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Water resources

The Egyptian territory comprises the following river basins:

  • The Northern Interior Basin, covering 520 881 km or 52 percent of the total area of the country in the east and southeast of the country. A sub-basin of the Northern Interior Basin is the Qattara Depression.
  • The Nile Basin, covering 326 751 km (33 percent) in the central part of the country in the form of a broad north-south strip.
  • The Mediterranean Coast Basin, covering 65 568 km (6 percent).
  • The Northeast Coast Basin, a narrow strip of 88 250 km along the coast of the Red Sea (8 percent).

The Nile river, with a total length of about 6 650 km, is the worlds longest river with the Amazon in Southern America being the second longest with a total length of 6 400 km. However, debates over the true sources of both rivers and thus their entire length are ongoing and some studies consider the Amazon to be the longest river with a length of 6 990 km and the Nile the second longest with 6 850 km. The Nile supplies nearly all water in Egypt and the river is in the country almost fully controlled by the High Aswan Dam. The water entering Lake Nasser originates for about 85 percent from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile, Sobat river and Atbara river (MWRI, 2005). Control over the river started even before the Aswan Dam, with the remodelling (widening and deepening) of the six Nile branches in the Delta in the 1800s, as well as two major regulators on the two main branches: Rosetta and Damietta, built in the 1830s (El Qausy et al., 2011).

Under the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, 55 500 million m/year flows annually from the Nile into Egypt. Internal renewable surface water resources are estimated at 500 million m/year. This brings total renewable surface water resources to 56 000 million m/year. Internal renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 1 300 million m/year. The overlap between surface water and groundwater being considered negligible, the total renewable water resources of the country are thus 58 300 million m/yr (Table 2), including 1 000 million m/year of external groundwater entering the country from Sudan through the Nubian Sandstone aquifer. This aquifer located under the Western Desert is considered an important groundwater source, but this is fossil groundwater. The main source of internal recharge is percolation from irrigation water in the Valley and the Delta, considered to be secondary freshwater (i.e. water previously withdrawn and then returned to the system). Egypts dependency ratio is one of the worlds highest with 96.9 percent of the total renewable water resources flowing into the country from neighbouring countries. The total renewable water resources per capita stands at 700 m/year/capita in 2014, but considering population growth is expected to drop below the 500 m threshold of absolute water scarcity by 2030.

Although very limited in terms of quantity compared to the total water resources, groundwater is the sole source of water for people living in the desert areas. The major groundwater systems in Egypt are:

  • Nile aquifer: mostly recharged by infiltration of excess irrigation water originally from the Nile river, so it is not an additional primary source of water but a secondary source of freshwater available for use. In term of abstractions, it provides about 85 percent of the total groundwater abstractions in the country (AfDB, 2015).
  • Nubian sandstone aquifer: fossil groundwater in the south west part of the country shared with Libya, Chad and Sudan
  • Fissured carbonate aquifer: widely spread over more than half of the countrys area, on top of the Nubian aquifer
  • Moghra aquifer: towards the Qattara depression, recharged both by rainfall and lateral inflow from the Nile, but containing also saline water in the north west
  • Coastal aquifer: on northern and western coasts, recharged by rainfall, but presence of saline water underneath limits the abstracted quantities
  • Hardrock aquifer: mostly in eastern deserts and southern Sinai.

The main Egyptian lake is the artificial Lake Nasser, created by the High Aswan Dam (called Lake Nubia on the Sudanese side). Lake Qarun in the Fayoum depression is entirely fed by drainage water, so with an increasing salinity. Its waters are more saline than sea since 1980. Storage of water in this depression was already reported in 4th century before the current era. Wadi Al Rayan lakes are also fed by excess drainage water transferred there since 1973, resulting in two interconnected lakes. From the Suez Gulf the Suez Canal joins the Red Sea through Lake Timsah and the Great Bitter Lake. Finally, on the coast, there are a few lagoons: lakes Mariot, Edku, Manzalah, Burullus and Bardaweel. These last two lakes, together with the Lakes Qarun and Wadi Al Rayan are the four Ramsar sites of the country, covering over 400 000 ha.

Apart from natural watercourses and water bodies, the country is dissected by a dense network of waterways, including 40 000 km of canals branching from the Nile river (ICARDA and AusAID, 2011) through hierarchically classified canals: principal (water directly from the Nile), main, branch and distributary canals. In addition, there are also mesqas, private ditches distributing water to the field (Gersfelt, 2007). Figure 1 shows a graph of the main canals.

Full control of the Lower Nile is permitted downstream of the High Aswan dam, built in 1970, by the Old Aswan dam (1902), Esna (1908), Nag Hamady (1930) and Asyut (1902) dams. The Delta barrages are the Rosetta and Damietta dams, built in 1840, on their respective eponym Nile branches. The Zifta and Farascour dams are on the Damietta branch, while the Edfina dam is on the Rosetta one. In total, the dam capacity of the country reaches 168 200 million m.

All drainage water in Upper Egypt, south of Cairo, flows back into the Nile and the irrigation canals; this amount is estimated at 6 076 million m/year in 2013 (Capmas, 2014). Drainage water in the Nile Delta is estimated at 16 000 million m/year (ICARDA and AusAID 2011), of which 6 334 million m/year are reused in agriculture in 2013 (Capmas, 2014). A number of reuse projects in the southern part of the Delta and Fayyum governorate uses about 4 000 million m/year. In addition, unofficial direct pumping in drain by farmers uses large volume of drainage water and is difficult to measure (ICARDA and AusAID, 2011) but it is estimated to be about 2 700 million m in 2010 (MWRI, 2011). Unofficial reuse is practiced along Bahr Baqar, Bahr Hadus, Gharbia, Edko and Umoum drains. There are 89 agricultural drains which directly flow into the river Nile. Most of them collect volumes of wastewater either municipal or industrial (MWRI and HCWW, 2011).

Produced municipal wastewater was estimated at 7 078 million m in 2012, up from 3 760 million m in 2001. Around 92 percent of this amount is collected and 57 percent, or 4 013 million m, is treated. Finally, 1 300 million m of treated municipal wastewater is directly used in 2010 (MEA, 2012). The drainage system receiving the excess irrigation water also receives municipal wastewater, especially in the Upper Egypt, which discharges itself into the Nile or into the Northern Lakes and the sea (MWRI, 2005).

Sea water desalination is concentrated in the coastal areas along the Mediterranean and Red Sea, where there is no other source of water, and for tourism resorts. In 2010, desalination plants produced around 200 million m/year (ICARDA and AusAID, 2011).


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