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Resource depletion
A virtual solution to the water shortage

Bassem Abo Alabass
Once again, Egypt has cut down on rice cultivation to conserve water.
28.03.2019  |  Cairo, Egypt
A farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta.  (photo: The Niles | Asmaa Gamal)
A farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta. (photo: The Niles | Asmaa Gamal)

A key ingredient in Egypt’s most popular street food Koshari is facing uncertainty due to water shortage concerns in Egypt.

The Egyptian government decided last March to cut the area of land available for rice cultivation. Instead of 1.7 million feddans (one feddan is equal to 1.038 acres), only around 700,000 feddans were cultivated between May and September 2018.

An acre of rice consumes 8,000 cubic meters of water per season.

The Egyptian Minister of Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Aty said that the controversial decision aimed at saving water. According to the minister, an acre of rice consumes 8,000 cubic meters of water per season (four months), while an acre of wheat or maize, on the other hand, consumes only 5,000 cubic meters.

The production of rice, which is cultivated mostly in the Nile Delta Governorates in northern Egypt, currently exceeds consumption by one million tonnes annually. In 2017, production stood at four million tonnes, while consumption was three million tonnes.

Rice remains a more profitable crop

Hisham Rihan, a young rice farmer in the Delta Governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh (around 130 km north of Cairo), told The Niles, “To be honest, there is much more water now since the decision.”

Nevertheless, Rihan, a university student, is still cultivating rice, despite being subject to a fine of EGP 10,000 (approx. USD 550) as a result of violating the rules.

“I agree, it saves water, but we don’t know what to grow. Cotton and corn are not profitable like rice,” Rihan said. Rihan explains that the cost of an acre of rice is around EGP 3,000 (USD 160), and a tonne is sold for between EGP 6,000 or EGP 7,000 (approx. USD 390).

Cotton, on the other hand, costs more than EGP 10,000 per acre (USD 558), and the price is set at EGP 2,700 (approx. USD 150) per cantar (one cantar equals approximately 50 kilograms).

An acre of rice produces around 6.5 tonnes, while an acre of cotton produces approximately ten cantars (or 500 kilograms).

The government’s decision to cut down on rice cultivation was not its first. In 2017 the total farmed rice area went down to 1.7 million feddans compared to two million a year before.

We don’t know what to grow.

And in 2014, Egyptian authorities decided to control banana farming by creating banana farming licenses. Farmers who fail to get licenses will not be able to attain the necessary fertilisers or pesticides.

GERD fears

As Egypt relies almost exclusively on the Nile River for irrigation and drinking water, there have been ongoing concerns that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could affect its share of the Nile water, estimated to be around 55.5 billion cubic metres (bcm) annually.

Meanwhile, some media and experts have tried to link the GERD’s construction and Egypt’s decision to cut rice production, especially since Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have yet to reach a compromise regarding negotiations over the filling of the GERD’s reservoir in a way that will not harm the countries located downstream of the dam.

However, during an April visit to one of the Nile Delta Governorates, water minister Abdel-Aty denied any connections between the construction of the dam and the government’s decision to cut rice production.

“We were considering the decision even before GERD, for the sake of saving Egypt’s water, especially with a fast-growing population,” Abel-Atly said.

Egypt’s total water quota per year stands at around 60 bcm, according to official figures. Meanwhile, consumption reaches more than 100 bcm after recycling.

In 2011, Ethiopia started to build the USD 5 billion GERD on the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the Nile River. When completed, it will be the largest dam in Africa, generating around 6,000 megawatts of electricity for both domestic use and export.

Virtual water

With the demand on water increasing, countries are currently embracing the concept of Virtual Water (VW) Trading, which sees countries importing its strategic crops and livestock, rather than bearing the cost of growing and watering its own.

Head of the irrigation sector at the water ministry, Abdel-Latif Khaled, says his ministry sees VW as a way to save more than 30 bcm of water per year through food imports like wheat, maize and recently rice.

“What I know is that the decision will help watering more crops with the amount used only to irrigate rice,” Khaled told The Niles.

Egypt’s plan to increase wheat and decrease rice planted areas opens up a potential door of co-operation between Egypt and its riparian neighbours, who have more water and land and would be close trading partners for food imports needed by Cairo to save water.


Author’s take:

One of my key takeaways from the workshop is how to pick an environment-water related topic and come up with an exciting story that is not too academic and yet sheds light on the facts. I also enjoyed all the side-talks during our gathering in Bahir Dar, brainstorming and discussing all sorts of environmental issues. By the way, a result of these conversations is that I now ask for paper instead of plastic bags and I ask other people to do the same.


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