Modern Irrigation Strategy: Egypt Aims for the “Inevitable” to Utilize Water Resources

Modern Irrigation Strategy: Egypt Aims for the “Inevitable” to Utilize Water Resources

By Amira Sayed and Mohamed Wadie

Salah Ismail, a farmer from Kerdasa, a village in Egypt’s Giza Governorate, uses about two hours to irrigate his one-acre garden. He is now growing parsley which he sells fresh or dried. He also grows other light crops such as eggplant and watercress.

The two hours he spends irrigating a one-acre garden highlight his irrigation method.  

Ismail and five other farmers have plots adjacent to each other. He says they all use flood irrigation and traditional irrigation techniques.

“All my family uses traditional ways of irrigation. Five other farmers and I have plots of land adjacent to each other. We all use the same source of water for irrigation. But, everyone uses their own irrigation machine that works with diesel,” he explains, adding that their everyday farming challenges have been compounded by the recent increase in the cost of diesel.

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Salah Ismail, a farmer from Kerdasa

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Water Science School defines flood irrigation as a method where farmers flow water down small trenches running through their crops. It describes it as not the most efficient irrigation method, but it is cheap and low-tech.

It is not only Ismail and his neighbors that use traditional irrigation but many other farmers in Egypt.  Abu Srei, another farmer in Kerdasa, says he too employs the traditional irrigation method of using a diesel crane irrigation machine on his garden, which is less than an acre.

The Egyptian government is fighting tooth and nail to switch to modern irrigation nationwide as one of the ways to respond to numerous water challenges, but this remains an uphill task.

Ismail explains that switching to modern irrigation methods may not be attainable at the moment.

“Majority of the farmers own small plots, so there will be no economic advantages for adopting modern irrigation that requires a hefty cost,” he observes.

Hussein Abu Saddam, the head of the Farmers’ Syndicate on his part says that in addition to financial challenges, land fragmentation is also hindering farmers from switching to modern irrigation as those with small plots see no economic benefit in adopting a costly technology, yet they get little from their farms.

Efforts to Scale up Use of Modern Irrigation

Egypt depends on the River Nile, which comes from outside its borders, for 97 percent of its water needs. The country suffers from a water deficit of 90% of its renewable resources and reuses 35% of those resources to bridge the water gap.

According to Mohamed Abdel Ati, Former Egyptian Minister of Irrigation, the total water needs in Egypt are double the available water resources, and the state is making huge efforts to modernize the water system and maximize the utilization of its water resources.

Abu Saddam says switching to modern irrigation has become ‘inevitable,’ not a ‘luxury’ in light of water scarcity. On government initiatives to move toward modern irrigation, he notes that “there should be strict monitoring for the whole process. This requires coordination between the government, unions, and syndicates to ensure the success of the modern irrigation system.”

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An irrigated farm in Egypt’s Giza Governorate

As part of interventions, responding to financial challenges faced by the farmers, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) launched an initiative to provide financial support for the transformation to modern irrigation. The CBE allocated 55.5 billion pounds for this initiative. The initiative enables the farmer to obtain loans through the agricultural associations in the governorates nationwide. The farmers benefiting from the initiative will pay the cost of switching to modern irrigation systems to the banks in installments over 10 years.

 The implementation of the initiative is anticipated to provide 30-40% of irrigation water that can be used in land reclamation, increase the productivity of agricultural lands from 25-30% and increase the farmers’ income.

According to the Strategic Water Resources Analysis (SWRA) by the Nile Basin Initiative, there is enough room to enhance irrigation efficiency in the Nile Basin, especially in the large-scale irrigation schemes of Egypt and Sudan. 

“Up to 20–30% improvement in overall irrigation efficiency is possible, most importantly in traditional irrigation systems. Efficiency improvements of 5–15% and 15–30% are suggested for implementation by 2030 and 2050, respectively, in tandem with other water-saving measures,” the analysis report says.

Regarding land suitability for irrigation in the Nile Basin, SWRA points out that “the Nile Basin is home to some of the poorest communities in the world. Expansion and intensification of agriculture are crucial for ensuring food security, improving livelihood, and reducing poverty in the basin. Improving irrigation facilities is considered as a key strategy to enhance agricultural productivity.”

According to the Egyptian government, the area of ​​cultivated land in Egypt increased by 9%, reaching 9.7 million acres in 2021, compared to 8.9 million acres in 2014.

Mohamed Abdel Ati, the Egyptian Minister of Irrigation, narrates that the Egyptian government is committed to modernizing irrigation, adding that most desert land is now being irrigated by modern systems. He retaliates against the importance of having a national dialogue to raise public awareness nationwide.

This story was produced in June 2022, supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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