Between Clay and Cement: Is Egypt’s canal lining a solution or dilemma for farmers?

Between Clay and Cement: Is Egypt’s canal lining a solution or dilemma for farmers?

By Asmaa Gamal

From space, Egypt’s special relationship with the Nile River is obvious. A long, narrow strip of green starkly contrasts with the majorly desert landscape, this fertile strip snaking up to the Mediterranean Sea. 

On this 3 percent of land lies about 98 percent of the population and almost all of Egypt’s agriculture, all depending on the world’s longest river for survival.

Across Egypt’s Nile Valley, a complex, 55,000-kilometer web of canals, or water passages, channel the precious water from the Nile to farmers cultivating further from its shores.  

But in recent years, many of these canals have fallen into disrepair. Poor quality materials and alluvial soils have also contributed to the loss of water seeping into the underground, as well as water pollution. 

In the arid country, the Nile River provides almost all of the country’s freshwater. But climate change, increasing population and rising extractions and exploitation of the river in the 11 countries of its basin have put the country into an escalating water crisis.

As part of its strategy to deal with water scarcity, the government has embarked on a project to line and rehabilitate 20,000 kilometers of the country’s canals. Started in 2021, the project is expected to finish in 2024, benefiting millions of farmers and saving water that can be used to irrigate new lands.

This photo story explores the experiences of farmers living in central Egypt as their old water passages, upon which their lives depend, have been rehabilitated.

Ongoing construction of the canal lining project

Mankrish is a small village belonging to the Beni Suef Governorate, located along the Nile River in central Egypt. The village is affected by the new canal lining project, which is part of the National Project for Developing the Egyptian Countryside aimed at raising the quality of life of residents of rural areas. 

The project is intended to enhance water management and distribution, ensure the delivery of water to the ends of canals, and inhibit pollution. The Minister of Irrigation explained that the project will make water resources more efficient, one of the goals of Egypt’s national water resources strategy, which is intended to resolve Egypt’s water-related issues by 2037. 

The Nile Basin Initiative’s Strategic Water Resources Analysis reports highlights canal lining as a major method for water saving in both Egypt and Sudan. In 2017, only 60 percent of water withdrawn from the Nile was being consumed by the agriculture sector, due to evaporation, seepage, infiltration from land or consumption by aquatic weeds, according to the report.

Despite these benefits, canal lining has also presented disadvantages to some farmers, and it is uncertain how it will affect agriculture, water access and ecology in the future.

Over the years, the canals have suffered from blockages and pollution from rubbish. So, when the project started, the farmers hoped that the canal lining would change the people’s minds and connect with their ethics, encouraging them not to throw their trash inside Nile water. 

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Plastic bags among other litter dumped in the canals
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Sixty-year-old Am Salah Aboud walks on his way to his farmland in Mankrish village in Beni Seif governorate. He is growing corn.

“I started farming from childhood with my father long ago, and then after my father passed away, I pursued farming and followed his steps since then,” Am Salah says.

In early 2022, the government started to line canals near Am Salah’s land. Behind him, a truck is digging the canal land to continue and accomplish the lining canal project. This canal displays both the newly lined parts and the old parts still waiting for renovation.

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Am Salah throws corn seeds in his land.

He says that the canal lining project has benefited him. After the rehabilitation, water flows more easily to reach his land, and the water is cleaner, he said.

“The project of lining the canals is a good project. It helped us clean the canals, facilitating the water stream along its path in abundant quantities with clean water.”

Still, the project only covers some areas, leaving others uncovered, he says. “[There], we have to use machines for irrigation. So, there is a parallel project to push up groundwater through motors.”

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Am Salah mixes water with pesticide and fertilizer in an attempt to address an insect problem that is badly affecting his crops. His land lies close to the main canal, which supplies ample water to his farm.
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Samar and his brother Mohamed are playing and swinging at lunchtime. Am Salah’s family lives near his land to help him take care of it and save costs of hiring outside workers. 
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Am Salah’s sister Seyada, who is 64 years old, helps plant seeds in the family’s land where they farm clover, wheat and corn. Other farms grow vegetables, tomatoes and other crops. The farmers pay large sums of money on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the process of sowing the lands. 
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Am Salah’s family sits down to rest after a long day of work

There are many farmers’ families suffering from lack of a suitable pension pay, which is tied to owning agricultural holdings and being registered in the local agricultural association. Farmers who have sold their land do not receive pension pay. Am Salah’s family is worried that if they lose money, they may be forced to sell their land and lose their rights to a pension.

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A tree cut down during construction of the rehabilitated canal

Despite its benefits, the canal project has also had negative side effects on some farmers’ lands. Since cement is used for the canal lining, it facilitates better movement of water to nearby lands, but it also prevents opening smaller new canals for water to flow to faraway lands. 

Some of those who are lacking water have installed pumps to get water from the canal. The lack of water in some places also forces some farmers to use artesian pumps for irrigation, which extract water that flows naturally from underground. These can be very expensive, where people collaborate for one pump which may cost 10 thousand EGP (around USD $330), according to the farmers. 

Farmers also can’t depend on the pumps alone, as excessive artesian irrigation through machine pumping may lead to increased salt in the lands. If salt becomes excessive, the land becomes poor for agriculture. So, farmers tend to alternate between pumped water and canal-driven water for their irrigation.

Groundwater levels may also fall since the new canals prevent the seepage of water into the underground. This may affect some people who rely on wells that extract this underground water, according to a 2021 research study.

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The Ahmed family, who live near the canal, are trying to collect water to take home

There are many lands suffering after the canal lining prevented water from reaching their lands, and they have to carry water home by themselves or buy a high-priced motor pump to extract water from underground. When machines break down or need maintenance, it costs families a large sum.

The canal water blockage problem in Egypt is multifaceted. There are some places where water has become out of reach when the water source falls lower than the canals, failing to fill them. Other places are totally deprived of water, and others have canals that need rehabilitation to better facilitate the flow of water. In the old non-lined canals, water is lost and slowed down due to seepage into the ground, evaporation and weed growth in the canals.

The government is carrying on projects to clean and re-line small canals and de-block other branching canals from the main water canal to make sure that water can supply farmers at tails or along branches of small ones. However, there are places that still remain out of reach.

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53-year-old Anwar Ramadan Abdul-Azeem stands on his land in the village

When canals are lined, “there is no penetration of water due to the material used in lining, so it prevents water from getting lost to the underground,” said Anwar Ramadan Abdul-Azeem, the governorate’s agricultural facilities secretary.

“Before the lining happens, the clay land is naturally porous, so any amount of water running along it has some portion being lost to the underground. Now, this process is prevented, and [the government] explained to us that it was mandatory to prevent the water loss because we are about to face a water crisis. No one knows for sure… We can’t tell whether it would affect the future groundwater or not.”

On Anwar’s land, water comes easily because of the canal lining project. Here, he is growing corn plants.

“The lining helped us a lot,” Anwar said. “We don’t oppose lining or have conflicts about its benefits. At first, we were suffering from a shortage of water, because canals were covered and blocked with dirt and garbage. We didn’t accept it at first, but later we felt the pros of the outcomes later.”

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Children in the village play and swim inside a canal after the project is accomplished. Many swimming children lose their lives inside the canals.

While the project provides other health and agricultural benefits, Ahmed’s wife, Soad Mohamed, said the government should have also installed covers for all canals to prevent children from falling in and drowning. 

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More children play in the canal

However, Anwar says that Egypt’s canal lining is at least preserving water for agriculture, which is essential to life.

“Water alone without agriculture can’t provide us with living. How would we live?

Water and agriculture are two equal opponents,” Anwar said. “We consume vegetables, fruits; even livestock feed on plants. Meat production depends on plants. If there are no plants, there are no animals, no meat, no poultry. So you can say that water pulled the chain of life right behind it.”

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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