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Egyptian water management: how to get more from less

Throughout the world, the increasing demand for water from growing sectors and developing economies is putting pressure on downstream countries to make better use of decreasing water flows. Egyptian farmers have relied on the high volume of the Nile for their livelihoods over several millennia.

Now that rising water usage in Ethiopia and Sudan risks siphoning off this precious resource upstream, the government is taking preventive measures to ensure its farmers – and its economy – are not caught high and dry.

Challenge

Egypt has since ancient times been described as the 'gift of the river Nile' and the management of water resources has been central to all aspects of national strategy. Egypt’s reliance on the Nile is reflected in the fact that 90% of the population lives on 5% of the land area along the Nile valley and in the Nile delta.

Egypt relies almost entirely on the waters of the Nile for its vast agriculture sector, which increasingly underpins the country’s economy with the temporary downturn of the tourism industry over the last few years. Against a rising population and ambitious plans to build new modern cities, the need to safeguard food production is a top priority. The country faces the challenge of improving the productivity and sustainability of water resources, more than augmenting water supply.

In the past, any wastage of water along the irrigation system of main canals, branch canals, mesqas (distribution canals) and marwas (the on-farm distribution system) was acceptable, due to the high volume of flow from the Nile. Faced with upstream competition, the government is determined to make the entire system more efficient. Simultaneously, it is embarking on an ambitious programme to improve the sanitation sector to allow better treating and reuse of water resources, as well as making the irrigation systems more efficient. Mott MacDonald is helping with both of these strategic plans.

The call to action is clear: let’s make every drop count.

Solution

The key to improving the efficiency of the agricultural water distribution system is an integrated water resources management system.

One of the pioneer projects to promote this objective was the Integrated Irrigation Improvement and Management Project (IIIMP), originally a seven-year multi-donor funded project run by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) that aimed to enhance the management of irrigation and drainage in the Mahmoudia and Mit Yazid command areas in the Middle and West Delta (gross area of 550,000).

Mott MacDonald has a proud heritage of partnership in Egypt. Our founder Sir Murdoch MacDonald played a leading role in the heightening of the Aswan Dam in the 1920s and 1930s. In the water resources sector, we have delivered projects successfully since 1975. As chief technical advisor on the IIIMP, our objective was to help improve water distribution, quantity, quality, equity and timeliness, resulting in an increase of agricultural production and, at the same time, alleviating poverty

The interventions concerned two key areas. Firstly, the rehabilitation and improvement of the water management infrastructure and secondly, institutional reform and user participation.

The first point was addressed by designing modifications to the main and branch canals, as well as mesqas and marwas. The modifications included:

  • Rehabilitation of intake structures and main and branch canals
  • Drain canal dredging and water distribution management to improve the scheduling of water
  • Construction of mesqa pumping stations with electrical pumps instead of diesel pumps
  • An improved on-farm distribution system with buried distribution pipes and hydrants
  • The introduction of some automatic flow measuring instruments on a pilot scale

The second point was met by strengthening the institutional capacity within the ministry and at field level i.e. the establishment of water user organisations, branch canal water user organisations and integrated water management districts.

Encouraging the changes required among local practice was potentially more difficult, given the entrenched ways of working and engrained behaviours of district engineers and farmers. The establishment of the water user organisations was followed up with intensive field training programmes. Moreover, a series of on-farm demonstrations and farmer excursions to newly established mesqas and marwas helped to address the concerns of the farmers and meet opposition to change head-on.

Outcome

The preliminary outcomes to date indicate that:

  • The policy reforms across the localised area were rolled out at large-scale
  • Irrigation costs and time have decreased
  • Improved water flows have increased crop yields, particularly at the tail-end of improved branch canals
  • Increased women participation was observed
  • Conflicts between farmers on the same mesqa have decreased after improvement works were completed
  • The exposure to contaminated irrigation water supply was reduced at the tail-end of the system through the provision of mesqa pump stations.

Translated into numbers these outcomes were initially calculated in March 2016 as follows:

  • Initial water savings were calculated at 22%
  • Beneficiaries included 380,000 farmers
  • Around 17,000 farmers and technician were trained
  • Created around 9,500 man-years of work
  • Some 6,800 tons p.a. reduction in CO2. was achieved.
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