Insights from Wastewater Reuse Arrangements in Egypt
By Mohamed Tawfik 25 January, 2022
How can Egypt better reuse its wastewater to alleviate water scarcity? Dr. Tawfik offers insight
Read more from Mohamed Tawfik →
Wastewater reuse can be a key strategy to reduce scarcity in many water-stressed regions. Egypt is no exception. Yet, there is a need to understand the social, institutional and technological contexts to effectively manage wastewater, which Egypt is not doing at the moment. A research report “Unpacking wastewater reuse arrangements through a new framework: insights from the analysis of Egypt” published in Water International, offers valuable analysis and insight into why this is and what could be done to improve the situation. CWR sat down with Dr Mohamed Tawfik Hassan, one of the lead researchers of the report, to ask him more about this.
CWR: Congratulations on your publication of “Unpacking wastewater reuse arrangements through a new framework: insights from the analysis of Egypt” in Water International! Can you start us off with a quick background to Egypt’s water resources and the management challenges?
Mohamed Tawfik (MT): Egypt’s water demand is 114 Billion Cubic Meters per year (BCM/year), with ~60 BCM/year available, of which more than 90% is supplied by the Nile river (HCWW, 2011).
Agri sector uses ~80% & 8% is used for domestic purposes
The agricultural sector consumes around 80% of Egypt’s water share, whereas only 8% is used for domestic purposes (HCWW, 2011; AbuZeid et al, 2014; He, Tyner, Doukkali, & Siam, 2006). In this context, wastewater re-use is assumed to be one of the resources that can help meet future water demands and challenges.
There is strong state control
Egypt’s water resources management is characterized by strong centralized state control (Reymond et al., 2014). The irrigation and drainage system in the Nile Delta that is built and managed by centralized state agencies is a vast network of connected irrigation canals and drains. The drainage system was designed to collect and recirculate the irrigation drainage water back to the irrigation canals while discharging relatively small amounts into the Mediterranean in the lower basin (Nardini and Fahmy, 2005).
CWR: The demand for wastewater reuse in Egypt is rising – what are the reasons for this and what benefits can an efficient wastewater reuse sector bring?
MT: Wastewater/drainage water reuse has strategic importance as a source for irrigation. With the lack of fully conventional wastewater collection and treatment schemes in the Delta, this extensive drainage system became a conveyance system that carries mostly untreated domestic and industrial wastewater along with the irrigation drainage water. Downstream farmers’ reliance on drainage water for irrigation started in the 1950s and 1960s.
Wastewater/drainage water reuse has strategic importance as a source for irrigation
First, it was a ‘backup’ source of irrigation water. With time, drainage water re-use for irrigation increased as pressure on water resources has become more acute. The drainage water quality dramatically deteriorated as the quantity of untreated domestic and industrial wastewaters increased from the 1970s onwards as a result of population growth, industrialization, and the expansion in domestic water supply networks in the Nile Delta without similar expansion in sanitation services and corresponding wastewater treatment plants.
CWR: The wastewater reuse sector in Egypt is managed by formal and informal sectors. What are the differences between them and is this an efficient arrangement?
MT: Formal arrangements are those that are established by national laws that are implemented, regulated, and controlled through state agencies and in some cases formally recognized private entities.
In contrast the informal, often socially embedded arrangements are not codified or structured according to written legal or contractual commitments and in some spaces, these informal arrangements receive more compliance than externally imposed formal regulations (Cleaver, 2017).
The two sectors do not recognize/coordinate = reduced efficiency
The latter stems from the fact that these are usually socially embedded arrangements that get shaped through daily practices, negotiations, and discussions in very specific contexts. It would be an efficient arrangement if both were complementary, recognizing each other and having channels of communications and coordination. At the moment, this does not exist, which reduces the sector efficiency and inclusion.
CWR: Turning to your research, why did you decide to adopt the socio-technical framework to analyse wastewater reuse? Did it generate any new insights?
MT: Studies on wastewater reuse are often directed towards the technical, technological, financial and health aspects. However, the socio-technical aspect is often not explicitly discussed especially in the MENA region (including Egypt). Recently, wastewater became a contested resource between different actors, and the socio-technical dimension is crucial to understand the different arrangements developed by those actors to access to the treated/untreated wastewater.
CWR: Can you walk us through the key findings from your report, specifically the three case studies, each with a different wastewater reuse model? Is there a best model? Are there bottlenecks that need fixing?
MT: The crux of our analysis in tables 2, 3, and 4 is that the informal arrangements in the Delta villages can manage sewerage collection and management but are unable to treat and reallocate the flows. This leads to a situation in which local actors are unable to maximize the re-use potential of the generated wastewater; while also posing serious health, environmental, and economic challenges at local and national levels.
This is where the formal arrangements can intervene through technological support (e.g. rehabilitating existing structures such as Bayaras and informal sewerages); regulatory support (e.g. easing the stringent treatment and re-use regulations); and monitoring of the discharged effluent’s quantity and quality.
The crux of the analysis shows benefits & limitations of both informal & formal arrangements…
On the other hand, the formal arrangements succeeded to provide sanitation coverage to the majority of the urban settings while failing to progress as fast in rural areas. Accordingly, the formal sector can capitalize on the Informal’s established arrangement in rural wastewater management by recognizing the informal arrangements as legal means of wastewater collection, treatment, and re-use. This could help to expand the formal arrangements’ outreach and improve the quality of the re-used wastewater for irrigation.
…But to move forward, Egypt’s formal wastewater sector needs to recognise the informal sector
Thus, a critical bottleneck in Egypt’s formal wastewater sector is its inability to recognize the informal sector, this is reflected in the limited -slow pace- progress in adopting less stringent regulations than the current ones (e.g. Law 48), and its reliance on a single institution for the operational activities of wastewater management and re-use.
CWR: What can regulators do to improve wastewater management and reuse in Egypt? And are these suggestions applicable in other countries and regions?
MT: Regulators can play an important role by looking at wastewater reuse as a business case, their role then is to provide an enabling regulatory and legal framework to help this business case to succeed. Mainly by providing tailor-made standards for wastewater treatment and reuse based to enable the adoption of decentralized treatment and reuse solutions led by the “informal” actors.
This will secure formal recognition of the “informal” arrangements, which must be followed by gradual inclusion through regulatory amendments to the current wastewater sector in Egypt. Those advices might be applicable to other countries, but must be contextualized based on the social, political and technical constraints.
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