The once fertile Nile Delta is now under environmental threat - as are the people who live on its banks. Picture: 123RTF/EWASTUDIO

Kafr al-Sheikh — Abdel Aziz Haikal reaches down to grab a green shoot from a paddy field in Egypt’s northern Nile Delta at a time of year when the plant should be filled with rice grains. Instead the farmer rubs the husk between his fingers and says: "Look how empty it is."

Land in his village was traditionally fed by fresh water from the Nile river, which helped make his province, Kafr al-Sheikh, one of the most fertile in the delta. But Nile water stopped reaching Haikal’s village of Abu Saieed five years ago and is becoming ever harder to replace.

For centuries, the banks of the Nile have been home to farms producing rice as well as cotton and wheat. But now water shortages, soil degradation and pollution have created a crisis that has undermined agriculture in the delta, which is struggling to support millions of impoverished farmers.

Haikal and his neighbours find they have no choice but to irrigate their fields with untreated agricultural drainage water polluted by nearby fish farms. They complain it is leading to smaller harvests.

Compounding their problems, the river has become a focus of regional tensions since Ethiopia started to construct a $4.8bn hydropower project on the Blue Nile, the source of most of the water reaching Egypt. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest of its kind in Africa and a linchpin of Ethiopia’s ambitious plans for economic development. Cairo fears that its already strained water resources will decline further when the dam has been completed.

But the problems in the Nile Delta have been decades in the making. Rising sea levels in the Mediterranean have increased the salinity of underground water and the soil. Population growth has put more pressure on existing water resources, while the mass dumping of industrial waste in irrigation canals has polluted waterways.

Water scarcity and the economy

Ahmed Abdel Alti, Egypt’s irrigation minister, said recently that water scarcity was imposing limits on Egypt’s economic development. The impoverished farmers of the northern Delta have been the first to see the effect in the shape of declining productivity.

"The Delta is already suffering a water crisis due to existing environmental problems," said Mohamed Ghanem, a researcher at the government’s agricultural research institute. "The farmers are feeling it and the Ethiopian dam could make things worse."

Egypt falls well below the internationally accepted definition of water poverty, which is set at 1,000m³ or less per person per year. The country has less than 600m³ per person.

" Compounding their problems, the river has become a focus of regional tensions since Ethiopia started to construct a $4.8bn hydropower project on the Blue Nile, the source of most of the water reaching Egypt "

Khaled Abu Zeid, head of the Egyptian Water Partnership, a non-governmental organisation, said the priorities were to conserve existing resources and find ways to treat wastewater so it can be recycled for agriculture. "There is a problem and a challenge and a cost associated with it. The volume of wastewater produced will increase as the population rises. There should be bigger investments in recycling, and plans at the beginning of any new project to ensure that they re-use wastewater."

Egyptian officials have been trying to reach a deal with Addis Ababa to secure what Cairo considers its rightful share of the Nile water — an annual 55.5-billion cubic metres, which was granted under an accord with Sudan in 1959. The problem is that Ethiopia does not recognise this agreement.

Negotiations continue. But analysts warn that even if Cairo secures the best possible outcome, the country’s water problems will remain. Egypt’s population of 96-million is predicted to rise to about 150-million by 2050, with no commensurate expansion in water resources.

Adapt or be resettled

Minister Abdel Alti has warned that if Egypt does not find ways to adapt to environmental change then "millions of people in the Nile Delta are vulnerable to being resettled, and billions of dollars of investments are at high risk".

In an effort to conserve resources, this year, the government launched a crackdown against growing rice in areas where cultivation of the water-intensive crop was restricted. It has stiffened fines and arrested offenders to ensure that only 303,515ha of land are planted with rice — less than half the estimated area of the previous year.

The farmers in Abu Saieed grumble about the restrictions, insisting that the water-intensive nature of rice-growing helps improve the quality of the land by washing out the salts in the soil. Eissa Mohamed, a farmer, said: "I expect a lot of people to have to pay fines this year or even go to jail because they can’t pay."

Buffeted by forces they cannot control, the villagers’ view of the future is bleak. "I am pessimistic," says Mohamed. "There are more than 1,200ha in this area at risk of ruin."

© The Financial Times Limited 2018

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