Egypt’s plans to pump $2.8 billion into the construction of 47 seawater desalination plants through a series of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) over the next five years took on extra urgency last week after the Ethiopian government announced that it had already reached its first-year target for the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Sites up and down Egypt’s Red Sea and Mediterranean coastlines have long been earmarked as future desalination centres, some have already attracted inward investment and others are already works in progress; the Egyptian subsidiary of UAE’s water-management specialists Metito and the domestic Orascom Construction giant are already developing a desalination plant close to El Alrich, capital of the North Sinai Governate to the east of Cairo, and in March 2019 the two companies teamed up again to secure a $28 million contract for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in the new city of New Alamein 240 km to the northwest of the capital.
These and similar such projects are likely to be pushed up the government’s agenda after a mini African Union summit at the beginning of the month failed to yield any results. The summit had been called following the breakdown of the latest tripartite talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to curb Ethiopia’s determination to carry on filling the dam regardless of its downstream consequences.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has attributed the speed with which the controversial new dam has managed to store an estimated 4.9 bn m³ of water on above-average levels of precipitation during the current rainy season, but Sudan is reporting that water levels at the al-Deim border station with Ethiopia had declined because the GERD’s gates had been shut. Meanwhile, former Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasr Allam is claiming that Ethiopia’s actions pose a threat to his country’s food security,
“Egypt is currently suffering a food shortage estimated at $10 bn [in import costs],” he said. “We must endeavour to keep it from doubling due to the decrease in Egypt’s water share. We also must increase the period of filling the GERD in order to preserve the percentage of water in Lake Nasser behind the High Dam.”
Last September, his successor Abdel-Aty endorsed predictions that even a 2% decrease of Egypt’s water share would make more than 200,000 acres of farmland unsuitable for crop production. A study conducted by two Egyptian academics and published in the British Journal of Applied Sciences and Technology put that into graphic perspective by claiming that the GERD could lead to a decrease of up to 46% in Egypt’s agricultural acreage.
If that prediction were ever to be realised, then some of the sabre-rattling that has recently broken out in Cairo could end up being more than just words. Water shortages could also become a flashpoint elsewhere across the continent. Although the United Nations has calculated that the proportion of people with safe access to safe drinking water has only increased from 17.9% to 23.7% in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years, it has also warned that somewhere between 75 million and as many as 250 million Africans could be living in areas of high-water scarcity by the end of the decade.
As the possibility of military conflict looms ever larger, it could be a very good time to invest in water management, both politically and financially.