International Water Day, celebrated around the world since 22 March 1993, passed unnoticed in Egypt this year. The media drew no attention whatsoever to this annual event in spite of the urgent need to raise public awareness in Egypt of the country’s dire shortage of water resources.
Egypt currently suffers a water deficit of 30 billion m3 a year, while the per capita share of available water has shrunk to 670 m3 a year, significantly lower than the 1,000 m3 per year considered the minimum for a dignified life. This figure alone should galvanise efforts to raise awareness of the need to regulate water use domestically, in factories, in agriculture, and in all government services, and of the need to develop the country’s available water resources, learn to utilise them as wisely as possible, and protect them from pollution.
At the same time, it is necessary to intensify the search for new sources of subterranean water in order to make up for the deficit, and there is also a need to restructure the country’s agriculture in order to reduce its utilisation of water since it alone consumes more than the annual quota of Nile water.
This will mean spending more on agricultural research aimed at developing new strains of crops that are able to endure higher temperatures due to global warming, are more capable of withstanding aridity and higher degrees of salinity in the soil, and that can produce greater yields with lower quantities of water.
Last week, a cultural event brought me together with a former minister of agriculture and his son who works in the same field. To my surprise, he started talking about desalinisation as a strategic option for Egypt. I asked him how much desalinated water there was in the world today, what it cost to produce, and how economically viable it was. He merely said that 60 per cent of the desalinated water in the world today was produced in the Gulf.
I received my next surprise last week at a seminar at which the minister of housing was speaking on the desalinisation of seawater and the future of water security in Egypt. This was the housing minister, not the minister of water resources. Desalinisation had become a strategic option and the only alternative open to Egypt, he said. It should be pursued with all the country’s might, he added.
The two ministers’ remarks were clearly made without their having studied or even read about the contemporary situation of desalinisation, the quantities of desalinated water that can be made available, and the costs of producing it. Unfortunately, it looks as if decisions taken by ministers past and present are based on little knowledge and less know-how.
When it comes to desalinisation, there is an international principle that holds that the fundamental purpose of this is to safeguard human life, not to stimulate development. It is for this reason that the total amount of desalinated water now being produced worldwide does not exceed 24-30 billion m3, or barely 0.6 per cent of the fresh water consumed in the world today.
The largest desalinated water producing countries in the world are Saudi Arabia, the US, the UAE, Spain, Japan and Kuwait. I hope readers have taken note of the wealth and economic power of these countries. None of them can even begin to complain of the type of poverty or the economic straits that ail Egypt, but it is in Egypt that ministers suddenly pop up with the idea that desalinisation is a “strategic” option, as if all it was necessary to do was to install a couple of faucets on the Mediterranean and Red Sea, turn on the taps, and get the buckets ready for the unlimited quantities of water that would come gushing out.
Desalinising water needs large and cheap sources of electricity, because the latter is what accounts for 44 per cent of the costs. Every cubic metre of desalinated water takes 2.5 kilowatt hours (KWH) of electricity to produce. Does Egypt have the sources of abundant and cheap electricity required at a time when it is half way through a five-year plan for gradually lifting electricity subsidies?
Using the best available technology, it costs between 48 and 65 US cents to produce a cubic metre of desalinated water, depending on the degree of salinity. The Red Sea is saltier than the Mediterranean, which is also saltier than the Atlantic, and the Gulf is saltier than all three. As a result, it would cost roughly an average of LE10 to produce a cubic metre of desalinated water in Egypt.
Let’s imagine that Egypt had the resources of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the US, Spain or Japan and that it wanted to produce five billion m3 of desalinated water, which is about half the amount of domestic consumption or the amount it takes to irrigate a million acres of land or the quantity that the UAE produces in a year. At LE10 per cubic metre, this would cost LE50 billion a year, without factoring in the costs of building the power stations necessary to operate the desalinisation plants and the construction of the pipes, pumps and other parts of the grid that would be necessary.
Does Egypt have a large enough budget to earmark that amount of money for the production of such large quantities of desalinated water?
WATER PRIORITIES: In keeping with the principle that desalinisation is primarily for the preservation of human life rather than for development or, more precisely, for incremental development calculated to yield optimal returns, we find that 57 per cent of the desalinated water produced in the world today goes to domestic consumption and for use by hospitals, schools, government buildings, public parks and environmental protection.
After that, 23 per cent goes to industry and energy production and only one per cent goes to irrigation and agriculture. In other words, agriculture, the number one water consumer in Egypt and elsewhere in the world, is not the intended object or even incentive for desalinisation, since there is no economic benefit in using desalinated water for food production.
The reason that it is not economically sound to pour desalinated water into agriculture is that the economic returns from agriculture are low. Food prices have to be maintained at levels that are affordable to the poor in keeping with the universal principle of the right to food. The average return from a cubic metre of water put to agricultural use is LE5 to LE10. But it would cost about LE10 just to produce that amount of desalinated water, not counting the costs of the piping and distribution systems that would bring the price up to around LE20.
In view of the commonly practised flood system of irrigation in Egypt, between 6,000 and 7,000 m3 of water are now used to irrigate an acre of land per year. Using desalinated water, this would cost from LE60,000 to LE120,000 per acre per year. Obviously, this is way out of the reach of Egyptian farmers, whose average profit comes to LE10,000 per acre and whose average returns per acre come to LE20,000 after factoring in the costs of fertilisers, insecticides, labour, rent and machinery.
The industrial sector is a different story. Here, the return from a cubic metre of water comes to LE50. That is a more reasonable figure, and using desalinated water in this sector makes more sense. As for the tourist and hotel sector, a cubic metre of water there yields a return of LE500. This is because of the high returns and general profitability of the sector, whether from accommodation and restaurants, sporting and entertainment facilities, or tours and other tourist activities.
It is for this reason that the tourism sector is the one that benefits most from desalinated water and that can most afford to use it. It explains why the resorts and hotels of South Sinai, for example, which have no access to Nile water or to subterranean water resources, have small desalinisation plants capable of producing about 1.5 billion m3 of water a year. This water is solely designed to serve their own consumption needs, not the Sinai residents in the neighbourhood because it is so costly to produce.
If the government were to use desalinated water for domestic purposes in Egypt’s coastal cities, such as Alexandria, Salloum, Marsa Matrouh, Rosetta, Baltim, Gamasa, Ras Al-Barr, Damietta, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Safaga, Dahab, Ras Gharab, Marsa Alam, Halayeb and Shalatin, it would have to subside it. No middle-income household, which uses about 30 m3 of water per month, could afford the LE300 per month it would cost merely to produce that quantity of desalinated water, let alone the LE600 per month it would come to after adding on the costs of the distribution network and other service costs.
In the light of average household incomes, the government would have to subsidise water so as to keep the cost down to LE5 per m3 or LE150 per month per domicile. I do not think that the current economic conditions would permit this, not at a time when the government is rapidly lifting subsidies on electricity, water, fuel, foodstuffs, transport and low-income housing.
Consider that only three years ago the per capita share of government subsidies worked out at a kg of rice, two kg of sugar, and 1.5 litres of cooking oil, whereas today an individual is entitled to half these amounts, and this at a time of soaring food prices and increasing unemployment rates. In other words, the social dimension of the government’s work and its duty to the poor are receding, yet ministers talk about desalinating seawater to be consumed by the rich for the sake of an impoverished Egypt.
Desalinisation is not for us, and nor can we afford it.
The writer is a professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.