Water resource planning
in Egypt

by Martin Hvidt
Odense University, Denmark

This paper © Martin Hvidt

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Water resources in Egypt are becoming scarce. Surface-water resources originating from the Nile are now fully exploited, while groundwater sources are being brought into full production. Egypt is facing increasing water needs, demanded by a rapidly growing population, by increased urbanisation, by higher standards of living and by an agricultural policy which emphasises expanded production in order to feed the growing population. The population is currently increasing by more than one million people a year. With a population of approximately 55 million in 1994, Egypt is expected to see an increase to some 63 million by the year 2000, and 86 million by 2025.

Improved planning and management procedures to appropriate, allocate and use water are key measures generally prescribed to make the optimum use of available water. As Falkenmark notes, the main constraint for most countries, at medium term, is the capability to develop a sophisticated and far-sighted water-management strategy, along with the legislation and administration necessary to support them. Dr. Abu-Zeid, chairman of Egypt's Water Research Centre points out that "satisfying future demands in Egypt depends on better utilisation and efficient use of present water resources. Optimal water management is an essential prerequisite for sustainable development of Egypt." The future looks bleak if Egypt does not succeed in formulating and implementing a water policy which can match the limited freshwater supply with the increasing demand. The per capita water resources is expected to drop from a current value of about 922 m3 per year (1990) to about 337 m3 per year in 2025. And, if the present management practices and cropping patterns prevail, this could mean that up to 60 per cent of the agricultural land will not be irrigated.

This paper analyses Egypt's water policy planning and proposes to highlight the characteristics of this planning effort. To that end, the paper examines the objectives along with the means applied to reach those objectives and it also looks at problems and constraints of a technical, administrative and financial nature encountered in the planning process. Particular emphasis is placed on the functioning of the administrative framework established to undertake this planning effort. Such an analysis is worthwhile because knowledge of Egyptian water resource planning is presently very limited and largely undocumented. The conclusions resulting from this exercise are thus of a preliminary nature. The sources for this paper are the available documentation and the author's own experience gained from research carried out in Egypt in relation to implementation of the Irrigation
Improvement Project.

The main objective of water planning in Egypt has been to harness the highly fluctuating Nile flows, making them available for domestic and productive purposes. The means of fulfilling this objective have been to establish over-season storage, over-year storage, and flood control. These goals were basically achieved in 1971 following the inauguration of the Aswan High Dam (AHD).

Even though irrigation has taken place in the Nile Valley for nearly 5000 years, it is only in modern times - starting around 1850 - that the erection of water control structures such as barrages, canals, weirs was begun. Except for the Nile itself, every bit of the Egyptian water conveyance system is man-made and thus an expression of planned effort. The Egyptian irrigation system is tremendous in size and complexity. It consists of the Aswan High Dam, eight main barrages, approximately 30,000 km of public canals, 17,000 km. of public drains, 80,000 km. of private canals (mesqas) and farm drains, 450,000 private water-lifting devices (sakias or pumps), 22,000 public water-control structures, and 670 large public pumping stations for irrigation. Throughout this system, approximately 59 billion m3 of water are distributed annually, not only for cultivated land, but also for municipal and industrial use, for generation of hydro-electricity and for the navigation of freighters and tourist boats on
the Nile.

What should be understood by the term "planning"? Policy sets the objectives; management attempts to achieve these objectives, and monitoring estimates the results. The term "planning" is used throughout this paper to include these three elements - policy formulation, management, and monitoring - because these elements are inter-linked through a cybernetic feedback process. Planning is thus viewed as a process in which action taken yields responses which, in turn, provide new inputs in the planning process which, again, might lead to changed policies and so forth.

A prerequisite for good water planning is an administrative framework, which through management and monitoring, can provide information upwards through the system to feed into the planning exercise. A real planning capability, thus, entails a broad-based knowledge and a set of procedures and standards in the administration which are present at different hierarchical levels. The administrative framework established for water planning and management currently in use, is outlined below.

Formerly called the Ministry of Irrigation, the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources (MPWWR) is responsible for national water resources and is the only body to authorise use of water from the Nile, canals, drains, and groundwater sources. The ministry also has control over works built to discharge water into canals, drains, and the Nile. MPWWR is authorised to assess penalties if its orders are not obeyed.

In addition to MPWWR, a number of other ministries are also involved in water management and use, including agriculture and land reclamation, health, tourism, power, transportation, industry, and housing and reconstruction.

Two ministries, agriculture and land reclamation, and health, hold special responsibilities in their management role of water. The ministry of agriculture and land reclamation has special responsibilities because agriculture consumes around 85 per cent of the water. Prior to 1992, when cropping patterns were liberalised, the ministry of agriculture and land reclamation decided, in consultation with the ministry of industry, which crops were to be grown in which localities. Such planning was undertaken a year in advance. From this exercise, the ministry requested specific volumes of water to be delivered to each canal and each branch canal. Following the liberalisation of the cropping pattern, however, it is not known precisely how the water allocation takes place. The ministry of health, which also holds special responsibilities, is authorised to close potable water supply works if the water produced does not meet standards. The ministry of health is further responsible for drafting quality standards for various water uses and for discharges of waste water.

To ensure co-ordination among agencies involved in water resources, three committees have been formed. Two of them, the Supreme Committee of the Nile, headed by the minister of the MPWWR, and the Co-ordinating Committee for Land Reclamation meet monthly to direct and review different developments plans, as well as to resolve conflicts between ministries. The third committee is called the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Water Planning (ICWP) and was established in 1977 as a part of the Master Water Plan project. ICWP is, as the name indicates a cross-ministerial committee with a strict focus on planning. It has been given the responsibility to set planning assumptions and review development plans.

Outside observers do not know much about how this administrative set-up actually functions. This, too, is a largely undocumented area. But a review of the literature on the general state of Egyptian bureaucracy documents an organisation legendary for its high degree of centralisation and inefficiency, resulting from such problems as over-staffing, low salaries, and lack of incentives. In those respects, there are certainly differences among Egyptian ministries and the MPWWR is generally known to be among the best functioning in Egypt. The literature suggests, however, that even the administrative set-up for water planning might be haunted by some of the problems mentioned above.

In Egypt, water planning is said to have started in 1933 when a policy was formulated to use the additional storage capacity made available by the second heightening of the old Aswan Dam and the Gabal El-Awlia Dam in Sudan. This plan introduced programmes for land-reclamation, conversion of some basin irrigation to perennial irrigation, and increases in the areas under rice cultivation. This policy was first revised in 1974 and again in 1975 when a new plan was drafted to accommodate the extra volumes of water resulting from the erection of the AHD.

In 1981, the first attempt was made to create a master plan for all water use in Egypt. It was carried out in the early 1980s under the auspices of UNDP and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The minister of irrigation at the time pointed out the objective to be achieved by this effort: "Because of this increasing competition for water and its limited availability, it was imperative to introduce new scientific techniques, and to use mathematical models to design future plans for water development, and to ensure efficient use of this resource." The resulting plan, the "Arab Republic of Egypt Master Plan for Water Resources Development and Use" is, however, not a plan as such, but a first step in an process which is intended to lead to improved planning capabilities within the sector. The main objective of the plan is to implement planning tools (i.e., to establish data bases and build flow models) which will make it possible to plan the development and use of water resources with greater precision in the future and, thus, to guide investment decisions.

The planning effort claimed to have achieved the following objectives: establishment of a data base; the setting-up specific planning tools including six models which were built and implemented; establishment of three planning scenarios for new land development; and determination of an economic rate of return and returns to water for ranking land-development projects. The document points out that the results obtained from these planning tools are to be seen more as trials than final results. Because of a lack of data, the assumptions built into the models need to be replaced with real values when they are determined. The plan established three scenarios for future water demand and supply. Three main variables were analysed in detail: the supply, through implementation of water conservation projects, i.e., the Jonglei I and II projects in Sudan; the demand for all user-groups; and the resulting potential expansion of agriculture on new lands. The plan also established priorities for the satisfaction of water needs. First, it said water demand for municipal, industrial, navigation and spills should be satisfied; second, water use on the old agricultural lands should be satisfied, and third, the remaining volumes of water could be used to satisfy water demand for land reclamation.

The latest update of Egyptian water policy dates from June 1990. It is a ten-year plan covering the period 1990 to 2000. This plan was made in response to several events which, in the late 1980s, altered previous assumptions and had a direct impact on water planning in Egypt. The main events are as follows: (1) The 1979-88 drought period during which the Nile flows yielded 99 billion m3 less water than expected into Lake Nasser and reduced the reservoir to a critical minimum of 6.8 billion m3 by July 1988; (2) cessation`in 1983 of construction works on the Jonglei Canal because of the civil war in southern Sudan, a project which would have provided Egypt with an extra 2 billion m3 per year; and (3) a revitalisation of the land-reclamation programme planned to reclaim 60,700 hectares annually, requiring one million m3 of additional water each year. In other words, less water than anticipated would been available to satisfy needs. As noted above, the very critical water situation in 1988 opened the eyes of Egypt's water planners. Despite the AHD, Egypt was still vulnerable to the Nile flows and thus the "need for rationalisation and reductions in water use emerged as common agreed possibilities to face the coming unknown".

During the drought years the MPWWR took different decisions to mitigate the effects: (1) no releases of water from the AHD were allowed with the sole purpose of power generation; (2) the New Esna Barrage was constructed to allow for improved water control (3) changes were made in the timing and duration of winter closure periods (from 21 to 28 days plus minimised releases for the AHD during the period); (4) releases of fresh water to the sea through the Rosetta branch were minimised; and (5) a National Irrigation Improvement programme was launched. The 1990 to 2000 plan states seven main points: (1) the surface water available to Egypt is limited to Egypt's share (55.5 billion m3 per year) as agreed with Sudan in the 1959 Nile agreement; (2) the Jonglei Canal will be completed by the year 2000; (3) re-use of drainage water shall be maximised; (4) groundwater extraction from deep aquifers in the desert and from shallow ones in the delta shall be increased; (5) fresh water releases to the sea shall be minimised; (6) savings of water shall be emphasised through water management and improvement of the conveyance system; (7) land reclamation shall continue at a rate of 60,000 hectares per year, totalling 0.65 million hectares by the year 2000. Tables 1 and 2 show the assumptions regarding the sources and the demand made in the 1990 to 2000 water resources plan.

Table 1 Present and future water resources, in billion cubic metres per year

River Nile water 55.557.5*
Groundwater 2.64.9
Agricultural drainage water 4.77.0
Treated municipal sewage water 0.21.1
Saving flow water management programmes -1.0
Deep groundwater (deserts) 0.52.5
Total 63.574.0

Source: Abu-Zeid, "Water Resources Assessment for Egypt", paper from Roundtable on Egyptian Water Policy, Alexandria, Egypt, 11-13 April 1992.

*Assuming completion of Jonglei I, which will add 2 billion m3 to Egypt's share.

Table 2 Present and future water demands, in billion cubic metres per year

Irrigation 49.759.9*
Municipal uses 3.13.1**
Industrial 4.66.1
Navigation and regulation 1.80.3
Total 59.269.4

Source: Abu-Zeid, "Water Resources Assessment for Egypt", paper from Roundtable on Egyptian Water Policy, Alexandria, Egypt, 11-13 April 1992.

*Including irrigation requirements for an additional 0.65 million ha to be reclaimed by the year 2000.
**Additional requirements will be secured by reducing the system losses from present value of 50 per cent to 20 per cent.

The figures presented in Tables 1 and 2 provide a water surplus of around 5 billion m3 annually by the year 2000, if and only if, the planned improvements of the system are undertaken. There are good reasons to believe, however, that they will not be. As Abu-Zeid already noted in 1992, the assumptions of the year 2000 plan seem over-optimistic: the Jonglei canal may not be finished by year 2000, pollution hazards are seriously affecting the quality of agricultural drainage water which hampers potential re-use; the implementation rates of the national irrigation improvement programme are slower than anticipated; and finally, plans to store fresh water in the Northern Lakes are strongly opposed by environmentalist groups because of potential impacts on fish and bird life in the lakes.

From the preceding overview of the water policy planning in Egypt, eight characteristics of this effort can be extracted:

(1) Shift from water abundance to water deficit
Whereas the supply situation in Egypt has been characterised by abundance, at least up to the year 1988, the system is now in a process of slowly transforming itself into a water deficit system. It is evident from the plans and from the intentions in them, that this has changed the perception of the severity of the problems.

(2) Importance of international co-operation
The international aspect is a crucial factor in Egyptian water planning. Because Egypt's water resources are all produced outside the country (upstream of Lake Nasser), the planned expansion of supply has to be undertaken in collaboration with upstream governments. This places Egypt in a very difficult planning situation, since it simply does not possess control over the speed of the implementation of the water conservation projects along the White Nile. It is estimated that the inflow to Lake Nasser could be increased by as much as 18 billion m3 per year to be shared by Egypt and Sudan by implementing the four phases of the upper Nile projects (Jonglei I, Jonglei II, Machar Marshes and Bahr El-Ghazal). And, as it looks now, Egypt will increasingly come to rely on the implementation of these projects.

(3) Supply bias
There are two main ways one can match demand with supply: either by reducing demand or by increasing supply. In the outlined water plans, there is a a "supply bias" - a strong emphasis on expanding the supply either by getting larger volumes of water into the system (e.g., the Jonglei project), or by optimising the operation of the system (e.g., the Esna Barrage, winter closures, greater groundwater extractions and re-use of drainage water), or by eradicating releases of water from the AHD for purposes that can otherwise be satisfied more cheaply (e.g., power generation).

In spite of the increasing scarcity of water, however, there are virtually no indications of attempts to reduce water demand in the three main water-consuming sectors; agriculture, municipal, or industrial. Reducing demand is dealt with only as an issue of eradicating inefficiencies in the operation of the system which means, for example, reducing water losses in the potable water system and the overall conveyance system. Concerning municipal and industrial water use, the argument seems to be that these sectors are expected to grow in the future, following population rises, improved living standards, increased urbanisation, and higher industrial production.

(4) Environmental concern
Environmental issues have become of great concern because the water supply system relies heavily on re-use of the waste- and drain-water. A high percentage of the drain- and waste-water is discharged untreated directly back into canals, drains or the Nile. The most urgent issues to be addressed are thus salinity from agriculture; water pollution from municipal and industrial use; potential groundwater contamination from nitrogen, phosphate and potash fertilisers (the use of which has quadrupledt between 1960 and 1988); and the impact of herbicide use, originating from schemes to control weeds in canals.

(5) Lack of data
Lack of adequate data seems to be a constraint on the planning effort. As mentioned earlier, the Water Master Plan based all its calculations on estimations and the project had to establish a reliable data-base encompassing the key data to be used. Today, no accurate figures exist concerning municipal and industrial use, and concerning pollution control, part from data on water salinity, the "availability of usable information data on various water quality parameters are basically non-existent". Egypt is at present first in the process of establishing a ministry of environment, to which Denmark is supplying technical assistance.

(6) Established priority to non-agricultural uses of water
Even though agricultural production and the horizontal expansion of agricultural land hold a prominent position in Egyptian development planning, water resource planning has priority in non-agricultural uses of water. This priority was first established in the 1981 Water Master Plan, but it can be found as an underlying assumption in all subsequent writings. It means, simply enough, that municipal and industrial water use has to be satisfied before water is allocated to agriculture. Within agriculture, priority is given to satisfying water needs at the "old lands" and at the "old new lands". The speed and size of the land reclamation effort is, therefore, determined by the residual amounts of water, when all other uses are satisfied. A main function of the water resource planning, thus, is to specify the size of the reclamation effort. Hydrological power- generation, though, is an exception to the rule. Since 1988, no additional releases from the AHD have been allowed for the sole purpose of generating power.

(7) Delayed implementation
As pointed out above, some of the main assumptions underlying the year 1990 to 2000 plan have proved to be over-optimistic. The delay of the Jonglei I project is just one example. But implementation of projects to rehabilitate and improve the performance of the overall water conveyance systems inside Egypt also seems to have run far behind schedule. This is, however, a general phenomenon in developing economies, where a severe constraint on financial resources, weak administrations and - often - a lack of political commitment, provide an environment which is not conducive to carrying out maintenance and improvement of the systems.

(8) An uncertain administrative framework for water resource planning
There is a significant lack of detailed information concerning the capabilities and the actual functioning of the planning procedure within MPWWR and among the other ministries participating in the water resource planning. But, based on field experience, however, it is safe to say that decisions are generally taken, investments are made and some degree of maintenance of the system is undertaken. While this indicates that management of the system is undertaken, it provides little guidiance as to whether a real planning capacity is present in the MPWWR.

It is striking that the scarce literature on Egyptian water planning appears mostly as conference papers. Except for the Water Master Plan of 1981, the author has never seen any of the mentioned plans written - either in English or Arabic - or seen any direct references to such plans. This lack of written material could indicate one of three things: either (1) that systematic water resource planning is not undertaken or (2) that information about water policy planning is considered as a national security issue to which only few persons placed in high positions in the planning hierarchy have - and should have - access or (3) that the general tendency of bureaucracies is to avoid problems by not publishing plans. A written document commits the planning authority to follow up plans with action, and if a planning target is not met, individual people in the bureaucracy might be held accountable.

The information available to the author does not, however, provide any evidence to determine which of the above-mentioned issues is most prominent in Egyptian water planning. It could be a combination of them. But there are indications that Egyptian water resource planning is primarily the work of a handful of highly competent decision-makers in the MPWWR and in the Water Research Centre. Based on experience, though, it is not my impression that a far broader planning machinery is implemented at all levels in the MPWWR.

When one looks closely at the planning objectives mentioned above, it is surprising that water savings, i.e., per unit of land, do not appear as a major issue in the plans. Mindful of the fact that Egyptian agriculture absorbs 84 per cent of the irrigation water, one should think there would be scope for substantial savings of water within this sector, which, in turn, could add to the overall supply.

In Egypt, field irrigation efficiencies are low. In 1979 the minister of irrigation wrote that "Egyptian agriculture is considered to be one of the most consumptive of irrigation water in the world. This high consumption is not due to reasons related to soil, but is mainly related to the wasteful use of irrigation water" and he estimated that the irrigation efficiency was between 45 and 50 per cent. Since then, the situation does not seem to have improved: today this efficiency is estimated to be around 45 per cent. Actual measurements point out that farmers generally apply 50 to 250 per cent more water than is needed by the crops and for leaching requirements. The lack of water control is one reason for this vast over-irrigation. When they lack control of the timing and quantities of the water supply, "the general tendency of farmers is to irrigate too soon and apply too much water". But, as Stoner points out, farm irrigation efficiencies have no real significance when one considers a closed basin such as the Nile Valley and the Delta. Here water apparently lost in wasteful irrigation practices is picked up in the groundwater or in drainage and used again. Abu-Zeid estimates that the overall water-use efficiency level reaches a value of 65 to 75 per cent because of the extensive water pumping from shallow aquifers and the re-use of agricultural drainage through recycling. Keller calculates the overall system efficiency to be in the neighbourhood of 89 per cent, and concludes that this is a "quite high efficiency, which leaves little room for conserving water simply by increasing the efficiencies at local levels". So, the scope for substantial supply increases as a result of improved field efficiencies is simply limited and that is the main explanation of why improved irrigation efficiencies at farm level do not play a prominent role in Egyptian water resource planning. The main concern in irrigation water planning is to achieve higher agricultural production, and not to reduce water consumption.

In the 1980 "Strategy for Irrigation Development in Egypt up to the year 2000" water conservation is not mentioned once. Instead, the strategy encompasses three stages of irrigation improvement: (1) the improvement of control and distribution of irrigation water; (2) the development of field irrigation systems; and (3) direct pricing of irrigation water.

The aim in the first stage is to increase the efficiency of the distribution system up to the field outlet. In the second stage, the aim is to irrigate at the highest possible field efficiency at farm level. Both stages put the farmers in control of the water which provides the optimum conditions for good agricultural production. In stage three, the pricing of water is primarily viewed as a tool to extract funds from the agricultural community to operate and maintain irrigation systems, a view which has not changed in the 25 years which have elapsed since then. Abu-Zeid in 1992 mentions water savings only as an auxiliary benefit of water pricing, saying "it could help also in conserving water uses by the farmers".

The World Bank, however, point out that it is of the utmost importance "to take all measures necessary for ensuring the efficient use of the sector's single most important limiting factor of production - water". Abu-Zeid estimates that the National Irrigation Programme, in the long run, can produce on-farm water savings of between 10-15 per cent along with an average increase in agricultural productivity of 30 per cent. He also observes that further reduction in the water needs by agriculture can be found by modifying the cropping patterns to reduce areas under traditionally high water consumption. Crops such as sugar cane and rice get about 25 to 30 per cent of the supply of water for irrigation. So, it seems that in agriculture the saving of water is an element of planning to be emphasised in the coming decades.


This paper has focused on the planning of water resources in Egypt. It represents an attempt to collect the scattered and fragmented knowledge about the subject, in order to highlight major characteristics of the planning process. Egyptian water resource planning is given the task of satisfying the ever-increasing water demands which are dictated by a rapidly growing population, increased urbanisation, higher standards of living, and an agricultural policy which emphasises expanded production in order to feed the growing population. There is, and probably always will be, enough water to satisfy municipal and industrial water use.

From the analysis of water resource planning in Egypt, the planning emphasis can be characterised by the following eight points: (1) a shift from water abundance to water deficit; (2) the importance of international co-operation; (3) supply bias; (4) environmental concern; (5) lack of data; (6) established priority to non-agricultural uses of water; (7) delayed implementation; and (8) the establishment of an administrative framework for water resource planning.

Egypt water resource planning is facing a number of problems - such as the lack of funds and a weak administration - which predominate in less-developed economies. In that respect, the impossibility of identifying an operational and fully implemented planning system designed after western standards should not be surprising. Establishing a planning system is expensive, furthermore, and is therefore undertaken only if necessary. Egypt in fact might have had too much water at one time, a surplus which has severely hindered the necessity to implement a planning system. As Wiener forcefully pointed out, the emphasis on water resource planning depends on the scarcity of the resource. The greater the scarcity the more planning is needed to counteract it. According to that argument, it is thus to be expected that Egypt will strengthen its water resource planning capability in the near future, following a greater scarcity of its water supply.


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