Nile irrigation system in need of a cleanout

If the Egyptian government is looking for megaprojects to improve the economy and put people to work, let me propose one that is not glamorous in the least, but would solve a pressing problem and result in a huge return on investment.

Egypt’s vast irrigation network, the bulk of which was carved into the Delta and much of Upper Egypt in the 19th century, is in a horrible state of neglect and badly needs an upgrade and overhaul.

Water is already scarce in Egypt – now almost none of the Nile’s flow reaches the Mediterranean – but it promises to become more so with the imminent completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the possibility of other dams on the drawing boards of Egypt’s neighbours upstream.

The irrigation suffers from a host of problems. Canals suffer from urban encroachment. It is illegal to build within 50 metres of canals, but this system has broken down in recent years, particularly since the 2011 uprising, making maintenance ever more difficult. People are throwing wastewater, rubbish and other unspeakable pollutants into the canals. Dams, can­als, pumping stations and culverts are deteriorating. Farmers are illegally pumping out more water to grow thirsty crops such as rice that fetch a high price on the market.

But the biggest problem is the damage that has been wrought in the past few decades by the advent of mechanical dredging. What used to be a very friendly and delicate intervention to keep channels unclogged has become a punitive assault that has widened and deepened them far beyond their original design.

A canal that was originally 20 metres wide and three metres deep might now be 30 metres wide and five metres deep, says Mohamed Allam, a professor of irrigation at Cairo University and former minister of water resources and agriculture.

This means a greater volume of water is now required to keep the water level high enough to feed flows into branch channels. It has led to a less efficient use of water and a far higher evaporation rate. The dredging has largely destroyed the low-lying berms along the canal banks that allowed access for maintenance. The canals are continuing to deteriorate.

Egypt has about 40,000 kilometres of waterways, including the great primary canals that branch directly off from the Nile, secondary canals that branch off the primary canals and tertiary canals that branch off the branches. These would be enough to reach New York about eight times if laid end to end. Tens of thousands of pumping stations deliver water to the country’s fields.

The network was started under the rule of Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century and given a boost by the cotton boom of the 1860s during the American Civil War. About 20 per cent of the network was built under Gamal Nasser and another 20 per cent under Sadat and Mubarak, Mr Allam says.

At the moment, some pumping stations and other major structures are being replaced and dams being repaired, but nothing is being done on the main canals.

Although no master plan has been drawn up to assess the condition of pumping stations, canals and other parts of the irri­gation system and to identify what investments are needed, Mr Allam estimates an upgrade would cost $15 billion to $20bn, and could take up to 20 years.

The return on investment would be well worth it, saving 5 to 10 per cent of Egypt’s water, he says. If 3 billion cubic metres a year were saved and water was priced at $0.50 per cubic metre, that would represent an annual savings of $1.5bn.

In addition to an upgrade of the main canals, further water saving could be made by replacing the open ditches that deliver water to the fields with pipelines controlled by a single pumps and equipped with valves at each farm. These would save water by preventing leakage and illicit tapping into the supply.

Still, Mr Allam notes that the savings from this would not be nearly as much as is com­monly believed, since much of the leaked water simply seeps back into the ground to be recovered later by wells drilled by other farmers. The cost of equipping the end users with a system of pipes is about 10,000 pounds (Dh4,676) per feddan (one feddan equals 0.42 hectares), money perhaps better invested in more urgent upgrades.

An upgrade to the irrigation network is a savings that is becoming increasingly crucial. Under agreements with its upstream neighbours, Egypt consumes 77 billion to 78 billion cubic metres of water each year, but is allowed to take only 55.5 billion cubic metres from the Nile, with the difference made up by groundwater and the recycling of wastewater.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years.

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Share This Post