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Parched Egypt Watches Anxiously as Waters Behind Aswan Dam Recede

December 26, 1987|MICHAEL ROSS | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Not since Joseph broke the bad news to the Pharaoh that Egypt was in for seven years of famine have Egyptian farmers had to face a natural calamity of such proportions. But that is what they will be up against, experts warn, if the African drought does not end within the next two years.

Indeed, the parallels to Joseph's dismal weather forecast in the Book of Genesis--seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine--are turning out to be a bit uncanny. While drought and famine have decimated the countries of the Sahel region for the past seven years, Egypt has been spared, thanks to the Aswan High Dam.

But the drought has affected the Nile River's main catchment areas in Ethiopia and Tanzania, reducing the amount of water in the Nile to the lowest levels in recorded history. This has caused the water level to drop by more than 70 feet in Lake Nasser, the huge reservoir behind the Aswan Dam that has been Egypt's main buffer against the drought thus far.

Desperate for Rain

Major conservation schemes, belatedly being adopted, may gain a little more time. But without improved rainfall in the African watersheds that nourish the Nile, Lake Nasser will run dry in two years, according to current estimates.

For Egypt's anemic economy, already burdened by a $45-billion foreign debt, the implications are devastating.

Egypt relies on the water stored in Lake Nasser to irrigate about 6 million acres of farmland. Even so, it manages to grow only half of what its rapidly expanding population of 51 million consumes every year. The rest is imported, at an annual cost of $4 billion.

If Lake Nasser were to run dry, then "overnight Egypt would have to begin importing another $2-billion worth of foodstuffs," a Western irrigation expert said.

Perilous Consequences

The political and social consequences of a sudden and severe food shortage could be perilous. Ten years ago, Egyptians rioted when the government tried to raise the price of bread by what was then the equivalent of 1 cent. Prices have increased severalfold since then, with urban inflation running about 20%. But officials are clearly worried about the possibility of renewed social unrest if the cost of essential commodities should rise sharply overnight, as would almost certainly be the case if Egypt were suddenly forced to begin importing all or nearly all of its most basic foodstuffs.

Nor would agriculture alone suffer. Industry would also be affected, because the Aswan Dam's hydroelectric plant is a major source of energy, supplying more than 20% of Egypt's needs. Output from the plant's 12 giant turbines has already fallen to only 75% of capacity because of the drop in Lake Nasser's water level. By next year, that capacity is expected to drop another 7%.

If there is no significant rainfall next year, the hydroelectric plant may have to be shut down altogether by the summer of 1989, when the water level in Lake Nasser is expected to fall to a level below which the turbines cannot be operated without the risk of severe damage to them, experts warn.

Still Running Short

"Right now, they're making up for the drop in power output from the dam by running every other generating station they have at full capacity," said a Western electrical engineer familiar with Egypt's power-generating capabilities. "But they're still not managing. This year, through September, there have been 70 days when they could not meet their customers' needs."

As a result, brief blackouts and longer brownouts, especially in rural areas, have been common. Plans have been approved to expand the generating capacities of a number of other plants. But over the next few years these additions will not even keep pace with the increase in energy demand, which is growing by 10% a year, the Western expert said.

It is to irrigation, however, that the reduced levels of water flowing from the Nile pose the greatest threat. The Nile is arid Egypt's only significant source of water. Without it, the Pyramids would not have been built, Cleopatra would not have seduced Mark Antony, and Ptolemy would have had to go somewhere else to pioneer astronomy because no great civilization would have arisen here in the Nile Delta.

'Egypt Is the Nile'

Throughout history, many writers have noted the Nile's importance to Egyptian civilization, but none put it more succinctly than Herodotus, the 5th-Century BC Greek historian. "Egypt is the Nile," he wrote, "and the Nile is Egypt."

Egypt's dependence on the Nile has scarcely lessened over the centuries. Indeed, with a population that is expected to top 70 million by the turn of the century, it has if anything deepened. Thus the idea that the Nile might one day fail Egypt, even if only temporarily, is so unthinkable that officials are reluctant to discuss the looming water crisis openly.

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