentious articles, the long-awaited draft finally received a nod from the committee last November. It should now be placed up for a final vote.

A case of mismanaged priorities? Representatives we’ve reached out to have not gotten back to us on why crucial legislation drafted and approved by the government is taking so long (and we promise we’ll keep asking). This only leaves us with the notion that the issue simply isn’t as high on their priorities list as needs to be. We’ve all seen the House approve contentious legislation that years prior would have been very difficult to pass (the VAT Act being a notable example). And with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) beginning to fill its reservoir ahead of becoming fully operational in 2022, we ask: if not now, then when?

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