Egypt faces acute water shortage, but it’s still building a giant ‘Green River’ in the desert
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On the easternmost outskirts of Cairo, the Egyptian government is building a giant belt of lakes and parks deep in the desert. Creators call it the “Green River” and say that when finished, the ornamental ribbon will cut through Egypt’s brand new, ultra-modern metropolis: its New Administrative Capital.
A digital simulation shows the “river” extending throughout the length of the New Capital, as it is commonly known, branching out into smaller lakes and pools.
The sleek video shown off five years ago by Egypt’s prime minister depicts lush riverbanks dotted with trees and occupying vast landscapes of greenery – even though the site is in the middle of a desert, with no natural sources of water nearby.
Just how the government plans to source the vast amounts of water for the project is unclear.
The oasis is being constructed in the middle of a worsening climate crisis. And as temperatures rise and the population balloons, water scarcity has become a critical concern for Egypt, host of this year’s COP27 climate summit, which began Sunday in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Universal access to clean water is Egypt’s top priority at the meeting, with a planning minister recently stating that the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development would not be fully realized if water equality wasn’t prioritized.
Egyptian authorities have repeatedly sounded alarms over the country’s water problems.
In May, the Minister of Local Development announced that the country had entered a stage of “water poverty” according to UN standards. The UN doesn’t have a metric for “water poverty,” but by its definition a country is considered water scarce when annual supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per capita, which the minister reported was the case.
And just last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the country’s water resources could no longer meet the needs of the rapidly growing population, noting that his government is nonetheless taking strategic steps to conserve equal water supply. Sisi also announced that he is launching a new initiative called “Water Adaptation and Resilience” in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at COP27.
Cairo’s population has more than doubled over the past four decades, and so the city has expanded. Egypt’s “New Administrative Capital” is being built over a 714 square kilometer (276 sq. mi.) site and, once completed, will house 6.5 million people.
Most of Egypt’s population, which now stands at 104 million, is crowded along the narrow Nile river.
In July, Egypt’s submission to the UN Framework on Climate Change revealed that its water resources only amount to about 60 billion cubic meters annually, nearly all of which comes from the Nile. But with the population increasing by one person every 19 seconds, Egypt needs an estimated 114 billion cubic meters of water per year, forcing the country to bridge the gap with groundwater, rainfall and treated wastewater.
“Our water sources are limited,” Saker El Nour, an Egyptian sociologist who researches agrarian issues, rural poverty and the environment in Arab countries, told CNN. “We are in a dry area, and so we don’t have enough rain and our main source of water is the Nile.”
“This will get worse with climate change,” he added.
Experts say the Egyptian government’s own water management strategies are contributing to its pressing water crisis. As authorities warn of water scarcity, experts say that tens of billions of dollars are being squandered on projects that waste – as opposed to conserve – the precious natural resource, particularly Egypt’s megaprojects in the desert.
The Green River project is one such venture.
The artificial body of water is meant to mimic the Nile and become a key centerpiece of the New Capital project.
The giant system of lakes, canals and gardens connecting the New Capital’s different neighborhoods is designed to be 35 kilometres long and encompass what Egypt says will be “the largest park in the world,” extending over a 10-kilometer area. Costs for the first phase were estimated at $500 million, state media reported in 2019. The project also includes two giant manmade lakes, the first of which has been built, according to state media.
CNN has been unable to verify how much of the Green River project has been constructed to date, but in June authorities said the first phase of the New Capital was more than 70% complete.
Google Earth images show large swathes of greenery stretched across the desert and a giant, manmade lake, which appears to be full of water.
The New Capital is designed for a population of 6.5 million people. To put that in perspective, some 20 million people are crammed into highly congested Greater Cairo.
Sleek promotional material produced by the government paints a picture of a lush city nestled in the middle of the desert. It promises a sprawling government district, thousands of new homes, an entertainment district and even a zoo with an aquarium featuring dolphin performances.
But as the government spearheads its luxurious project, the average farmer struggles to find enough water to sustain small plots of land, which for many represent their main source of income.
Further down the river Nile in Egypt’s Minya governorate, around 250 kilometers south of Cairo, farmers huddle around a thin stream of canal water, drawing water to irrigate their land.
Twenty-six-year-old Romany Sami is one of those farmers. Along with his father and brother, Sami owns 10 feddans of land – around 10 acres – and is currently planting wheat and onions.
Sami says that water is not consistently available. The supply is intermittent in order to allow everyone a chance to irrigate.
“People stay up all night waiting for the water to arrive. We don’t sleep at home most days because of the water. I need to work continuously for two or three days before the water dries up,” Sami told CNN.
Sami’s farmland lies on a small canal running between different plots of land and fed by the Nile. The farmer says that those cultivating longstanding farmland on one side of the canal are allowed to use Nile water for irrigation, but those farming newly planted reclaimed desert land on the other side are prohibited from doing so, simply because there is not enough water.
Farmers, including Sami, who can’t draw on the waters of the Nile, are forced to use groundwater for irrigation.
“Reclaimed lands are not allowed to irrigate with Nile water, and they have to use wells, which are more expensive,” said Hussein Abdel Rahman, head of Egypt’s Farmers’ Syndicate, “so people resort to stealing water and they are subjected to fines, and the matter may even lead to imprisonment.”
From time to time, says Sami, authorities pass by and impose fines on farmers caught using Nile water. Desperation drives Sami and others to do so anyway.
But Minya is only one of many farming regions struggling to find water to grow their crops.
Some 100 kilometers southwest of Cairo in the village of Tamiya in Fayoum, 63-year-old farmer Ahmed Abd Rabbo has seen the yields of his hard work collapse amid the water shortage.
Living with his family of 25 in a three-story house, Abd Rabbo, says he can no longer rely on his wheat field as a primary source of income.
His plot sits at the end of a canal, and he says it often runs dry by the time he needs to irrigate his wheat.
“Those who stand at the end of the queue get nothing if the need is great,” Abd Rabbo told CNN.
When there isn’t enough water in the canal, Abd Rabbo uses wastewater. While the farmer says he is grateful that there is at least some water year-round, he says wastewater negatively affects the quality and quantity of his crops.
“But better one-eyed than stone-blind,” he said.
The Egyptian government says it’s running a number of projects aimed at conserving water and maximizing its use. One such initiative, launched by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation in 2021, is seeking to rehabilitate canals with the aim of improving water management and distribution.
Egypt says it is also working with its people to improve irrigation methods, implement efficient farming techniques, and eliminate pollution.
The government is already limiting the planting of water-intensive crops such as rice.
But Egypt’s water shortage problems also stem from mismanagement, as well as a lack of equal distribution, rural sociologist El Nour said, adding that the issue tends to be overlooked in the government’s narrative.
And while Cairo cites rising global temperatures, shore erosion, and the melting of glaciers as key challenges to securing enough water for its booming population, it also points to Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia has been under construction since 2011. Ethiopia started to fill the reservoir behind the dam in 2020, and it remains a major point of tension between the two countries.
Ethiopia completed the third phase of filling in August, which Egypt has rejected as “unilateral action.”
Ethiopia said it has taken into consideration Egypt and Sudan’s needs when constructing and operating the dam. But it is seen by Egypt and Sudan as an existential threat to their limited water supply.
State media reported last year that the New Capital plans to use water treatment plants to supply the Green River project, rather than fresh water from the Nile.
But analysts are skeptical about both the source of water used and the sustainability of the project itself.
“There is a logical question that needs to be asked: How are these water treatment plants operational in a city that is not yet inhabited?” said El Nour, who studies water use in agriculture.
In a 2018 interview with Sky News Arabia, spokesman Khaled El-Husseiny said two pumping stations would transfer fresh water from the Nile to the New Capital, adding that the New Capital currently relies on those stations and that they were completed “to a large extent.”
Each station is designed to pump around 125,000 cubic meters of Nile water per day, El-Husseiny told Sky News Arabiya.
Given that the pumping stations are the only water source that “we are sure have reached the New Capital,” El Nour raises the question whether fresh water rather than treated wastewater could be being used for the Green River project.
Despite reaching out to Egyptian authorities, CNN has not been able to verify the sources of water used for the Green River project. El-Husseiny, the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, and the government’s foreign press center did not respond to repeated requests for information.
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry insists Egyptians “are not complaining of the government’s management and its provision of their needs.”
Speaking to CNN’s Becky Anderson on the sidelines of the COP27 summit on Monday, Shoukry stressed that issues of water scarcity and water security are paramount in this year’s talks, and that his government has spent large amounts of money on water conservation initiatives that assure fair and equal distribution.
“With regards to what Egypt is doing, it never seems to meet the approval of some,” Shoukry added. “If we do not create new cities for our people that are growing at a very large rate and alternative dwellings, then we are deficient; but if we do, then we are squandering,” he said.
“We wish we could do more,” he told CNN, “But we do so within the resources [available] and we direct our resources toward the benefit of our people.”
Water scarcity is a global issue and not one particular to Egypt, said Nabeel Elhady, a professor at Cairo University who has been studying the country’s water challenges for several years. But the lack of transparency with regards to data collection and data sharing in Egypt makes it difficult for water experts to assess both the extent and root causes of water scarcity in the country, he added.
“We need to of course know more, but I imagine that the authorities are worried because this information can sometimes make it seem like they are not doing enough on their end,” Elhady told CNN.
Better access to information would, however, help both authorities and experts improve solutions to the problem, he said.
Egypt’s megaprojects in the desert may put further strain on already scarce resources, analysts say.
It has been building new cities for decades, with multiple generations of new urban projects expanding far into the desert surrounding Cairo. Egypt’s New Capital is the latest of these projects, and one of the largest.
“This is a central problem, and water is at the heart of it,” said Elhady.
The arid ecosystem that currently exists in Egypt is not designed to be filled with lakes and gardens, he said, adding that “creating artificial life and transferring water to it is 100% unsustainable.”
Like much of the world, Egypt is also struggling to cope with the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, on which it is normally heavily reliant for grain imports. The IMF confirmed a $3 billion loan to Egypt just last month, as authorities seek to keep the economy afloat amid a fall in the value of its currency and soaring inflation. But even before this latest loan, Egypt already owed more than $52 billion to different “multilateral institutions,” according to a 2022 Central Bank report, with close to half of that borrowed from the IMF.
But while authorities are warning of water scarcity and economic challenges brought on by the war in Ukraine, megaprojects deemed unnecessary by some are in full swing.
“The contradiction is really extremely clear and very strange to listen to as well,” said Maged Mandour, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For al-Sisi, water scarcity is a top priority that needs to be addressed at the COP27 summit and “a matter of national security” for his country.
But at the same time, the New Administrative Capital – a hallmark of the legacy he aims to leave behind – is accused of squandering the very resource he is battling to protect.
Analysts disagree about what the climate summit can do to address this apparent contradiction.
Mandour sees the COP 27 summit as a way for the government to “greenwash” its climate change record and continue with its prized megaprojects, despite the outcry.
“It is clear greenwashing,” he told CNN. “There is no avenue for a discussion about this.”
Others view the conference as a chance for Egypt to look inward, to speak openly about its shortcomings and find solutions through negotiations with both the local and international community.
“I see COP27 as an opportunity for the environmental issues that are generally silenced to be discussed,” said El Nour.
CNN has repeatedly reached out to Wael Aboulmagd, Egypt’s special representative of COP27, about whether these issues will be brought to the discussion table during the summit. Like many other officials, Aboulmagd did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Addressing world leaders at the climate summit on Sunday, al-Sisi stressed that funding is needed to support developing countries who “today are suffering more than others from the consequences of these [climate change] crises,” especially on the African continent. He also called on leaders to come together and make this “the summit of implementation.”
“We are running out of time,” he said, “Only a few years are left in this crucial decade, and we must take advantage of them.”
For those who depend for their lives and livelihood on the dwindling waters of the Nile, the stakes could not be higher.