The Empty Half of the Cup

Loay Hisham and Moataz Sayed


I suffer a lot in my efforts to obtain water. We bear the costs in full because if we didn’t, we would never get water. I can no longer bear this! If you go into people’s homes here, you would wonder how anyone lives in these places!

The families of Najah Ihsan and Abu Al-Ola are two Egyptian families that are representative of around one million and 180,000 Egyptians who do not have a supply of drinking water. Their struggle to get a single cup of water continues. Although it is easily attainable, water is still very scarce. In this investigation, we will examine the scandalous waste in the Egyptian water supply system..

By using open source data, the investigators document how the mismanagement of drinking water facilities in Egypt has led to a decline in the share of water for each individual. They also illustrate how this has led to a rise in the percentage of the population that is deprived of water or has minimal access to it.

Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of the population that had access to drinking water for 24 steady hours was constant at an approximate rate of 95%. However, the percentage of the population without access to this key utility increased threefold during that same period. The figure used to be 380,000 people in 2014, that is 0.41% of the population and rose to one million and 180,000 or 1.2% of the population. This marks an increase of 800,000 people, according to the annual report of the Egyptian Drinking Water Regulatory Agency.

Sherif Abu Al-Ola from the Nagaa Salem district is one of those people who did not receive this utility, so he was forced to get water from one of his neighbors on a daily basis. Despite this, the water was not sufficient for his family of eight. As for the quality, he says, “The water we drink is of the same quality as the water we give to livestock, but what are we going to do about it? It’s all in the hands of God!”

The population and types of water services

Large quantities of water are wasted during the distribution process due to loss through the supply networks. The average annual loss reaches 3 out of every 10 liters produced by the stations. As a result, the share of drinking water per capita per year decreased from 86 cubic meters in 2011 to 63 cubic meters in 2018, with a reduction in the rate by nearly a quarter.

To determine why this is we traced the journey that drinking water makes, starting with its source and annual reserves, through the process of transportation, desalination and distribution. We conclude with an examination of the state’s expenditure on this facility. It was revealed that there were deficiencies at every stage and this was the cause of the decline in the share of water per capita. It also highlighted the reason for the discrepancy in the share between individuals and communities in different governorates.

The percentage of drinking water is constant, but the numbers of those deprived of the service are on the rise

Egypt’s water resources come from the River Nile with 7 out of every 10 liters of water coming from the river. Approximately 2 liters come from the reuse of wastewater while the remaining liter is derived from groundwater and rainwater. This is according to the 2019 report published by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation on water resources. The total of these resources reached more than 80 billion cubic meters in 2019, compared to approximately 74 billion cubic meters in 2011.

Despite this increase, the percentage of drinking water out of total usage has remained almost constant in recent years at 13 per 100 liters. At the same time, water use in industry increased three and a half times since 2015 to reach 7 per 100 liters, instead of only two liters previously.

Najah Ahmad is a teacher who lives in the village of Ash Shawriyyah in the Nagaa Hammadi district in Qena. She says, “Our village is supplied by water pipes coming from a neighboring village, but the water is either weak or intermittent. The pipe fittings are old and some of them are made of iron. This has worn out over time, leaving some residue in the water.”

She adds, “We have a motor to pump the water up because without that, it would not reach us at all. We also put a large tank on the roof of the house, and it must be filled every day.”

Najah belittles her suffering compared to the situation of her sister who “suffers more because her house is on the second floor. In the summer, she gets water from distant spots filling jerrycans and carrying them all the way up”.

She continues, “Some women cannot carry jerrycans or buckets, so they put them in wheelbarrows that are used to transport bricks. I often suffer like them in the search for water because the tanks empty quickly, and sometimes the motor cannot pump the water. We buy empty barrels and fill them with water and allocate one or two to the bathroom and the same amount to drinking. Most women suffer from back pain as a result of carrying jerrycans for long distances.”

Nadia Ehsan* has devoted her life to helping those who do not receive water regularly through a charity association in Qena. She says she does this because “many villages do not get water, and there are villages that drink salty water. We are trying to support some through desalination plants.”

Recently, her association succeeded in connecting 150 water pipe fittings in the district of Nagaa Hammadi and in Al-Marashda.

Despite the positive side of the work of Nadia’s association, people also suffer because of other issues, for she says, “water is not the only problem but is one of many problems. If you go into people’s homes, you wonder how they are living. It tires me out, and my nerves can’t take it anymore! What do we know about these people?” Nadia’s voice is both angry and sad.

Pictures of installing water fittings

Loss through the water supply network

Before water reaches the consumer, it is processed by various types of water plants, including surface water, wells and desalination plants. However, the amount available to the consumer is less than the amount produced by these plants. This is due to loss of water through the supply networks.

Loss of water is one of the main reasons behind the waste of drinking water. The annual rate of loss exceeded 2,600 million cubic meters between 2014 and 2018. This means that there are more than 3 liters wasted for every 10 liters produced by all the various water stations.

Ahmad Ridha, the media officer of the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater, explains the reasons for the loss being due to two reasons, “There is natural loss due to the laws of physics as a result of network washing operations, and this is a recognized percentage. Water loss also happens as a result of broken pipes, and the company is working hard to find ways to deal with these. Some water is lost because of violations in using networks as is the case with buildings that violate codes. There are campaigns to target these infringements and to issue immediate reports of violations.”

With the rise in the amount of drinking water to 731 million cubic meters per year, every extra liter of water that is produced means a loss of 3 liters. This means that there are no tangible benefits from this small increase.

The percentage of water loss through supply networks has been increasing over the years; it used to be around a quarter of the total amount of water produced in 2011 but has become more than a third (34%) in 2018, according to the Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics.

Dia’a Al-Qoosi, water expert and advisor to the former Minister of Irrigation says, “In Japan, the loss reaches only 5%. If the strainers funneling towards the purification plants are efficient, they would not allow a lot of residue to permeate and then clog the filters. Additionally, if malfunctions, even in the case of new pipes, were addressed immediately, water loss would decrease. The supply networks, valves and flushing gates must all be renewed periodically.”

One study indicates that the economically acceptable level of water loss ranges between 5% to 10% depending on the source of water. In his response via email, Vice President of the Middle East Water Forum, Hassan Abul Naja expresses his view that the acceptable rate in Egypt should be less than 20%.

The media officer of the Holding Company justifies the loss as follows, “The company takes measures to reduce loss all the time. There are leak detection programs, such as the district metered area (DMA), which zooms in on a specific area and follows standard measures to reduce the loss. First, we make sure that meters are installed and that additional problems in the networks are handled. This procedure has been followed in many areas and produced very good results that greatly contributed to reducing water waste.”

Cairo and Alexandria experience the highest loss

In 2018, the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said topped the list of water loss through water supply networks. Each governorate loses approximately 64 liters out of every 100 liters it produces. This is multiple times the loss in 2011. Cairo lost 17 liters for every 100 liters it produced, while Alexandria lost 35 liters, and Port Said lost only 11 liters.

Al-Qoosi attributes the huge losses in the governorates of Cairo and Alexandria to the geographical nature of the two governorates. The terrain leaves them with the longest network of pipes and worsens the crisis in the event of a breakage or explosion. She gave an example, “If we compare the lengths of the networks between Cairo and the Oases, for example, the lengths in the capital are 35 times longer.”

Water stations: the source of the crisis

There are various types of water stations including surface water stations, wells and desalination stations. The total number of these indicates that during the above mentioned seven years, the number of stations increased annually by an average of 44 stations, but dividing them by the type of water shows a different reading.

The Nile water forms the largest source of surface water. In 2011, the total number of surface water stations of the Nile amounted to more than two thousand, but this number dropped to less than half in 2018. According to data revealed by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, more than 1,100 stations gradually disappeared during this time period at a rate of 161 stations annually.

Despite the significance of the numbers, the media officer of the Holding Company for Drinking Water refused to acknowledge the problem and stated, “Stations are in service all the time; the situation is not the other way around. No station goes out of service; rather, some stations undergo improvement. Surface water stations especially do not decrease in number, but this may happen in the case of private aquifers if the level of salinity in the water increases. This is done after a permit from the Ministry of Health.”

Rasha El-Khouli, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Heliopolis University, explained that the decline may have occurred because a number of stations had stopped in order to undergo a process of replacement and renewal. This might include changing the technology used in them or modernizing old production tools.

The situation is different with drilled well pumping stations. The number of stations increased by one tenth, from 1456 stations in 2012 to more than 1,600 stations in 2018, with an average annual increase of 25 stations. Only the number of New Valley stations were available in the 2011 bulletin.

As for desalination plants, they increased by about one station annually, bringing the total in 2018 to 44 stations, compared to 35 in 2011. 2018 was the last year in which the annual bulletin for drinking water and wastewater was issued. According to Ridha, after that “there was a big surge in the number of desalination plants.”

The figures discussed above covers the number of stations of all kinds, but what about their production capacity on the ground?

Each water station has a design capacity that represents its maximum capacity, and an actual capacity that shows their true function on the ground. In 2011, surface water stations showed a significant difference between the two capacities in most governorates, and this brought the average actual capacity overall to 61%, but this difference narrowed in 2018 to become 75%. However, the stations of 14 governorates, that is almost half the number of governorates, operated at less than this average.

These numbers help to focus on the level of production capacity. Ridha says that the design capacity of the stations takes into account future plans. He says, “There is a general plan up until 2030, and it takes the needs of residential areas into account based on expected expansion and the rise in population numbers. Accordingly, the design capacity of the station takes these elements into consideration since we are unable to build stations every day. Therefore, a station is designed with a capacity that can encompass a number of years while actual operation is done according to the current population needs.”

As for the drilled well stations located in 20 governorates, the average operation at actual capacity reached 31% of the design capacity in 2012 and then increased to 50% in 2018. Eight governorates worked at less than this percentage with Matrouh and Qena using the least of their capacity. These governorates worked with only 5% and 7% of their design capacity. The governorates of Upper Egypt form half, that is, 5 of the 10 governorates that are at the lower end of the scale. Dakahlia was the only governorate that surpassed 90% operation rate, a figure that was attained by Beni Suef right behind Dakahlia in ranking, followed by North and South Sinai.

Ihsan, who is in charge of the charity association in Qena, says that people sometimes resort to pumping up water on a private initiative, even though it is “salty water of poor quality. Therefore, we try to provide desalination plants all the time, so that they can drink that water and use well water for other needs.”

Rida explains, “We strive to improve the amount of water produced in terms of quantity and quality at all times. If there is an opportunity to serve an area with drilled well stations, we do that. Sometimes, if surface stations enter into service and can cover the designated areas with groundwater, then we close the wells and content ourselves with surface water.”

Pictures of the purification plant
Photo of the pump

Decreasing production leads to a decline in shares

Data indicate that the total amount of water produced between 2011 and 2018 did not witness a major development in terms of quantity; it experienced slight increases and decreases from year to year. However, a comparison between the first and the last years shows that for every 100 liters produced in 2011, 98 liters were produced in 2018. This is not commensurate with the continuous increase in population numbers; hence, there is a need to produce more and not less quantity.

Accordingly, the share per capita decreased from 110 cubic meters per year in 2011 to 89 cubic meters per year in 2018, that is a decrease by one fifth. The total amount of water produced in 2018 reached more than 8700 million cubic meters. The governorates of Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Dakahlia produced about half of this quantity at 48% while the remaining twenty-four governorates produced the other half.

The share of the water produced per capita varies greatly in governorates. In South Sinai, the share per capita was 28 times greater than that in Port Said and 14 times more than in Suez. These two are the two governorates with the lowest share of the product per capita, followed by Qalyubiyya, Minya, Sohag, Monufia, Asyut and Beni Suef and Qena. Naturally, this has affected the consumption of water. Comparing the two years of 2011 and 2018 reveals that for every 100 liters consumed in 2011, 88 were consumed in 2018, marking a decrease of 12%. In this way, the share per capita decreased by about a quarter, dropping from 86 cubic meters per year in 2011 to 63 cubic meters in 2018. The average daily consumption per capita of 239 liters in 2011 decreased to 175 liters in 2018.

Rasha El-Khouli explains the sizable disparity between governorates and says, “It is not due to one factor but to several factors that are subject, for example, to social and living standards. These result in the difference in the volume of consumption.”

Al-Qoosi, on the other hand, believes that raising awareness about the need to ration consumption is essential. She explains, “If only one faucet leaks water, it wastes 3 cubic meters in a year. If we assume that we have more than 10 million housing units with nearly 50 million leaking faucets, it means that 150 million cubic meters per year are wasted. Wasting dirty water is a mistake, but wasting clean water is a sin.”

The comparison between the consumed quantity in 2011 and that consumed in 2018 shows that only about 8 governorates experienced an increase per capita, and most of these were a small percentage.

Ihsan cites an example of the dire situation of a particular village and its access to water, she explains, “A village called Hindi only receives water through tanks belonging to the government. These are brought by tanker trucks every 10 or 15 days when people fill up jerrycans and then wait for the vehicles to pass again.”
Photo of children filling water from tanker trucks

State spending on maintenance is low priority

Drinking water utility is under the wing of the Ministry of Housing and Population. The Executive Body and the National Authority for Potable Water and Sewage are responsible for offering, awarding, financing and supervising drinking water projects. The first entity is concerned with the governorates of Greater Cairo and Alexandria while the second is in charge of the remaining governorates. In the state’s general budget from 2010 to 2020, the total expenditure on water supply amounted to more than 94 billion pounds, that is, more than 9 billion per year. The National Authority’s share of this was about two-thirds. According to the budget figures from the fiscal year 2017-2018, the amount of 9 billion dollars represents three quarters of the state’s public spending on the facility.

Costs cover wages for workers, grants and benefits in kind, and the purchase of goods and services. The share of maintenance expenditure came to an average of nearly 70 million pounds per year. This means that for every 100 million of expenditure, less than one million is designated for maintenance. Although the National Authority’s expenditure is double that spent by the Executive Body, the difference wa very great in terms of maintenance. For every 100 million the Executive Body spends on maintenance, the National Authority spends only one million, although it is in charge of 23 governorates, compared to only the four governorates under the Executive Body.

On the other hand, the organizations do not achieve any financial surpluses; rather, they suffer from a large deficit between expenditure and revenue.

What about the Holding Company that is primarily responsible for operating and maintaining the stations?

The average total costs in the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater cost more than 6 billion pounds annually, and this includes expenditure and other items. An average of 400 million pounds is spent on service supplies, including maintenance among other elements, according to the Annual Bulletin for Economic and Statistical Indicators for Public Enterprise and Public Sector Companies. This bulletin is issued by the Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics.

Therefore, for every 100 million the company spends out of “total uses,” only 6 million is allocated for service supplies, that is less than one-tenth. Calculating this percentage from the “total production costs” means that for every 100 million pounds, there is a total of 15 million pounds of service requirements. This is less than one-fifth the amount that was spent between 2008 and 2016.

The company’s media officer states, “The sums allocated for maintenance go entirely towards that. There are operating requirements, such as electricity, chlorine and alum. Sanitation plants need chemicals for treatment. All these sums are continuously monitored by the Central Auditing Organization.”

He stresses, “These amounts are not assigned randomly, but according to the general plan that determines the number of stations and networks and their cost in each governorate. They are also updated in five-year plans in addition to an annual plan on the basis of which budgets are approved. There are mechanisms for determining all this.” However, the 2017-2018 report of the Egypt Water, Sanitation and Consumer Protection Agency highlights the financial challenges that have affected the size of the funding required for maintenance and operation. These challenges limited the ability to improve performance. There are also technical challenges such as “the inefficiency of the replacement and renewal programs, the weak periodic maintenance programs and the lack of technical expertise. All these have led to a high rate of water loss, irregularity in service, low water quality, and the inability to extend drinking water and sanitation services to the deprived and poor areas.”

The water problem remains a nightmare in the lives of millions of Egyptians. The solution lies in executive and practical steps that need to be taken in the processes of transport, desalination and maintenance of water facilities that would limit the loss of water.

*Nadia Ihsan is a pseudonym