The Nile Delta and the Future of Food and Water Security in Egypt

22 March 2017 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

The population of Egypt has rapidly expanded over the last few decades. With a population of 90 million, the Nile River is greatly relied upon to provide fresh water for agricultural production and human consumption. According to a study published by the Geological Society of America, the reliability of the region’s soil to sustain life is fading. While the country has limited means of food production and for securing fresh water, any threat to the soil of the Nile Delta significantly threatens its future sustainability.

Comment

Soil salinity in the Nile Delta is becoming an increasing and significant threat to the region’s ability to secure fresh food and water. The Delta plain only lies one metre above sea level, with the northern third of the region lowering between four and eight millimetres every year. Scientists also claim, however, that the sea level is increasing at an annual rate of three millimetres. According to the study, this means that the Nile Delta will continue to be submerged by one centimetre per year. On this calculation, the Delta is predicted to be fully submerged by the year 2100. Furthermore, due to a dense canal and irrigation system, much of the river-borne sediments remain trapped in the Delta. If these nutrient-rich sediments remain trapped, they are prevented from being used further downstream for agriculture. This means that nutrient-poor soils are likely to worsen, affecting the region’s ability to grow food.

In addition to salinisation, the Nile Delta region is also currently exposed to soil nutrient depletion. The destruction of the Nile Delta’s agricultural potential can largely be attributed to human activities over the past 200 years, particularly activities that have altered the river’s flow conditions. Egypt completed construction of the Aswan Low Dam in 1902, followed by the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. These dams have been identified by the study as having significantly contributed to the soil degradation. In particular, the dams have reduced the flow of nutrient-rich sediment downstream. Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, due to be completed at the end of 2017, lies on one of the main tributaries of the Nile, the Blue Nile River. Once the dam’s reservoir is full, Ethiopia’s lower riparian neighbours (including not only Egypt, but Sudan as well) are likely to experience reduced river flows.

Any threat to the country’s water supply will have significant ramifications for Egypt’s food and water security over the coming decades. Decreased river flow will result in increased competition between water-usage sectors, including agriculture, energy, industrial production and household usage. Egypt’s population is expected to double within the next 50 years, but population growth within the country’s capital, Cairo, is already pushing many people out of the city and into the Nile Delta region. If Egypt cannot secure alternative sources of water (for instance, desalination), then the situation will only continue to worsen. Given Egypt’s current state of social, political and economic instability, however, the government’s task of securing alternative sources will be challenging.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Director-General, Jose Graziano da Silva, Egypt must consider its levels of water waste currently present in cultivating wheat, as well as the country’s overall choice of crop production. Developing agriculture technology and ensuring greater social protections may alleviate pressure over the short term, however, as salinisation and soil nutrient depletion continues to worsen from human damming activities (in combination with the effects of climate change), the long-term sustainability of the region surrounding the Nile Delta seriously threatens human habitation.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.