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Environment and health
Irrigated lands, in particular the Old Lands, suffer from urban encroachment diverting it to non-agricultural uses, as well as deterioration of the soil fertility. The latter mostly results from accumulation at the soil surface of salt from the irrigation water on around 25 percent of the agricultural lands at various degrees, located in the northern part of the Delta. Costs of restoration of salt-affected soils being less expensive than reclamation of new lands, their recovery is prioritized (ICARDA and AusAID, 2011). This has led to a reduction in salinized areas from about 1.2 million ha in 1972 to 900 000 ha in 2010 thanks to installation of drainage systems.
Salinization has three different origins in Egypt:
- Lack of drainage system and inappropriate water management at field level.
- Large reuse of drainage water to complement freshwater especially in the lower reaches of the canals, where salt load is increasing. The salinity of agricultural drainage water is higher in winter, especially downstream because less water is used for irrigation. In the new Al Salam Canal, drainage water is mixed with Nile water at a ratio of 1:1 resulting in the salinity of the mixed water being within safe levels.
- Seawater intrusion in aquifer is caused by groundwater over-extraction in the Delta shallow aquifer leading to water salinization and advance of the salt water interface. About half of the Delta contains brackish to saline groundwater. Rice is cropped in the Delta in order to maintain low salinity level and stop seawater intrusion in the aquifer.
Over-extraction of groundwater is not limited to the Delta aquifer. Water levels are also dropping in the Moghra aquifer due to large withdrawals by reclamation projects, as well as industrial and municipal users at the fringe of the Nile Delta. In addition, depletion of fossil groundwater also occurs in Egypt. The Nubian aquifer, containing mostly fossil groundwater, faces a drop in groundwater level by 70-80 meters in some areas of western desert of Egypt, and the main water flow’s direction was disrupted.
In addition to salt load, contamination from agricultural activities through nutrients, pesticides, and herbicides, and from high population density, increasing industrial and municipal effluents, is also degrading water quality (AfDB, 2015). Egypt’s most vulnerable areas are the fringes of the Nile Valley and Delta where a protecting clay cap is absent and where the aquifer is directly exposed to pollution. In the Delta, water quality deteriorates northward with decreasing flow and increasing discharge. The Rosetta branch receives Greater Cairo’s wastewater, while fertilizer industries discharge in the Damietta branch (MWRI, 2005). Thus, sustainability of water resources in Egypt is not only challenged by quantity but also by quality.