How Egyptian farmers are adapting to water scarcity up and down a canal | Land Portal

If you wander up and down one of the many irrigation canals in Egypt’s Nile Delta, you’ll see a wide range of crops being grown. Fields of swelling water melons sit alongside leafy greens. Twirling grape vines back on to rows of cucumbers. But why have the farmers chosen to grow one crop rather than another? Is it simply because they have differing access to water? A new study undertaken by IWMI and partners* sought to better understand the reasons for crop choice, and has come up with some surprising conclusions.

The study investigated how a group of Egyptian farmers were adapting to water scarcity along the al-Bayda secondary canal in the northwestern Nile Delta. While predictable differences in irrigation use were observed (e.g. night irrigation, reusing drainage water), the study reveals some unexpected crop choice; this challenges the assumption that farmers choose which crops to grow based only on water availability and profit maximization. These findings show the limitations of oversimplified recommendations and policies, which do not explore the numerous factors that influence farmer behavior.

Since the 1990s, water has increasingly been diverted to the growing city of Alexandria; coupled with the expansion of rice production, farmers along the canal have reported a significant decrease in water availability and are barely able to meet their irrigation needs during the summer months. Farmers must wait ten days or more between ‘on-days’ of irrigation when water becomes available for one to four days. For those at the end of the water supply, water may only be available at night – or not at all.

Previous studies have shown an income gap between farmers at the head ends and tail ends of the canal when comparing the same crop. This is largely due to unequal water distribution but also differences in market access and the quality of soil or water.


Making do with water scarcity

According to the study, farmers at the head ends and tail ends of the canal use several adaptation practices in response to water scarcity.

Some of the farmers have developed collective irrigation rules, dictating who gets water first and whether certain crops have precedence over others. The researchers expected strict regulations at the tail ends of the canal where water scarcity is higher, but they found that head end farmers also have strong collective rules, often prioritizing the irrigation of vegetables and rice.

Farmers at both the head ends and tail ends of the canal also reuse drainage water. However, farmers at the tail ends typically depend on it as their main irrigation source during peak summer months, whereas the drainage water is supplemental for the head end farmers. The frequent reuse of drainage water, which is often contaminated with wastewater and high levels of salt, can negatively affect farmer health and soil quality. These consequences are felt more strongly at the tail ends of the canal.

Many farmers practice night irrigation when water flows are higher. Tail end farmers more often depend on night irrigation as water supplies may not be available during the day. For head end farmers, it is normally a decision based on convenience, balancing the time required to irrigate with alternative daytime activities unrelated to agriculture.

To compensate for the long stretches between irrigations, farmers at the head ends of the canal tend to over-irrigate their fields, which decreases the water availability for farmers at the tail ends.


Watermelon vs. Grape

To some extent, the study found that changing cropping patterns reflect water availability. For example, rice, a water-intensive crop, is grown more heavily along areas of the canal with higher water availability. But other crops provide surprising counter-examples of this trend.

The study revealed that certain water-intensive or ‘thirsty’ crops (e.g. luffah, grapes) are grown at the tail ends of the canal where water is less available, while some crops that do not require as much water (e.g. melons) are grown at the head ends.

“At first glance, it might seem like these farmers are foolishly growing the wrong crop in the wrong place. But like anything, it’s more complicated than that,” said Francois Molle of IWMI.

The water table is highest at the head end of the canal due to large-scale rice production. While this can wash away salt accumulation in the soil and support greater watermelon yields, high water tables are detrimental to luffah – a member of the cucumber family – and grapes. A long history of production and local know-how also influences where crops are grown. For example, the area at the tail ends of the canal produced grapes long before the decline in water availability, a skill they brought from their village of origin.

“Other factors – plot size, household food security, and even the neighbor’s crop choice – can play an important role in these decisions,” said Francois. “If we don’t understand this complexity, how can we expect to carry out research and recommend policies that will work?”

According to the study, farmers are often unfairly or incorrectly blamed for inefficient water use at the field level. The authors believe researchers and policy makers must understand the social, economic and environmental factors beyond water availability and profit, which influence irrigation practices and crop choice. While the case study investigates a small section of the Nile Delta, the lessons learned can provide insight on farmer adaptations to water scarcity in other arid and semi-arid areas with public irrigation systems.


Francois Molle is a Principal Researcher at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Cairo, Egypt.


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