The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged water
A Revolution of the Thirsty

✚ Egypt's Arab Spring: A Revolution of the Thirsty

Great article by Karen Piper in Design Observer on Egypt's water crisis and the disparities in access to clean water between slums, gated communities, and everyone in between:

When Tahrir Square erupted in the winter of 2011, the international news media proclaimed a “social media revolution” spurred by pro-democracy Egyptians seeking to overthrow the repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak. To a large extent unreported was the fact that the country was also in a water crisis, having dropped below the globally recognized “water poverty” line of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, down to 700 cubic meters per person. It is no exaggeration to say that the January 25 Revolution was not just a revolution of the disenfranchised; it was also what some have called a “Revolution of the Thirsty.” In a land almost without rain, the Nile River supplies 97 percent of renewable water resources, and these days an increasing share of that water is being directed to the posh suburban compounds — where many of Egypt's political elite lives — to support that "greener side of life." Meanwhile, in the years before the revolution, the state water utilities had dramatically hiked rates for residents in downtown Cairo, where some 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

All of this stems from the policy to develop exurbs  — and especially gated communities based around golf courses — that began in the 1990s, with the state subsidizing the cost of bringing water to the new developments while neglecting existing settlements. These new communities, almost always developed in the desert, often advertised themselves as green areas away from the dusty town centers. 

All the while, as water was flowing and taxpayer money shifting to the exurban oases, millions of residents of old Cairo struggled with little access to sanitary facilities. The ostentatious water wealth that made possible the "greener side of life" was becoming a symbol of government corruption. The Revolution of the Thirsty was gathering strength.

Banking the Nile

Dan Morrison, writing for the National Geographic blog, considers Egypt's dispute with upstream Nile states and argues for Uganda or Ethiopia to become Cairo's "water bankers".

Lake Nasser, the 340-mile-long reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam, holds a whopping 157 billion cubic meters of water. But an estimated 10 billion cubic meters--nine percent of the water that reaches Lake Nasser each year--never makes it to a faucet or an irrigation ditch; it evaporates into the cloudless desert skies of southern Egypt. That's enough drinking water for 20 million Egyptians--a quarter of the population.

Evaporation isn't much of a problem in equatorial Africa, where the White Nile begins, and there's a lot of fertile land as well. Egypt should invest some of its water there, rather than lose it to evaporation in the Sahara.

Looking south for security

Why couldn't northern Uganda, which is returning to life after a two-decade reign of terror by the Lord's Resistance Army, become an important supplier of food to Egypt? The same goes for the southern region of Sudan, which is almost entirely undeveloped and is also staggeringly fertile. Southern Sudan is already the object of an agricultural land grab by foreign investors. Egypt should be pushing to the front of the line.

The mighty Blue Nile begins in the Ethiopian highlands and supplies 59 percent of the Nile's volume. Ethiopia currently leases 300,000 hectares of farmland to an Indian agribusiness, part of an effort to put 3 million hectares under foreign plows by 2013. There is no practical reason Egypt couldn't partner with its ancient adversary to their mutual benefit.

All the Nile basin states need to use their water more efficiently. But the more water that is put to use near the sources of the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, in Uganda, the more water there will be for everyone.

In a sense Egypt is already pursuing that policy. It had invested in farmland in Uganda and southern Sudan, recently even pledging a record $300m in projects there. Part of this is political: Egypt, like everyone else, is anxious about the coming partition of Sudan (and possibly, renewed civil war) and wants to make sure the new state is friendly towards Cairo. But this type of thinking — "importing" water as food after investing in mega-farms — does not fully address the issue, either.

Dan is right to point out the waste of growing certain crops in Egypt:

Water-intensive cash crops like cotton and rice are irrigated using inefficient methods that haven't changed since the days of King Tut. At a time when Egypt has become a net importer of food, it is exporting a great deal of its water in the form of cotton (100,000 tons a year) and rice (600,000 tons).

But the virtual water theory that underpins importing food sidesteps some of the important shifts that are necessary: in the Egyptian context, moving away from cotton (an export commodity for which the Egypt name is a premium brand), moving away from rice (a local diet staple — and an unusually high quality round grain, too), or even moving away from the admittedly silly principle of food autarchy (part of the political lexicon since Nasser at least) are political and socially costly. Also, to be able to import large quantities of food (which Egypt already does — it's the world's biggest wheat importer and even imports a majority of the quintessential Egyptian staple, the fuul bean) it helps to run a trade surplus, which is certainly not the case right now. And you might also want to protect yourself from the vagaries of international food prices, too. 

But the other — and perhaps initial shift needed in Egypt — is that the hysteria over the Nile that is prevalent in the media is largely supported by the government and by the commentariat, which is ready to pounce at any surrendering of the historic water claim of the last century. Does it have an actual basis in science, or has the government trapped itself into a nonsensical discourse over the river because of its sheer stubbornness about changing an international agreement that clearly benefits it? After all, new irrigation projects in which runoff water presumably runs back into the Nile won't change things that much, and nor will hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia won't stop the Nile flowing. It's not like they are planning to divert the river into the Indian Ocean.  

If anyone out there has good material on the actual impact of some of the projects the upstream countries are interested in doing, do leave a comment — I find it hard to find this stuff.

Chutzpahpocalypse Now

I interrupt my blogging hiatus to bring you the most mind-bending headline of the year:

Palestinians stealing water in West Bank


The Israel Defense Forces recently thwarted an attempt made by Palestinians to illegally connect to the Mekorot Israel National Water infrastructure in order to siphon off water from it.

 Soldiers took note of four people trying to connect to the pipes south of Hebron. When the four noticed they had been discovered, they fled the scene and the soldiers followed after them. The soldiers managed to apprehend two of the four men, while the others got away.

Residents of the settlements and villages in Mount Hebron woke up one morning this week only to be disappointed that there was no water in their faucets at home because of the recurring problem of Palestinian water piracy.

Meanwhile, back in Amreeka: Tax-Exempt Funds Aiding West Bank Settlements -

Links for 10.28.09 / Middle East - Wait goes on for Dubai’s £10bn bond | "Where is Dubai’s $10bn bond? The question has been making the rounds in Dubai business circles, as bankers and executives wonder when the emirate will bite the bullet and ask the United Arab Emirates central bank – which is bankrolled by Abu Dhabi – for the second tranche of a $20bn bail-out agreed earlier this year." / China / Economy & Trade - Qatar targets increased gas exports to China | China hydrocarbons imports from ME increase.
Almasry Alyoum | Standing Up To Garbage | Interesting story about garbage collection problem, reveals govt. spending very little, military stepping in with recycling.
Almasry Alyoum | NDP Promotes Gamal Mubarak On Facebook | Facebook users paid LE1500 to promote Gamal.
Brown: Asking the wrong questions about Palestinian elections | Marc Lynch | Makes some good points about elections in the Arab world in general and the Palestinian ones in particular.
Dar Al Hayat - The “Brotherhoodization” of the Arab World | Argues MB arrests only reinforce ideological core of the group and increases its popularity, allowing them to spread their intolerant populist message rather than engage in genuine politics.
Arab winds of change | Brian Whitaker | Comment is free | | Whitaker provides a short take on his new book, which I will be reviewing shortly: the Arab malaise is not just the regimes, but also the people.
The disabled Palestinian standup helping refugees find their funny side | Stage | The Guardian | Very nice story on Palestinian disabled standupcomics: "I am officially the most oppressed person in the world," Maysoon Zayid recently told an audience in California. "I'm a Palestinian Muslim with cerebral palsy."
Israel rations Palestinians to trickle of water | Amnesty International | Amnesty's report on Israel cutting off water to Gaza.
Envisioning an alternative Egypt, post-Mubarak - Haaretz - Israel News | Zvi Barel on Heikal and succession.
bt - Waiting for a Trickle | "The boom, spurred by private and foreign direct investment, has paid off primarily for the country’s richest, according to the new report by the General Authority for Investment (GAFI)."
The Race for Iran | New blog about the geostrategy of Iran, contributors include Flynt and Hillary Everett.
Gaza water supply at 'crisis point' | "Amnesty International says Israeli policies and practices are denying Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip their fair share of the region's scarce water supplies"
Amr Bargisi and Samuel Tadros: Why Are Egypt's Liberals Anti-Semitic? - | WTF is the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth? This argument is stupid, you take the liberals you have, not those you wish you had. And how do these people get into the WSJ op-ed page?
Brother of Afghan Leader Is Said to Be on C.I.A. Payroll - | No wonder Matthew Hoh resigned: "KABUL, Afghanistan — Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, gets regular payments from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has for much of the past eight years, according to current and former American officials."

Links for 08.09.09 to 08.13.09
Moises Naim -- A New Recipe for Autocrats Around The World - | Some good stuff there, but he goes to easy on Mossad and the CIA - they would not be scapegoats if it wasn't sometimes true!
The Groping Elephant in the Room: Sexual Harassment in the Arab World « the long slumber | More from The Long Slumber on sexual harassment in the Arab word - recommended, thought-provoking reading.
شارك - حوار مفتوح لشباب مصر مع جمال مبارك | Tell me this man is not running for president...
Fiji Water: Spin the Bottle | Mother Jones | Nothing to do with the Middle East, but outrageous.
BBC NEWS | Middle East | Frustrated dreams of young Egyptians | Living in the City of the Dead: "I dream of leaving this place. One day we will buy a new home and pretend we have lived there all our lives."
Get Good at Arabic « MediaShack | Good tips on picking up the lingo - this method really works although it means you must be disciplined and dedicated (and have no other job, ideally). Even if it might seem a tiny bit exploitative.
'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: Agha, Malley, and some other ideas | Helena Cobban's critique of the Malley/Agha op-ed, saying it's quite banal. Well yes and no: it's banal because experts and many Israelis and Palestinians have known it for a long time (that it's about 1948), but it's still important to reiterate the point because politicians (in Israel/Palestine, among the two diasporas and among foreigners) still pretend otherwise.
Op-Ed Contributors - The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything - | Malley and Agha say it's all about 1948: "For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel."
Les ministres israéliens divisés sur la libération de Marwan Barghouti - Proche-Orient - Le | Israelis pols split about whether or not to free Marwan Barghouti.
Dar Al Hayat - Ayoon Wa Azan (Why Are Men Allowed to Wear Dresses?) | Jihad al-Khazen suggests (jokingly?) that Gulf Arabs buy up the Observer, which is shutting down (alas, although perhaps they shouldn't have spent so much money on stupid lifestyle supplements and Nigella Lawson pageantry.)
Will the leader of Lebanon's Druze really form an alliance with Hezbollah? - By Lee Smith - Slate Magazine | Weird Slate story in whcih Walid Jumblatt is celebrated as hero, disowns his old friends, and they react: "His former American friends are not amused. "I don't believe for a minute that he's sorry he met with the dreaded neocons, and I'm sorry he feels somehow compelled to say that," said Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy. "I just hope he keeps sending all of us that nice wine from the Bekaa.""
Three soldiers, Al-Qaeda leader killed in Yemeni clashes - AL SHORFA | Note that this site is funded by US Central Command. I don't know much about Yemen, but isn't it rather odd to refer to the insurgents in Yemen to al-Qaeda (as opposed to people motivated by local grievances, as a recent International Crisis Group report argued)?
Le Figaro - International : Mauritanie : attentat suicidedevant l'ambassade de France | Suicide bombing outside French embassy in Mauritania.