Egypt's farmers fear rising social tensions over scarce water

  • Rising heat and drought reducing water for Nile Delta farmers
  • Filling of upstream Ethiopian hydropower dam also seen as a risk
  • Analysts warn Mideast water scarcity could harm social stability

EL-SHAWASHNA, Egypt, Oct 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For 3 a long time, brothers Ramadan and Mamdouh Othman have grown summer crops of maize, olives and cucumbers on their Nile Delta land in Egypt’s northern governate of Fayoum.

But over the past yr, the quantity of water within the canal that supplies their sandy 3-acre (1.2-hectare) farm within the village of El-Shawashna has fallen 40%.

The brothers blame larger farms upstream, which they are saying are taking greater than their fair proportion of water to compensate for shortfalls caused each by recurring droughts and the filling of a latest Ethiopian hydropower dam on the Nile River.

“It’s an entire disaster for us,” said Ramadan, 44, noting half the summer harvest had been lost.

“It is de facto getting worse,” added Mamdouh, 51, as he and his brother fastidiously watered their crops with that day’s limited supply. “If we lose more water than that, we is not going to have the ability to live.”

Egypt is facing worsening water shortages as climate change brings more extreme heat and drought – and now many Egyptian farmers and climate change experts fear the brand new dam upstream will only exacerbate the threat.

More widely, across much of the Middle East and North Africa, freshwater supplies are dwindling, partially as climate change impacts strengthen, and analysts fear rising tensions over shortages.

With limited supplies of freshwater needed for a lot of purposes – farming, household use, industry, power generation and nature – growing competition could push to the sting people already scuffling with poverty, aging water infrastructure and poor water governance, said Iranian environmental scientist Kaveh Madani.

“Climate change … makes water scarcer, dries up wetlands, and makes farming tougher,” said Madani, recently appointed incoming director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health on the United Nations University.

“This may, in turn, result in unemployment, tension, forced migration and, ultimately, more conflict,” he predicted.

Hotter, more dangerous

Global temperatures have risen greater than 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times and at the moment are swiftly approaching a 1.5C degrees of warming mark that scientists fear could herald a transition to far costlier and deadlier climate change impacts.

The 2015 Paris Agreement, a pact amongst nearly 200 nations, set a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) while “pursuing efforts” for 1.5C.

But with fossil fuel use still rising globally, despite pledges to slash emissions, 1.5C of warming might be passed inside a decade, top climate scientists say.

They fear that would trigger irreversible ecological tipping points, from surging sea levels as polar ice melts to spiking temperatures as methane – a potent driver of warming – escapes thawing permafrost.

A warmer planet can be expected to spark more extreme weather, crop failures, species extinctions, migration, conflict and soaring personal and financial losses for many individuals around the globe.

As negotiators gather in Egypt early next month for the COP27 U.N. climate change conference, which goals to make progress on slowing global warming and coping with its impacts, Egypt’s farmers say they’re already feeling the warmth.

Higher temperatures, poor water management and population growth are key drivers of a worsening water crisis within the country, analysts say.

Egypt today has 560 cubic metres of water available per person every year, lower than a 3rd of the quantity available 50 years ago, in accordance with government data.

That puts the country well below the 1,000 cubic metres per person the United Nations uses to define a rustic as water scarce.

Nearly all of Egypt’s freshwater comes from the Nile and 85% of the country’s share of the river is consumed by its agricultural industry – one reason many Egyptian farmers see the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a threat.

When Ethiopia began to fill the reservoir for its $4 billion project in 2020, it said it aimed to complete in five years. Egypt has asked for a slower fill, over 10 years, to maintain more water moving downstream.

However the countries – together with Sudan, which has expressed concern in regards to the dam’s safety and the impact by itself dams and water stations – have thus far not reached an agreement.

To this point, experts say, Egypt has been in a position to make up any shortfall in its supply of Nile water because of this of the GERD’s filling through the use of water stored in its own Aswan High Dam, as well boosting recycling of water.

But that isn’t a long-term solution, said Abbas Sharaky, who teaches geology of economically beneficial minerals at Cairo University.

“If people will not be feeling the impact right away … they may of course feel it when the Aswan dam runs out or when a serious drought hits the country, which is normal amid severe climate change,” he predicted.

If the GERD is swiftly filled by 2025, Egypt’s access to water could drop so drastically that the Nile Delta could permanently lose half its agricultural land, said Karim Elgendy, a climate expert on the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“This might affect agricultural productivity, increase unemployment and result in displacement and migration,” putting added pressure on neighbouring countries suffering their very own water shortages, he said.

‘Hanging on by a thread’

The small village of Fedemen in Fayoum governate was once lush with mango orchards, but farmer Hossam Abu Zeid is now watching his only source of income shrivel up before his eyes.

Last yr, nearly all of his crop was worn out by extreme heat, and this yr, 80% was lost after larger farms upstream took more water than usual from the local canal to make up for the drier weather.

The losses cost him about 200,000 Egyptian kilos ($10,260) in lost income, he estimated.

Abu Zeid said he has heard of local farmers fighting over scarce water.

“Some are taking more water than the others and that is causing tension. If this continues, it’ll not bode well for social stability,” he predicted as he sat beside his wilted mango trees, their fruit wrinkled and brown.

In a report published in February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that a warming climate could escalate tensions in countries unable to adapt to the changes.

“Climate variability and extremes are related to more prolonged conflict through food price spikes, food and water insecurity, lack of income and lack of livelihoods”, the report said.

Some analysts imagine Syria’s ongoing civil war was triggered in 2011 by drought linked to climate change, though that view has been disputed in recent times.

But Madani said there isn’t any doubt Syria, Iraq and Iran are all struggling for regular supplies of freshwater due to the mix of growing drought, poor governance and lax water management.

All three countries at the moment are “water bankrupt”, he said.

That leaves vital systems that provide residents with food, water and energy “all hanging on by a thread,” Madani said.

Fighting back

To attempt to fix its water troubles, Egypt is rolling out a nationwide water management strategy, set to run through 2037. It includes constructing desalination systems and sewage treatment stations that aim to show saltwater and wastewater into freshwater.

Last yr, the country also launched a 300 billion Egyptian pound ($15.3 million) Recent Delta project to develop a coastal agricultural area of virtually 1 million feddans (1 million acres) just a few kilometres west of the present Nile Delta.

Officials say the aim is to take pressure off the country’s existing breadbasket, where rising seas and unfettered construction are eating away at farmland.

But Sharaky, the geology professor, said these efforts could find yourself worsening social tensions.

The fee of the projects – prone to be paid for partially through taxes and better commodity prices – could hit peculiar Egyptians as hard as any lack of Nile water resulting from climate change or the GERD, he predicted.

“Yes, rising temperatures will reduce freshwater and, yes, Ethiopia’s dam will affect Egypt’s Nile water share,” he said.

But measures to combat shrinking water availability also “come at an enormous cost”, he said.

As well, if the region keeps warming rapidly, Egypt and other nations within the Middle East won’t have the ability to adapt quickly enough to maintain up with coming changes, he warned.

Vital infrastructure that was not built for the likely extreme heat of the longer term implies that buildings, roads, bridges and water and electricity systems could begin to fail, requiring heavy latest spending and potentially exacerbating poverty, hunger and tensions.

“If we head towards 2 degrees Celsius of warming, chaos… will be expected,” he predicted. “It’s going to be an entire disaster.”

($1 = 19.4900 Egyptian kilos)

Originally published on:

Reporting by Menna Farouk, additional reporting by Sanam Mahoozi. Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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