Egypt and Middle East: Reusing water urgently needed

Comprising 11 of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is considered the most water-scarce region in the world, according to UNICEF.

“Population growth, economic development efforts, and climate change are the main reasons behind Egypt’s water scarcity,” said Javier Mateo-Sagasta, senior researcher, coordinator of water quality and project leader at ReWater MENA.

The ReWater MENA project, founded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and led by the International Water Management Institute, has been working since 2018 on expanding the safe reuse of water in MENA, with a focus on Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as promoting safe reuse practices that improve food safety, health, and livelihoods.

Egypt has battled an annual water deficit of approximately seven billion cubic metres over the past few years, and by 2025, UNICEF reported, the country may potentially “run out of water”.

Population growth in Egypt is a major challenge to water resources and the per capita water availability has dropped significantly during the last few decades, Mateo-Sagasta added.

Egypt’s population keeps growing and puts more pressure on water resources, and with economic development and population growth, demand on water increases while water resources availability decreases, he noted.

The population of Egypt in 1970 was estimated at 34.5 million, but grew to 102 million in 2020.

Per capita annual renewable fresh water was 1,593 cubic metres (m3) in 1970, Mateo-Sagasta pointed out, adding that it dropped to 804 m3 in 2000, and 584 m3 in 2020.

A country is considered water stressed when the annual water availability per capita drops below 1,000 m3.

There is not enough water to meet growing demand in many parts of the world, especially in the MENA region, Mateo-Sagasta told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that one promising solution is reusing water.

As of 2020, he said, total municipal wastewater generated in Egypt amounted to 7.2 billion cubic metres (BCM).

By the same year, Mateo-Sagasta stated, 77 plants out of more than 500 municipal wastewater treatment plants reused their effluents directly for productive purposes, less than five per cent of the total wastewater generated.

Almost 60 per cent of generated wastewater is reused indirectly, after discharge and dilution in water bodies, he explained, adding that around 35 per cent of generated wastewater is lost when it is discharged into the environment and evaporates on land or along rivers or is lost in the sea.

This is a wasted opportunity because the region can’t afford wasting any drop of water without a productive use, he stressed.

“We are wasting here not only water but also resources embedded in the water, including nutrients like phosphorous and organic carbon that if recovered can be used for energy production in the form of bio-gas and methane to generate electricity for households,” Mateo-Sagasta explained.

In 19 countries from the MENA region, he added, resources embedded in wastewater could be enough to irrigate 2.6 million hectares and to provide energy for some eight million households. “These are resources embedded in the 54 per cent of generated municipal wastewater,” he said.

Mateo-Sagasta noted that there are more than seven billion cubic metres of municipal wastewater, and 54 per cent of the generated municipal waste water is lost, either evaporated on land or along the river or dumped into the sea. “Less than five per cent of the seven BCM is directly reused,” he said.

There is not enough water to meet the growing demand in many parts of the world, especially in the MENA region, Mateo-Sagasta stressed, adding that one promising solution is the proper reuse of waste water.

“The technologies to recover these lost resources do exist, but to recover all these resources, there are many challenges, mostly legal, institutional, or simply lack of awareness,” he said, adding that water can be used in cities and reused in agriculture, with benefits for all.

“Policies and strategies need to rely on the collective work of all parties related to water, and this is what ReWater MENA has been trying to achieve,” Mateo-Sagasta said.

The closing workshop of the project took place last week in Cairo, with an announcement that a source book would be published this autumn, in the lead up to COP27, with its researchers concluding that recycling water could supplement, or substitute water needs in sectors suffering from water shortage, reduce groundwater pumping and alleviate the use of freshwater in the agricultural sector.

COP27 is the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held from 6 to 18 November 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh.

The book is composed of three sections: the state of water reuse in the region, a collection of success stories, and a list of guidelines and recommendations to further implement in the water sector.

“We need regulations to encourage direct wastewater reuse, and we need to show the benefits and need for water reuse and recycling among the public, Mateo-Sagasta said, pointing out that awareness among the public about water reuse is still behind.

For example, he said, farmers are not allowed to irrigate vegetable crops with treated wastewater despite this being safer than irrigation with polluted water.

“Egypt and the region need to halve the amount of waste water lost,” Mateo-Sagasta said. “Water reuse and desalination are effective solutions.”

This article was originally published on https://english.ahram.org.eg

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