By Devon Murray
While water covers around 71% of the Earth’s surface, the lion’s share of this precious resource lies in the oceans (97%) and is too salty to be used for agriculture, drinking water and industry. Moreover, pollution, waste and the unequal distribution of resources have put a strain on the planet’s freshwater supply, with areas on each continent experiencing water scarcity, according to UN-Water.
Egypt is particularly hard hit when it comes to water scarcity due to rising temperatures, a drier climate and a growing population driving up water demand.
“In Egypt, the annual water share per person is 540-560 cubic meters. The water poverty line, however, rests at 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, meaning that Egypt is missing almost 50% of its needed water supply,” said Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hani Sewilam, AUC professor and founding director of the University’s Center for Applied Research on the Environment and Sustainability (CARES).
And the problem extends beyond H2O.
“This is a multifaceted issue,” Sewilam said. “You cannot work on water scarcity without considering food and energy.”
Like most countries in the Middle East, Egypt consumes 80% of its water for food production and agriculture. Adding another layer, agriculture requires energy — whether it be for irrigation, processing, storage or transportation. Considering the intricate and dynamic relationship between water, energy and food is known as the water-energy-food nexus. It is within this nexus that Sewilam, CARES and student researchers operate, working to find a solution that considers all three sectors.
(Aqueous) Solutions: The Three S’s
Desalination — the removal of salts and minerals from a substance — has been around for ages in theory and practice. However, it is not seen as a “green option,” according to Sewilam, because it uses a lot of energy and creates brine, a highly concentrated salt solution that occasionally contains chemical residue.
“With the existing technology, brine is disposed of in the sea or thrown in the desert,” he said.
Harnessing the three S’s of Egypt’s abundant resources — sun, sand and salty water [seawater and brackish water] — Sewilam’s Water-Energy-Food (WEF) Nexus Model uses solar panels to power reverse-osmosis desalination. This technique sends water through a synthetic lining to purge the water of unwanted molecules and impurities, like salt and dirt.
“After desalination, we work to get more out of each drop of water,” Sewilam said. “The freshwater will be used to produce fish. The waste from the fish can be used as fertilizer for crops, while the excess cleaned water from the crops can be given back to the fish.”
As for the brine, it can be used to produce small crustaceans for feeding the fish and algae, which have become a major component in producing biodiesel, he explained.
At COP27, Sewilam will receive the 2022 Water-Energy-Food Ecosystem Nexus Award from the European Union’s Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area, known as PRIMA, for his WEF Nexus Model.
More Crops Per Drop
At AUC, the model is already in use on a limited scale at CARES, with preparations to upscale for commercial use in motion. On the state level, it is slated to be used in some of Egypt’s major green development projects, such as the 1.5 Million Feddan Project, New Delta Project and buildout of the Sinai Peninsula.
For now, Sewilam and his team have turned their attention to fine-tuning the model by increasing crop yield to make the model even more economically viable and working toward zero waste to make the model more sustainable.
CARES, which is part of AUC’s Institute of Global Health and Human Ecology, is sharing its knowledge with the community. Last fall, the center launched its Water-Energy-Food Technologies Diploma, which combines expertise in engineering, hydrology, irrigation and solar technology to prepare students for facing Egypt’s climate challenges. CARES also partners with the International Desalination & Water Treatment Group, transferring research findings and know-how directly to the market in Egypt and the region.
Sewilam believes that implementing the WEF Nexus Model will not only be a major first step toward solving the water (and food) crisis in Egypt and the region, but will also create a ripple effect globally, causing a major shift in world food security.
“The sky is the limit,” he said. “This could be the next food production revolution.”