No country in the Middle East is a stranger to water scarcity. But Egypt, the region’s largest, is rebranding itself as a leader of the Arab world’s fight against water stress.
Home to the world’s longest and perhaps best-known river, Egypt finds itself in a unique position to spearhead efforts to mitigate the Middle East’s water crisis amid the international community’s faltering campaign against climate change.
Yet the Nile’s challenges with environmental issues place unprecedented pressure on Egypt to show results.
From late October to early November last year, Egypt hosted Cairo Water Week, branded as “CWW.”
At the time, CWW’s organisers billed it as “the most outstanding water event in Egypt and the Middle East,” “a premier international forum for the discussion of water issues,” and “the first platform in the Middle East and Africa for all stakeholders to address and analyse water issues constructively” — an indicator of Egypt’s ambitions to become the face of the region’s war on water scarcity.
CWW also had significant buy-in, with participants in the 2023 edition including various arms of regional and international organisations such as the Arab League, the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the United Nations.
Both the Nile and the Red Sea have been plagued by “unprecedented” levels of pollution [Getty Images]
CWW is nothing new, having taken place since 2018. However, Egypt has enjoyed a more prominent platform on the global stage after hosting the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, better known as “COP27.”
That summit resulted in the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, which highlighted “the critical role of protecting, conserving and restoring water systems.”
The Center for Strategic and International Studies described that document as the first time “that international climate negotiators included water in the final agreement of the annual global summit” — a coup for Egypt’s claims to leadership on the issue.
Even as Egypt positions itself as one of the international community’s loudest proponents of water conservation, the country is struggling to navigate its domestic water crisis.
The UN warns that Egypt “could run out of water by 2025,” with the Nile, Egypt’s crown jewel, coming under particular stress. The river has slowed down from lack of water, while a 2023 study warned of “large-scale,” “unprecedented,” and “irreversible” pollution.
Many of these problems arise from Egypt’s mismanagement of the Nile and its failure to enforce environmental regulations. However, some of the environmental issues are outside the country’s immediate control. Rising sea levels, for example, may subsume over a fifth of the Nile Delta as Egypt’s coastline moves inward by up to several kilometres in coming decades.
The countries with which Egypt shares the Nile have added to these challenges. Ethiopia, another of Africa’s major regional powers, is building a much-vaunted dam on the Blue Nile, one of the Egyptian river’s tributaries.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens to restrict the flow of water to Egypt upriver, sparking an intractable diplomatic crisis and leading to ongoing concerns about the possibility of an Egyptian military intervention.
Combined, the overlapping environmental crises impacting the Nile and Egypt’s wider water supply represent one of the country’s greatest domestic challenges and a potential humanitarian disaster.
But these problems could also become a stain on Egypt’s reputation as the country tries to establish a diplomatic record of water conservation. If Egyptian officials struggle to manage their water supply, the international community may question Egypt’s standing in the environmental movement and the legitimacy of events such as CWW.
Egypt, for its part, is all too conscious of the scale of the water crisis and is deploying a range of resources to address it.
The Egyptian Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation, for instance, has pledged to pour $4.741 billion — a fifth of its budget for development aid — into water conservation.
On the scientific front, the National Water Resource Center, a research institute overseen by the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, has launched projects to improve water management in the Nile Delta, deal with rising sea levels all along the coast, and integrate renewable energy into the use of water resources.
At the same time, officials as varied as the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation and the Egyptian Ambassador to Italy have continued to make the case to the international community for Egypt’s water-themed accomplishments.
The country’s overseas partnerships have brought their return on investment, with the United States Agency for International Development noting that it has spent over $3.5 billion “to bring clean water and sanitation services to the homes of over 25 million Egyptians” in the last five decades.
Only time will tell how far these commitments and collaborations go in resolving Egypt’s water crisis and sealing its reputation as a champion of water conservation. Given the scale of the problem, though, there is no question about the necessity of these efforts to mitigate the country’s water stress — even if they only represent a drop in the bucket.