Draining the desert: is finite groundwater the price of development?
The precipitated minerals in water dubbed "mango juice" - Nourhan Magdi for The Cairo Post
By NOURHAN MAGDI

CAIRO: Waste water from a pump in the Abu-Minqar village flows bright orange as locals joke and call it mango juice; it carries iron and other heavy metals like manganese that were filtered out using a solar-powered pump.

The poor quality of groundwater feeding this village and many others in the Western Desert is not the only challenge facing them; studies project a substantial drawdown in groundwater levels in the next few years.

Areas near the Farafra oasis are expected to witness an 18-meter drawdown in the water table by 2029, according to a 2008 study by the Desert Research Institute.

This drop would affect Abu-Minqar residents, who like other Western Desert settlers, solely rely on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System for their domestic and agricultural use; there is no annual rainfall, and no access to surface water like the Nile River.

For a long time, agricultural projects in these areas have been precluded due to the lack of alternative water sources, geologist El-Bahy Eissawi told The Cairo Post.

A newly announced project by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi aiming to reclaim 4 million feddans (4.15 million acres) of desert lands, some of them based on groundwater irrigation, have renewed concerns of future stresses on NSAS water.

The Farafra oasis is part of the first phase of Sisi’s project, which has allocated 200,000 feddans to be cultivated within one year.

The Ministry of Irrigation has stated that the daily water need for the project would not exceed 3,000 cubic meters per well, however, the projections in the 2008 study were calculated based on daily usages of 1,000 cubic meters per well.

“There is a desperate need to adopt water management, monitor wells and use modern techniques to determine the daily drawdown of groundwater in the NSAS, in order to guarantee the best utilization of water,” said Groundwater Expert at the Desert Research Institute Mostafa Eissa to The Cairo Post.

Local landscape

Residents of El-Heiz and Abu-Minqar, two Northern oasis communities in the Western Desert, have long depended on deep wells for getting their water needs.

Most people in both communities are not aware of the possible finite nature of the water source they are relying on, said Tina Jaskolski, Research Coordinator at the Research Institute for Sustainable Environment (RISE) at the American University in Cairo.

These communities’ traditional practices caused a “shocking” waste of water, mostly due to poor irrigation infrastructure available at both communities, Jaskolski added.

Water waste due to flood irrigation - Photo courtesy of RISE page

Water waste due to flood irrigation – Photo courtesy of RISE at AUC page

 

RISE had been active in Abu Minqar, 100 km southwest of the Farafra oasis, since 2006, when it conducted a water demand management research and development project. The same project was also implemented in El-Heiz village; a settlement that has existed for hundreds of years near the Bahariya Oasis.

“Most of the agricultural areas in the Western Desert have the same problems of water management: unlined canals, big lakes formed of dumped water due to unnecessary flood irrigation, lack of recycling water and soil salinity problems,” said Jaskolski, adding “we decided to work with them on making [each drop of the water they have] more sustainable.”

“Our approach has been to improve the systems that already existed there. In Abu-Minqar, we have been teaching people there for eight years to make use of the water they have, and start farming with the drainage water,” added Jaskolski.Funded by HSBC, the project mainly depended on raising awareness of how to best manage their water. Jaskolski said, “We first lined a canal, and then people are now lining their own canals as they know how to do it.”

Lined canals in El-Heiz village- Nourhan Magdi for The Cairo Post .com

Lined canals in El-Heiz village- Nourhan Magdi for The Cairo Post


Recycling grey water is another aspect of the project; it used to run off the sewage and pollute water streams. The RISE project also introduced hydroelectricity, fish farming and drip irrigation, where it transferred large free spaces in both Abu Minqar and El-Heiz communities into central community gardens.

In Farafra, the number of artesian wells dropped from 69 to only five between 1962 and 2008, while the others dried after an increase in the man-drilled wells, from 20 to 170, during the same period, according to the 2008 study by the Desert Research Institute.

Filtering groundwater

Groundwater for the two communities’ residents is often not sufficiently filtered before consumption, as the extracted water has high rates of dissolved iron and manganese, Jaskolski said.

RISE has partnered with German company Autarcon to implement an iron removal system powered by solar energy, with filters that need to be replaced every five to 10 years.

The solar powered filter operates independently of the power grid, which only provides electricity to the villages a few hours a day. The system also generates its own chlorine by passing a current through the water, thereby sanitizing the water.

“We have to do what big stations in Cairo are doing on a large scale, where we have to purify and filter the water and add more chlorine to it so that when people come and pick it up in jerry cans, we can assure that it is safe for several days,” she added.

The water station built by the project in El-Heiz village provides taps for residents to fill jugs with the filtered water. Commercial bottled waters are usually sold for 3 EGP ($0.42)  for a single liter, placing them out of the price range of most families. Before the project, the only other option in the town was filtering the groundwater through a clay pot. Residents now pay 0.5 EGP ($0.07) for a 20-liter jerry can of filtered water at RISE’s station.

El-Heiz resident filling water in jerry can - photo courtsey of RISE page

El-Heiz resident filling water in jerry can – photo courtsey of RISE at AUC page

 

An endangered aquifer

The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the world, covering over 2.2 million km², and spanning the political boundaries of four countries in North Africa: Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Libya.

Map of Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System

Map of Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System by Mohamed AL- Malky

 

The aquifer underlies an area of 828,000 km² in Egypt, according to the Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE.)

The four North African states have made several attempts to develop the NSAS and agreed to regional cooperation in this regard. However, the Libyan Great Man-Made River remained the largest on-ground project that is mainly supplied by the aquifer.

During the Gadhafi regime, Libya founded the Great River project, which is a network of pipes supplying water to Sahara Desert in Libya from the NSAS. Libyans have referred to the project as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” since the desert country has traditionally faced problems finding fresh water, according to a BBC report in 2006.

Geologist Eissawi said that the aquifer system is not connected across all of the countries, due to granite deposits separating the Egyptian water table from that of Libya. “The storage in Sudan differs from us; the age of their aquifer is 400 million years, while ours is only 65 million years old.”

Eissawi added it is “difficult” to determine when the aquifer’s stores would be exhausted, “because not all the four oases are similar in the available water quantity; for example, in Dakhla we get water from a 2,000-meter depth and we can still dig, while in Kharga the water table is at only 700 meters.”

Groundwater expert Eissa, however, said that the aquifer’s stores are not separated and it is a finite resource, adding “the aquifer is being recharged from either Chad or Sudan; the upstream countries.”

What hinders development in Western Desert?

A number of foreign studies have been conducted on the water storage in the Nubian aquifer, during the past years, in order to address the best way utilizing this resource, but “unfortunately, they were neglected by the responsible authorities in the state,” said Salama Abdel Hady, head of hydraulic power department at the Faculty of Engineering in Aswan.

Agricultural expert Nader Nour said that the low population in the Western Desert oases of approximately 170,000 inhabitants has delayed many proposed developmental projects; attributing the reason of lack of water management models in such areas to the long distances separating each of the four oases, “which makes it difficult to connect them together to a big purification plant, for example.”

“The filters, already installed in such areas, remain unchanged for a long time, which then get blocked by the heavy minerals deposits in the groundwater,” continued Nour.

Geologist Eissawi said that the filters are not changed due to financial constraints, and that it simply costs too much to replace filters 500-meters deep in the ground.

Water poverty

Egypt suffers from water poverty, according to a May 2014, study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics; average water resources per capita have dropped to 663 cubic meters, and are expected to plummet to 582 cubic meters by 2025.

Geologist Eissawi attributed the reasons for the drop in Egypt’s water resources to the “lack of sustainable management.”

In the Western Desert, water experts have prioritized the need to teach farmers and settlers of the oases how they can sustainably manage their water.

First, farmers have to understand the difference between farming in the Delta, where there is abundant surface water, and farming in the Western Desert where the waste water does not immediately re-enter the water table, said Jaskolski.

Although they are left with poor irrigation infrastructure, Jaskolski said that farmers can simply cultivate low-water crops like “people in El-Heiz community who though grow vegetables, but almost depend on dates and palm trees that do not need much water.”

 

Greenhouses in El-Heiz as part of RISE project - Nourhan Magdi for The Cairo post.com

Greenhouses in El-Heiz as part of RISE project – Nourhan Magdi for The Cairo Post


Other areas in the Western Desert have more water resources, like Siwa, which is now experiencing flooding, said Eissawi.

“There can also be some areas irrigated by pop-up sprinklers to grow grass and have livestock, as a way of using low amount of water to allow a new industry to the place,” he suggested.

Despite the presence of livestock in Abu-Minqar, Researcher Jaskolski believed “meat production is not efficient as it consumes a lot of water.”

Rationing of water use an issue that Mawaheb Abu el-Azm, the former head of Environment Research Center, had stressed. She told The Cairo Post that clean water comes at a high cost, “so we should save it for drinking, and not use it in cleaning houses, cars or animals.”

Sisi’s  plans

The first phase of Sisi’s reclamation project is due to be finished within a year, despite concerns there is not enough available water to support the project.

Agricultural Expert Nader Nour said that The Western Desert lies below the surface of the Nile valley, thereby making it difficult to obtain surface water through connecting to the river. “We are left with only the non-renewable source of groundwater,” he added.Nour previously told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the required amount of water for this project needs “doubled efforts by both ministries of irrigation and agriculture,” adding that the government “cannot afford the high cost of drilling many wells to support the project with sufficient water.”

“The withdrawal of the water out of wells in such areas should be slowly and gradually in order to avoid huge drawdown, salination of the water mixed with sand or the wells block,” advised Eissawi.

Given the limited source of groundwater, the only way to guarantee the project’s success is to depend on high-yielding crops like dates, olives and palm trees that do not consume much water, said agricultural economy expert Sherif Fayad to The Cairo Post.

In preparation for the project, the head of the groundwater sector in the Ministry of Irrigation Sameh Sakr told Al-Masry Al-Youm Aug. 6 that the ministry determined the crop water requirements and decided to reduce the high water crops to no more than 5 percent of the reclaimed areas. “There will be a follow-up plan to wells operated with electricity or diesel to observe the amounts of groundwater withdrawals,” added Sakr.

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