Oil is the Middle East’s glamor product, sought after by the entire world and bringing the region wealth beyond the dream of avarice. But water is the mundane resource that matters even more to locals for, without it, they face the horrible choice of leaving their homes or perishing within them.
That choice may sound hyperbolic, butthe threat is real. Egypt stands out as having the largest population at risk and being the country, other than Iraq andYemen, with the most existential hydrologic problem.
As every schoolchild learns, Egypt is the gift of the Nile and the Nile is by far the globe’s longest river. Less well known is that most of the Nile’s volume, 90 percent, comes from the highlands of Ethiopia and that the river passes through 11 countries. For uncounted eons, its water flowed to Egypt in uncounted quantities.
In 1929, the British government, representing Egypt, signed an agreement with the independent government of Ethiopia guaranteeing an annual flow of 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water to Egypt. Counting a minimum of 1,000 cubic meters per capita per annum (the average worldwide is 7,230 cubic meters), that amount more than sufficed for the 15 million Egyptians of the day.
The succeeding 87 years saw Egypt’s population increase six times until today it numbers 90 million. Adding to the river’s 55.5 bcm, Egypt gets about 5 bcm from non-renewable underground sources and 1.3 bcm from rain, leaving it with about 62 bcm a year, or one-third less than the country’s minimal needs. In addition, Egyptians recycle about 10 bcm of agricultural runoff water, whose highly polluted nature (fertilizer and insecticide residues) eventually kill the land by salinizing it. Exacerbating this shortage, Egypt’s high temperatures leads to higher rates of evapotranspiration, requiring more water for agriculture than in places with cooler climates.