For the past 15 years, antiquated irrigation systems and a government conservation drive have kept many farmers from nutrient-rich River Nile waters, forcing them to tap sewage-filled canals.
In the north-west corner of the Nile Delta, Ibrahim Sharaf Al-Dein fires up his pump next to a murky canal only to watch it spew out a yellowish froth.
“This water ruins our pumps – it’s bad for our production,” the 50-year-old said.
But even as Egypt wrestles with dwindling water from its only major source, the Nile, it pushes farmers to grow more to supply the country’s costly subsidised food programme. The two goals, farmers and experts say, are at odds with one another. And efforts to make the most of precious farmland have been hampered by decades of urban sprawl.
The government, anxious to stimulate economic recovery after years of political turmoil, wants to cut its $4.5 billion (£2.7bn) food import bill.
Most of that bill goes to subsidies that guarantee universal access to bread at less than one US cent (0.05 Egyptian pounds) for a loaf.
That makes Egypt the world’s top wheat importer, purchasing around 10 million tonnes a year.
“Import dependence will get worse,” said Nicholas Lodge, of Clarity, a Gulf-based agricultural investment firm.
“You have population growth outstripping the ability of the agricultural sector to improve production, which is held back by land and water shortages.”
Egypt grows a large amount, including 7m tonnes of wheat a year, say traders, largely because Cairo offers farmers above-market prices to spur production.
Subsidised bread encourages Egyptians to consume more wheat per person than almost any other country, and demand is set to increase as the 87m population grows. There have been estimations of a population growth at 1.6m people a year.
Farms soak up 85 per cent of Egypt’s water, above global averages, says think-tank the World Water Council (WWC).
While improving yields and allocating more land to farmers could boost production, those measures will not keep up with growing demand, said Gamal Siam, an agricultural economist at Cairo University.
The Nile Valley, almost the only arable land, makes up 5 per cent of Egypt’s area but is home to 95 per cent of its people.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will meet key ministers tomorrow to flesh out plans to reclaim about one billion hectares of desert land for farming.
Mr Siam said the “unrealistic” plan would need 80 billion cubic metres of water a year, more than all Egypt’s Nile waters.
More modest reclamation plans in Egypt have been stalled for years due to lack of water. Experts say solutions include overhauling irrigation systems or growing more profitable crops, fruits, which need little water.
Water watchers warn that global food security is threatened by water scarcity.
“Egypt depends on one source of water, the Nile, which is shared by 11 countries,” Benedito Braga, president of the WWC, said, “So from a strategic point of view the Nile is something of a national security issue.”