Fishermen on the Nile River. Egypt depends on the river for over 80 percent of its water needs. (Photo: Walwyn / Flickr)
Cairo - The midday sun punishes a group of veiled women as they wait in line to fill their buckets and jerrycans. They have travelled on foot to a rusty tap on the outskirts of Cairo that gushes irrigation water never intended for human consumption.
"We'll boil it when we get home," says one woman, positioning a blue jerrycan on her head.
Water shortages, aggravated by intense summer heat and recurring power outages, have forced millions of Egyptians to scavenge for water in recent months. Experts say Egypt's limited water resources have been stretched, making the supply of water vulnerable to failing infrastructure and misguided domestic water policies.
"Unless Egypt is able to resolve its supply-side issues, we can only expect to see more water shortages in the future," says Sherif Azer, a water rights researcher.
Egypt depends on the Nile River for over 80 percent of its water needs. With little opportunity to increase its freshwater resources, the desert country has fought to preserve the Nile water quota it was allotted under treaties signed more than five decades ago.
Speaking to the press earlier this month, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said rapid population growth and inelastic water resources were driving Egypt further into water scarcity.
"Our Nile water quota of 55.5 billion cubic metres a year was sufficient for Egypt's 1959 population of 24 million," he said. "But today the national population stands at 80 million."
Annual per capita water consumption has fallen from 1,900 cubic metres in 1959 to around 700 cubic metres today -- well below the recognised 1,000 cubic metre water scarcity threshold. The rate is projected to slip below the critical 500 cubic metres within a decade.
Rights groups say as water scarcity worsens it is becoming increasingly clear that the state's priority is on securing the supply of water to influential people and their economic interests. Small farms and impoverished communities are given negligible water shares or kept off the grid entirely.
"The government decides who gets water and who doesn't -- and it tends to play favourites," says Reham Karam, programme director of the Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development, an NGO that works to improve living conditions in rural communities. "Poorer governorates and people are the first to have had their water allocations reduced."
A report by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) released last December identified glaring inequities in the distribution of water, particularly between urban and rural areas. Some 56 percent of Egyptian villages have inadequate water supplies, while six percent have no drinking water, the report said.
"We see more problems during the hot summer months when demand for water increases," EOHR chairman Hafez Abu Seada told IPS. "Last year, for instance, water was diverted to coastal resorts in northern Egypt so that rich people could enjoy the beach. Meanwhile, the villages behind these resorts were completely cut off and the people living there had no water to drink or to irrigate their fields."
But it is not enough simply to have water. The Nile serves both as Egypt's water source, and its sewer, absorbing nearly 20 million tonnes of organic and industrial contaminants a year. The EOHR report noted that due to insufficient water treatment facilities, half the population must drink from sewage- tainted water.
Sewage is also used to irrigate thousands of hectares of farmland in water- deprived areas.
"When farmers can't find water they pump sewage onto their fields," says Mohamed Abdel Moneim, an irrigation specialist. "But sometimes even the sewers run dry."
In July, farmers from southern Egypt travelled to Cairo to protest in front of government offices about chronic water shortages that have destroyed their crops. Small farmers in Fayoum, 130 kilometres southwest of Cairo, have complained that it is impossible to get irrigation water without bribes or political connections. Similar protests have erupted in almost every governorate.
"Wealthy landowners illegally pump water from aquifers and use their connections with local authorities to take a disproportionate share of irrigation water," Abdel Moneim explains.
Marginalised citizens complain of growing disparities between the haves and have-nots. Golf courses and well-watered gated communities carved out of desert land lie just beyond low-income districts where women and children queue at public water distribution points.
"If a pipe bursts in (upscale neighbourhoods like) Maadi or Zamalek, it's fixed the same day," says Mohamed Farrag, a shopkeeper in a low-income Cairo district. "When pipes burst here we go a week without water. Officials consider it a blessing -- an opportunity to sell our water share to one of their cronies."
Water costs are negligible to the rich but are a burden on the poor, says Karam. Limited-income families deprived of running water must dig wells or pay for water deliveries. Local officials are able to extort bribes from small farmers desperate to keep their crops from withering.
"It is the poor who pay the highest price for water," she adds.
This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service, and IFEJ - the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.