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Egypt's farmers desperate for clean water

By Shahira Amin for CNN
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Egypt's farms running dry
  • Egypt has dropped below the official water poverty line
  • Farmers are struggling to water crops in Fayoum, once a lush oasis
  • In Abul Nour, some farmers water crops with untreated sewage
  • Authorities are trying new irrigation methods, water recycling and education

Fayoum, Egypt (CNN) -- In Egypt, water is so scarce some farmers are forced to use untreated sewage to irrigate their crops. Now, the government is trying to tackle problem by modernizing irrigation and teaching farmers to conserve water.

Salah Abdel Halim, an Egyptian farmer, is one of those affected by the water shortage.

He lives in the rural community of Tamiya, in Fayoum, 70 kilometers southwest of Cairo. It used to be a lush oasis, but is slowly being swallowed by the surrounding desert.

Halim grows maize, sugar beet and alfalfa on his feddan -- slightly less than half a hectare -- and earns barely enough to feed his family of six.

There is not enough fresh water for irrigation in the main canal so, like other local farmers, he relies on agricultural waste water blended with fresh water at a nearby plant.

"The water we receive for irrigation is a mere trickle," Halim told CNN. "It's freshwater mixed with drainage waste water."

Egypt, with its 80-million population, is below the UN's water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year.

Fifty years ago, the country had 2,100 cubic meters of water per capita annually; now it has less than 800 cubic meters. The world average is more than 7,000 cubic meters, according to the UN.

Officials say population growth and sprawling urbanization are taking their toll.

I used to leave the tap water running ... I've now learnt to save every single drop.
--Faiza, farmer in Fayoum, Egypt

Tens of thousands of people took to Egypt's streets this summer to protest against water shortages, according to IRIN, the news service for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

For Halim, irrigation water is free, but he has to pay around £100 Egyptian ($20) a month for the maintenance and running of the pumps.

Local landowners and tenants have to wait their turn for water, which comes once every 10 to 15 days, if they are lucky.

Halim says the high salinity of the water is affecting soil fertility and, in extreme cases, causing the loss of agricultural land altogether.

But it's still better than what some farmers in the nearby village of Abul Nour have to do. They use untreated sewage to rescue their dying crops, at enormous health risks to the community and their thirsty animals.

The scarcity is driving many farmers to abandon their fields and seek more stable livelihoods elsewhere.

Those who have opted to stay are looking for new solutions.

Many have become members of water-user associations, groups that place farmers in state-sponsored water management projects.

The projects help farmers dig their own irrigation canals and educate them in water conservation.

"I used to leave the tap water running," said Faiza, a local farmer. "But that was before I attended these classes. I've now learnt to save every single drop."

Until now, modern water-saving methods such as drip irrigation and sprinklers have been reserved for reclaimed desert land because they are so costly.

Kamal Taha, of Fayoum Irrigation Directorate, said: "The water networks -- whether for drinking or irrigation -- are very old and in bad in need of maintenance and repair. We are now in the process of renewing them and we are also modernizing irrigation methods."

The government is trying to address its shortages using a combination of new technologies, water recycling and changing attitudes to encourage more cooperation and understanding.

Dia El Qousy, an adviser to the Ministry of Irrigation, said, "What Egypt is trying to do now is to convert vegetable fields and orchards in the Nile Valley and Delta from the conventional service irrigation into modern irrigation.

"We are starting with an area of about 700,000 feddans and this will save an extra amount of water.

"Everybody wants water and there's no way out as I see it, except with a win-win approach. Everybody has to win because the alternative is a lose-lose approach and this is what nobody would desire."

Catriona Davies contributed to this report