Infrastructure: mammoth construction for small farmers

24.10.2018 - Article

After years of construction, the new Assiut barrage over the Nile in Egypt was inaugurated this summer, writes German Development Bank KfW.

German Development Bank KfW provided around 300 million Euro for the project. It is a mammoth construction that is of particular benefit to small farmers in the region.

New Assiut barrage over the Nile in Egypt
New Assiut barrage over the Nile in Egypt © KfW

Mr Jacobi, in mid-August, the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi inaugurated the Assiut Barrage. KfW contributed around 300 million Euro to financing this water project in the Nile Valley on behalf of the German Government. What does the project consist of in detail?

The funds were used to build a barrage over the Nile with the primary aim of irrigating agricultural land. A hydropower plant was also built that produces green electricity for 130,000 households. The barrage also includes a double navigation lock for ship traffic and a multi-lane road flyover along the 900-metre-long river barrier.

What is the economic significance of the project in the region around the city of Assiut, 400 kilometres south of Cairo?

The barrage supplies the Ibrahimiyya Canal with water. The 350-kilometre-long canal branches off above the barrage, runs parallel to the Nile and is extremely important for irrigating farmland in this region. Twice as much water flows through the Ibrahimiyya Canal as it does through the Main River in Germany, for example. Or, take another comparison: the canal irrigates farmland three times the size of the Saarland (a state in Germany).´

Who benefits most from this water supply?

The Assiut project secures the income of around five million people.
The Assiut project secures the income of around five million people. © KfW

The Assiut project secures income and creates employment opportunities for five million people, most of them poor, who subsist on smallholder farming. They grow wheat, maize, vegetables and cotton and breed cattle. They grow this food mainly for themselves and their families and supply the local market. The Assiut project doesn't just safeguard their income, it can also increase it. This is important because the region is experiencing high population growth and rural flight.

Would people move away without an adequate supply of water?

Yes, because water is the basis for their livelihoods and secures their income. Without any basis for income, many people would be forced to move away. The Assiut project secures the income of around five million predominantly poor people who are dependent on the Nile.

Do the farmers have to pay for the water?

No, not so far. And this is not without problems. Since the water is free for the farmers, there is little incentive to use it more sparingly. On the other hand, Egypt is a very dry country and water is scarce so the available water must be used more efficiently. The barrage in Assiut also contributes to these efforts.

The Nile Valley is a narrow green belt running through the desert country with 100 million inhabitants. How important is the longest river in the world for Egypt?

7,000 jobs were created during the construction phase.
7,000 jobs were created during the construction phase. © KfW

It is the country's life-line. 95 percent of the water resources used by the country come from the Nile. In addition to the supply of drinking water, irrigation for farmland is also completely dependent on the Nile, which in turn is an important pillar of the Egyptian economy.

Around 300 people are employed by the operator of the barrage and the hydropower plant.

Is this kind of farming viable in the long run? Don't the fields suffer from being continuously irrigated with polluted river water?

Pollution of the river water is less problematic. The soil suffers much more from degradation and salinisation in places where farmland is not adequately drained after irrigation. When the fields are drained properly, they can be used much longer and more intensively. We also finance drainage systems of this kind in our projects.

To date, KfW has invested some 630 million Euro in water projects in Egypt. Apart from the Assiut project, which projects are these?

We finance the modernisation of irrigation infrastructure – for example, irrigation and drainage canals and pumping stations – as well as drinking water supply and waste water disposal projects, i.e. water companies, drinking water systems, sewage treatment plants and sewer networks. Our aim is to contribute to improving the quality, sustainability and efficiency of water management in Egypt.

Were there any particular technical challenges in the Assiut project?

Impressions from inside the dam.
Impressions from inside the dam. © KfW

The project was highly complex. Just one example: the Nile had to be diverted during the construction phase of the barrage. Think about it: this means that you have to ram huge walls into the ground while Nile water is flowing to then be able to pump the barrage construction site dry. A highly specialised company from Germany took on responsibility for this task.

How long did it take to build the Assiut project?

The construction phase lasted six years. And this means that, by and large, we have stayed on schedule, which is remarkable for a project of this size and complexity, especially when compared to the progress of other large-scale projects in Germany.

How many Egyptians worked on the Assiut project?

We estimate that around 7,000 jobs were created during the construction phase, mainly in the construction sector, but also in the metal and electrical industries.

And how many people are permanently employed by the barrage and hydropower plant operator?

Approx. 300 people.

What role does Egypt play for KfW on the continent?

KfW has financed projects in Egypt totalling almost 2 billion Euro on behalf of the German Government. In addition to water projects, these are primarily energy projects and projects to promote sustainable economic development.

Does the river have further potential for hydropower?

The potential is as good as exhausted for large hydropower plants. A certain height differential is required for a hydropower plant. In Egypt, however, the Nile hardly has a gradient.

The Nile is already dammed in four of the ten neighbouring countries. It's a politically and economically contested river. What problems does Egypt face as the country on the lower reaches of the river?

Water scarcity is already widespread in Egypt with its steadily increasing population.

Most of the people who benefit from the Assiut project are small farmers.
Most of the people who benefit from the Assiut project are small farmers. © KfW

Climate change will further exacerbate this situation. Some of the planned dam projects on the upper reaches of the Nile have the potential to further complicate the situation. This could lead to conflicts in distribution.

Ultimately, a solution can only be found through dialogue between the countries along the river. In addition, of course, it makes sense to introduce measures to use water more efficiently, which we support through the projects we finance.

Is the volume of water in the Nile a parameter for the efficiency of the Egyptian economy?

At least when it comes to farmland irrigation. If water resources diminish, it will be severely impacted. Egyptian agriculture is based almost exclusively on irrigation.

KfW provided around 300 million Euro in loans for the Assiut project. Can you compare the capital volume with other KfW investments?

The construction of this Nile barrage is the largest single water project ever financed by KfW worldwide.

© KfW

Top of page