The Renaissance Dam crisis: Desalination alone can’t help

With Addis Ababa announcing the start of filling the reservoir of the Grand Renaissance Dam next month whether an agreement is reached with Egypt and Sudan or not, Cairo’s options became very limited, as the country is on the verge of severe water poverty. Official sources began promoting that Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was already preparing for this situation, when he revealed plans that include cutting off the Nile waters from the northern coast and the Red Sea coast. Egypt’s alternative plan to recycle water through triple treatment plants and seawater desalination plants will cost EGP 900 billion (about $57 billion) until 2037 according to al-Sisi’s statements.

The scale of the crisis

Egypt obtains 55 billion cubic metres from the Nile River, 12 billion cubic metres from recycled water, and 6 billion metres from groundwater, meaning that the country consumes approximately 75 billion cubic metres of water annually. Once the Ethiopian dam is completed, it is expected that Egypt will lose about 24 billion cubic metres annually from its water share. Egypt is already ranked in the list of water-poor countries, where the share of water per person in Egypt is less than 650 cubic metres annually, while 1,000 cubic metres per person is the minimum for countries above the water poverty line.

The map of the governorates that are threatened to be cut off from Nile water over the coming years includes 10 governorates, seven of which are in the northern coast (North Sinai, Port Said, Damietta, Kafr el-Sheikh, Beheira, Alexandria, and Marsa Matrouh), and three governorates on the Red Sea coast (East) including: (South Sinai, Suez, and the Red Sea). These governorates may witness social and economic turmoil as soon as the water-cutting plan becomes operational.


For years, the Egyptian regime has been seeking to compensate for the potential water shortage through two tracks. The first: desalination plants, where it is planned to build 39 stations with a capacity of 2.5 million cubic metres per day, ending in 2037. These desalination plants are being built in the governorates of Matrouh (north), Red Sea (east), South and North Sinai (northeast), Port Said, and Suez (north), and Dakahlia (Nile Delta). As for the second track, it is wastewater treatment through 52 plants with a total capacity of 418 million cubic metres annually, enough for 8 million people, according to government data.

The Egyptian government is counting on the use of treated wastewater for irrigation, and with advanced treatment, it can be used for drinking as well, but it will need more advanced technologies at a higher cost. A desalination plant with a capacity of 150 cubic metres will suffice the need of a million people, while a plant with a capacity of 300,000 cubic metres will suffice for about 2 million citizens.

Egypt is expected to produce about 1 million cubic metres during the current year 2020, to increase successively to 2.5 million cubic metres per day by 2037. Egypt also hopes to increase its share of groundwater, which is estimated at 6.1 billion cubic metres annually, to reach 7.5 billion cubic metres annually. It is difficult to rely on rain as an alternative source as it reaches about 1.3 billion cubic metres annually, and most of it is wasted due to the lack of dedicated tanks.

The army’s business

The Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces oversees the construction of desalination plants, which are subsequently delivered to the Water and Sewerage Company, according to the director of the Egyptian Centre of Excellence for Desalination Research, Hossam Shawky. Desalination projects are assigned to large companies from Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the UAE, in addition to local companies including Orascom and Hassan Allam. These projects will be under the supervision of the Egyptian army as “a matter of national security,” according to local media.

Observers expressed fears that the desalination of water will be a trend to serve the interests of the military establishment, and increase its profits dramatically, in light of the high cost of these projects (about $57 billion).

Disastrous results

There are still major concerns about water prices after the establishment of these stations, especially with the increase in the cost of desalination plants, and the high cost of the technology used, as the cost of a cubic metre of desalinated water is between EGP seven and 11 (more than half a dollar), according to estimates by the head of the Studies Division Economic and Social Centre for Desert Research (Egyptian) Mohamed Sami.

In conjunction with this, companies will compete to sell drinking water to citizens similar to the Gulf states, amid fears of a rise in the price of water in a rapid way, according to the researcher specialised in water treatment, Omar al-Haddad.

According to the Egyptian water resources expert, Nader Nour el-Din, Egypt’s agricultural lands need 57 billion cubic metres of water annually, compared to 3 billion for industry and 10 billion for domestic use, which means that agriculture will be the first affected. With the option of desalination and seawater desalination, the country’s agricultural area will accordingly decrease, and less water-consuming crops will be used.

The head of the Natural Resources Department at the Institute of African Research and Studies at Cairo University, Abbas Sharqi, said that the use of desalinated water leads to the deterioration of the agricultural land, its fertility, and its salinisation. It is also important to bear in mind that seawater desalination is a scarce resource with high electricity consumption, as desalination of one cubic metre of water requires 2.5 kilowatts per hour of electricity.

Experts also pointed out that the cost of disposing of desalination waste is very high, not to mention the high maintenance bill for these stations. Materials resulting from desalination will destroy the marine environment and harm fish if they are disposed of in the sea, which means that the overall option of desalination will be very expensive for Egypt and the Egyptians.