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Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

Irrigation started around 6 000 years before the current era (BCE) in Egypt using the Nile water flooding on the surrounding banks. Around 3 000 years BCE, the first irrigation infrastructures (embankments, dams and canals) were constructed by Egyptians, in some cases under forced labour, to divert the Nile waters into basins and expand the irrigated areas. Irrigation development included and still includes both increase in areas (horizontal expansion) and increase in in water use efficiency (vertical expansion), with for example the conversion of irrigation by flooding into perennial or full control irrigation at the end of the 19th century. Horizontal expansion results in the irrigated areas of Egypt being classified into:

  • The Old Lands of the Nile Valley and Delta
  • Oases
  • The New Lands, reclaimed since the High Aswan Dam construction (1970), generally less fertile, on the Old Lands’ fringes, as well as in new locations outside the Nile Valley and Delta such as the western desert.

Irrigation potential is estimated at 4 420 000 ha. The total area equipped for irrigation was 3 422 178 ha in 2002; 85 percent of this area was in the Nile Valley and Delta. In 2010, 3 610 000 ha are equipped for full control irrigation, including 2 730 000 ha in the Old Lands (76 percent) and 880 000 ha in the Oases and New Lands (Table 5).

Surface irrigation is practiced in the Old Lands combined with water lifting systems, while pressurized irrigation–sprinkler and localized irrigation–is compulsory by law on the New Lands (Figure 4). The latter use a cascade of pumping stations from the main canals to the fields, with a total lift of up to 50 m. Located at the end of the systems, the New Lands that are at the fringes of the Old Lands, are more at risk of water shortage, and pressurized irrigation is more suitable for the mostly sandy soil of those areas. Crops therefore tend to be higher value crops such as tree crops and vegetables in these New Lands (MWRI, 2005).

Freshwater was the only source of irrigation up the 1920-30s, either surface water in the Old Lands and groundwater in the oases. Reuse of drainage water started after a dry period with a first pumping station constructed in 1928. Shallow groundwater was used outside the oases from the 1950s (El Qausy et al., 2011) and increasingly since then. In 2005, 227 640 ha were irrigated by groundwater both in and outside the oases (ARE, 2009).

Rainwater harvesting is practiced on about 133 500 ha in Northwest coast and North Sinai, where the average rainfall is between 220 and 250 mm, and relies on the construction of cisterns and diversion dikes. Harvesting also occurs from flash floods in the Red Sea and Sinai Peninsula.

In addition to the older developments in the oases of the New Valley, which pump water from the Nubian Sandstone aquifer, new large irrigation schemes are under development in the Toshka project; in 2003 about 4 200 ha were under cultivation and there are plans to extend the project to several times that area.

In the Fayoum Province, until the end of the last century gravity irrigation was practiced, without any water lifting system. By the year 2000, however, gravity irrigation was practised on only 1 900 ha, or less than 1.2 percent of the cultivated area in Fayoum.

Treated wastewater (after primary treatment) has been in use since 1911 in agriculture at the Gabal Al Asfar farm on 1 200 ha. Large scale pilot projects are in East Cairo, Abu Rawash, Sadat City, Luxor, and Ismailia. Most of the sewage water drained to the agricultural drains is actually reused indirectly (MWRI and HCWW, 2011). In 2010, 35 500 ha are directly using treated wastewater.

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

The cropped area was 6.333 million ha in 2010, with an average cropping intensity of 175 percent. There are three growing seasons in Egypt: winter - from November to May; summer - from April/May to October; and "Nili" - from July/August to October.

Most crops are grown both in the Delta and the Valley, with the exception of rice (Delta mainly) and sugarcane (Valley). The main winter crops are wheat and clover or berseem (Trifolium alexandrinum). Berseem is grown either over 3 months with 2 cuts as a soil improver (short berseem), usually preceding cotton, or over 6-7 months, either with 4-5 cuts as a fodder crop or grazed by tethered cattle (long berseem). Minor winter crops are, amongst others, pulses, barley and sugar beet. The main summer crops are maize, rice and cotton, the latter being the most important Egyptian export crop (Table 5 and Figure 5). Yields of most major crops have significantly increased within the 1980-2007 period: wheat yields have doubled from 3.24 tons/ha in 1980 to 6.48 tons/ ha in 2007, rice yields increased by almost 70 percent from 5.86 tons/ ha in 1980 to 9.79 tons/ ha in 2007 being among the highest in the world, sugarcane and sugar beets yields increased respectively by over 40 percent and 80 percent reaching 121 tons/ ha and 52 tons/ha in 2007. Only clover and cotton have not seen their productivity increased as much, with only 17 percent increase for clover reaching 71 tons/ha in 2007 while cotton yield remain stable at 2.6 tons/ha (ARE, 2009).

Irrigated crops in Egypt do not only contribute to food security but also to the GDP, in particular with cotton and some 5 percent of the horticultural production, and to the preservation of the environment. Indeed, rice production is critical to prevent salt-water intrusion and maintain soil quality in the Northern Delta. In addition, the cotton industry is also a huge employer for rural population with the sector employing over one million people during most of the year and the textile industry half a million (MWRI, 2005).

Women and irrigation

Women’s roles in agriculture and irrigation were investigated as part of a national survey on the attitudes of Egyptian farmers towards water resources in 1998 and 2001. Vast majority of women farmers–but 60 percent of men–never attended school. Most women farmers are widowed (70 percent) and have generally a smaller piece of land to cultivate (1.4 feddan against 3.5 for men). Women farmers mainly farm for household consumption. Almost no women visit their irrigation engineer, while 10 percent of men tend to go once per year. Seven out of 20 irrigations are practiced at night by women, while 10 are by men in the Nile Valley. In general, the interviewed women farmers tended to be less aware of ways to reduce water use (crop variety, land levelling, etc.). However, if they avoid night irrigations, it is also because they prefer not being out at night, either for fear that something happens to them or for fear of bad reputation. Women farmers were less keen to get a greater role in managing the mesqa and to join to a WUA, as half of them saw no benefit to join. Indeed, women are traditionally excluded from management systems: even when holding land, they are expected to send male representatives to meetings rather than attending themselves (USAID, 2001).

In addition to women farmers, farmers’ wives were also interviewed. Of the 355 interviewed farmers’ wives in 1998, 43 percent said that they helped in agriculture for an average of 22 hours per week, but with a significant disparity between Upper Egypt (9 percent) and the rest of the country (47 percent). Their main tasks consist in cultivation (almost all interviewed wives), livestock (over half) and irrigation (almost a third), but less than 10 percent of farmers seriously consider their wives’ suggestion on those tasks. Because of men migration to the Arabian Gulf and internally to urban areas, rural women in those cases are largely responsible for farm work and irrigation. Hence, they are becoming important for water planning, since they also use water for domestic purposes. However, it is still challenging for them to claim a water right and be part of its management as it destabilize the status quo and interests of traditional decision makers (USAID, 2001).

Status and evolution of drainage systems

Drainage issues–waterlogging and salt accumulation–started in Egypt with the conversion to full control irrigation and the construction of the Delta barrages, which led to a rise in the groundwater table and a resulting decline in cotton yields. A drainage programme was initiated before the construction of the High Aswan Dam but became a national programme only from 1970 onwards, aiming to drain all the cultivated area. The drainage system consists of sub-surface drains at farm level, open drains to collect the effluent and direct it into the Nile, its branches, canals or coastal lakes and pumping stations to maintain the level of water in the drains low enough for the water to flow out of the fields. The National Drainage Programme is essential for the government water resources’ strategy in order to increase reuse of agriculture drainage water and thus water efficiency (AfDB, 2015).

In 2003, slightly over 3 million ha of the total irrigated area of about 3.4 million ha were drained, of which about 2.2 million ha with sub-surface drainage. The sub-surface drained area represents more than 65 percent of the total irrigated area. There are 99 pump stations devoted to the pumping of drainage effluent. The power-drained area was estimated at about 1.65 million ha in 2000. Drainage water from agricultural areas on both sides of the Nile Valley is returned to the Nile river or main irrigation canals in Upper Egypt and in the southern Delta. Drainage water in the Delta is either pumped back into irrigation canals for reuse or pumped into the northern lakes or the Mediterranean Sea.

Currently, over 25 percent of irrigated agriculture in Egypt suffers from varying levels of salinity (ICARDA and AusAID, 2011).


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