How Egypt Can Depollute its Vital River Nile
by Tarek Erfan Shafey
We investigate Egypt’s Nilewater pollution problem which, though serious and seemingly intractable, can and must be successfully resolved for the country’s long-term livelihood. Many other countries share the challenge of serious riverine pollution, and ideas successful in Egypt are widely applicable elsewhere. The situation is expected to worsen with Ethiopia now withholding Blue Nile water as it fills its largely-completed vast hydropower dam there, and it is hoped that the dispute is settled peacefully, fairly and satisfactorily for Egypt. This will require a formal, win-win and binding treaty, reducing the dam’s capacity, prolonging its filling duration, limiting its use to hydropower, with no more Nilewater dams by Ethiopia. That country needs energy, infrastructure and export enhancement, so Egypt can provide exports of natural gas and light oil fuels such as gasoline, jet fuel, diesel, liquid petroleum gas to help refrigerate and transport Ethiopia’s agricultural exports, electric power interconnection, road, railway and riverine trade and transport links, technical expertise in the electricity sector, and favourable Suez Canal shipping rates. We discuss the Nile’s current pollutants, their economic and public health harm, and how best to tackle each of them.
Nile Pollution Today
The most serious pollutants are the untreated industrial liquid effluent and solid waste and the untreated sewage effluent. Nearly 700 factories dump 1 km3(cubic kilometer)/year of untreated waste effluent along the Nile’s length in Egypt. Solid industrial waste totals about 7.5 million tons, with 600,000 of them considered hazardous, and much of it is dumped into the Nile. It is not just the heavy industries such as cement, engineering chemical and metals industries that pollute. From the textile and leather factories to the north of Cairo and due to inadequate sewage, chromium, ammonia and other toxic chemicals seep into the soil and flow into the Nile. Industrial and sewage pollution have given the Nilewater chronically elevated and dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals such as iron, zinc, lead, cadmium, arsenic, cyanide, nickel and phenol. Some urban homes and a majority of rural homes are unconnected to sewage systems, so their wastewater spills into the soil and Nile canals. Nearly 3 km3 (or 3 Billion cubic meters)/year of wastewater is untreated in Egypt, all of which causes great public health harm as outlined below.
Ninety irrigation canals along the Nile basin drain 24 km3/year of water. This water is entirely untreated and, due to the Egyptian agriculture sector’s over-reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is saline, high in farm animal fecal bacteria and health-harming chemicals such as the also foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide. Northern Egypt’s Mediterranean-bordering lakes and the Rashid Nile branch are the worst polluted. Eight km3/year of drainage water is either dumped untreated into the Nile or mixed with freshwater and wastewater, or used in irrigation.
The result is that much of Egypt’s freshwater fish is unfit for human consumption, and much agricultural produce is irrigated by polluted water. Egypt also generates very high levels of agricultural waste (such as rice straw and hulls, corn and cotton stalks), animal waste and dead animals and municipal, non-reusable organic waste such as food and human waste and sewage sludge. Much of Egypt’s decomposable organic waste reaches the Nile, is open-dumped or left to rot, with negative crop performance and public health effects. The three types of organic waste (totaling 60 million tons/year) present both a challenge and special opportunity for Egypt as seen below. Egypt is not dealing well with its organic waste or producing enough compost (organic matter decomposed and recycled as fertilizers and natural pesticides) or organic fertilizers for the country’s important and labor-intensive agriculture sector.
Non-organic solid waste rounds out the list of main Nile pollutants. Yearly totals, some of which reach the Nile, include 13 million tons of paper, plastics, metals, glass, wood, tires, medical waste and other miscellaneous items, 5 million tons of construction and demolition waste and 160,000 tons of oil waste. The public health and economic effects of all the pollutants above are devastating. Every year there are about 120,000 new cancer diagnoses nationwide, 18,000 new kidney failure cases, 20,000 child deaths from contaminated water, and persistently high renal failure, liver poisoning and infant mortality rates. Water purification has become very difficult and insufficient, including for the national and dilapidated home tap water network. Purification and waterborne disease treatment cost Egypt a staggering 10% of its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). More striking still is the conclusion by multiple studies that every monetary amount spent in preventing Nilewater pollution saves eight times its worth in disease prevention, public health and enhanced production benefits. It bears mention that while private water treatment, purification and bottling investments should be encouraged, the national tap water network needs modernization, with the national distribution company becoming a private-sector monopoly charged with providing healthy, reliable and affordable water to Egypt’s average citizens, and strictly regulated for consumer protection.
The present and deteriorating situation is clearly unacceptable and unsustainable, and Nilewater quality needs to become a top policy priority, with no effort or resources spared to overcome the existing hurdles. To start, there is a lack of official coordination. Six government entities, most importantly the Ministries of Irrigation (MoI), Agriculture (MoA), and the Environment (MoE) are responsible for Nilewater, but among the ministries in effect only the MoE is charged with monitoring and improving its quality, as the MoI narrowly focuses on boosting Nilewater availability for irrigation and the MoA just as narrowly focuses on boosting agricultural output, and both disregard water quality. With multiple entities involved, policy inertia and conflict result. Moreover, there is a lack of adequate and reliable data on Nilewater quality and pollution. A Supreme Council for the Nilewater is needed, encompassing all six entities and chaired by the Prime Minister, to set comprehensive and binding Nilewater quality policies, as are adequate resources, data and collaboration with international countries and organizations willing and able to help Egypt. For best results Nilewater pollution needs to be tackled with an integrated strategy that also targets each individual pollution cause.
The challenge is formidable. Many Egyptians use Nilewater to drink, irrigate agricultural fields, bathe, wash their farm animals, clean clothes, wash pots and dishes, dispose of rubbish, sewage and dead animals. There is a widespread and misguided belief among people and even some state officials that the running Nilewater is somehow capable of cleaning itself of all pollution. Those wrong beliefs and practices further pollute the Nile and spread diseases. Public awareness campaigns, along with stiffer fines and stricter enforcement for both individual and institutional polluters, are needed. The MoE has made efforts to combat industrial pollution and has threatened to close polluting factories. Real enforcement is needed for this deterrent to be effective, including closing a number of public sector factories which are generally the worst polluters. Closed factories would be charged for laid-off worker compensation, re-training, support and placement, which would be a far lesser evil than the current, widespread human death and suffering, mostly by low-income citizens. However, real and strict enforcement can be expected to lead to swift and vastly improved compliance.
We start with the liquid effluent of ready-made garments factories, where garment dyes are very polluting and costly to clean. This is an important area where attention is needed, as Egypt plans to greatly expand this industrial sub-sector. Here, much pollution and costs can be saved by adopting a very clean and cost-efficient garment dyeing technique via carbon dioxide gas (CO2), recently invented in the Netherlands. Moving on to water treatment and purification plants, Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) foreign partner investments are needed to cover all remaining Egyptian needs, with waste generators required to pay treatment costs. Regarding agricultural drainage water treatment, this can be performed efficiently by low-cost, state-built, local water plants funded by grants and favorable-term loans from friendly regional and international donor countries and donor organizations. As mentioned above, Egypt’s organic waste presents a special opportunity. Credible and reliable estimates indicate that about 80% of Egypt’s organic, agricultural and animal waste (about 48 million tons/year in 2019) is not processed or utilized, but rather continues to be dumped into the Nile, burnt, open-dumped, or left to rot or exposed to crop-attacking pests.
The best solution to Egypt’s voluminous organic waste is a special-factory process of oxygen-free heat treatment (“anaerobic digestion”) that decomposes the waste into methane, CO2 and hydrogen sulphide (H2S) gases, wastewater and solid digestate residue. The digestate is oxidized into top-quality compost, with the heat having killed all harmful bacteria. Wastewater is treated and reused in irrigation, H2S is oxidized into safe sulphur plus water, and CO2 is usable as a cooling agent. Methane is burnt to produce gas fuel (“biogas”) in cement factories, for home cooking and heating and water boilers, or enriched to bio-methane which is a very good natural gas substitute for power generation and industry. Anaerobic digestion would yield 17 Billion tons/year of top-quality compost plus biogas equivalent to 0.72 trillion cubic feet/year of natural gas, each of which represents 35% of total consumption and would together transform Egypt’s energy, industrial and agriculture sectors and with it the Egyptian economy. Finally, biogas investments are job-intensive and hence well-suited to Egypt; a developing country high in unemployment and number of lower-skilled workers.
Plastic waste is both a chronic problem and a great opportunity. To prevent plastic waste, single-use plastics, those with substitutes and non-recyclable “thermoset” need to be banned, and only the recyclable “thermoplast” plastics allowed. Products from natural substitutes; most importantly shopping bags, food containers and water bottles made of the abundant rice husk, need to be encouraged, while plastic waste can technically and cost-efficiently be used to make environment-friendly, inexpensive, fire-resistant pressed bricks to construct schools and other non-housing buildings, and as an important element to help pave smooth, less costly, fire-safe, very weather-resistant and very durable roads.
Regarding non-organic solid and oil waste, a comprehensive and binding Solid Waste Management Law is needed. The law’s two most important objectives would be: 1) Requiring the waste producer to pay for its cleanup, and 2) Mandating a strict, guiding waste hierarchy: prevention, re-use, recycling, other recovery operations, and safe, environmentally-sound disposal. Punitive fines and stricter enforcement are needed against Nile polluters, while reuse and recycling need to be strongly encouraged. Investments in recycling business firms need to be attracted. Most of the non-organic waste, such as paper, plastics, wood, glass and metals, is readily recyclable, while the rest (about 15%) can be sorted, identified and either reused, safely buried, or safely incinerated via specialized plants in uninhabited desert areas.
Regarding waste management in general, Egypt’s private sector lacks the scale, resources and long-term commitment to manage waste sustainably and efficiently, which is why the state needs to take over. Every effort is needed to make potable water and home sewage systems universally available, including in the badly under-served rural southern Egypt. Economic equity and social justice are also economically efficient goals and merit high national policy priority. Effective awareness campaigns, good facilities, financial incentives and penalties for non-compliers are needed for all homes to sort their waste: into bags and containers for organic material, plastic, paper/wood, and metals. To sum up, Nilewater pollution is serious and needs firm and urgent action. To many people, pollution would appear beyond repair, but it is in fact reversible, as previously done successfully by many countries. Success in this endeavor is at once the Egyptian state and people’s great economic challenge, opportunity and solemn duty towards future generations of Egyptians.