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Wednesday, 26 January 2022

Could automated tech be the cost-effective solution we need to combat water scarcity?

PROJECT PROFILE- The Irrigation Ministry looks to auto-control devices to manage groundwater collection: Egypt’s water scarcity threats, ranging from GERD to climate change and population growth, has kept water resource projects high on the government’s agenda in the past few years. The government budget for FY2021-2022 earmarks some EGP 21 bn to projects covering water-saving, seawater desalination, and canal lining. Many of these projects are costly — albeit necessary. But one project recently launched by the Irrigation Ministry could offer a more cost-effective solution to combat water scarcity threats: managing and rationing groundwater collection through the use of auto-control devices.

The project saw the recent installation of auto-control devices in 15 underground wells in the New Valley, under a cooperation agreement signed between the governorate and the Irrigation Ministry in 2019. The network of devices — which will include four more currently being installed — are operated remotely through a central control room in Cairo, allowing for the accurate calculation of consumption rates from wells to help prevent excessive withdrawal of water.

Why the New Valley? Groundwater is the main source of irrigation in the New Valley. Studies estimate that over 78k bcm of groundwater reserves fed from the Nubian sandstone aquifer — the world’s largest known fossil water aquifer system — can be found in the governorate. This is currently a governorate-level project, and the sources we spoke to could not confirm whether it will be expanded beyond the New Valley down the line.

Why do we need to monitor groundwater? Groundwater is nonrenewable, especially since Egypt is a dry country that doesn’t get much rainfall. Without proper regulation and monitoring, the main water source feeding into the area, and one of the most scarce forms of water we have, is easily depleted through excessive and unlawful withdrawals from wells, Abbas Sharaky, professor of water resources at Cairo University, explained. This can also have a deteriorating effect on the quality of groundwater, and can strain the wells (which are themselves costly to dig), Sharaky added.

How do the devices work? Every groundwater well operates with a license that specifies a daily withdrawal limit (measured by a water meter) and the number of operating hours it is allowed per day, depending on the well’s capacity and the type of crop it irrigates, Ayman El Sayed, head of the telemetry department at the Irrigation Ministry, told us. The auto-control device uses sensors to detect if the withdrawal limit is reached, at which point the mechanism automatically cuts off the well’s power supply.

Throw in some solar energy for efficiency: The solar-powered wells — which came as part of a separate project and inaugurated in 2018 — also automatically stop operating once the sun is down, limiting the well’s activity to seven or eight hours a day, and relieving the pressure that some farmers place on wells when operating them around the clock.

…With other environmental circuit breakers thrown in: A hygrometer — a device that measures humidity levels in soil to help with irrigation scheduling — was also installed in several locations in the New Valley, and connected to the control system in order to transfer the data to farmers in real-time via text messages, allowing them to determine the optimal time to start and end the irrigation process. The new system helps increase the efficiency of the irrigation process, optimize the use of water and energy, and preserve the wells by removing the strain on them from operating at full capacity, 24 hours a day, Sharaky explained.

These efforts come in tandem with the collection of rainwater: The government ramped up efforts to harvest rainwater when several governorates, including Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh and North and South Sinai, were hit with torrential rains this winter, in an effort to conserve a normally scarce water resource. Some 2.34 mcm of rainwater was harvested and used as an alternative source of drinking and irrigation for the residents of the governorates affected by the rains.

One of few cost-efficient solutions for water scarcity: Each auto-control device used in the groundwater collection monitoring project costs EGP 30k to install, meaning that the 19 devices cost some EGP 570k, Sayed told us. The project is financed through tenders issued by the ministry.

Which is a welcome change from the bns we’re spending: Most of Egypt’s answers to our water scarcity challenges have come with hefty price tags, from the EGP 18 bn Bahr El Baqar wastewater treatment facility to the USD 2.5 bn plan to build 17 solar-powered desalination plants. Egypt’s USD 50 bn water plan could even grow to cost EGP 1 tn (around USD 66 bn) by 2037, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi previously said.

Your top infrastructure stories for the week:

  • An Iraqi industrial delegation came to Egypt seeking the help of the government and private sector to establish industrial zones and develop the country’s industries.
  • Egypt is considering the issuance of sustainable development bonds to finance the Decent Life initiative, International Cooperation Minister Rania Al Mashat said.
  • Elsewedy Electric subsidiary Egytech Cables signed two turnkey agreements worth EGP 686 mn for the design, supply, and installation of underground cables in a residential city in Kuwait.

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