De-silting the Nile to support economy

Sunset over the Nile River in the city of Aswan with sandy and deserted shores. Credit: Oleksii Hlembotskyi/Getty Images

Egypt is investing in dredgers to improve its inland waterways to make them a viable alternative for road and rail cargo

Prompted by a projected increase in national cargo demand, the Egyptian government has committed to rehabilitating and revamping infrastructure along the Nile River and its branches. The investment is a bid to improve the country’s inland water transport network, which has been in decline for several years.

Egypt’s inland water transport sector has only 0.5% of the total national cargo demand – far below the 5% achieved in the 1980s.

The poor inland water transport network in North African countries has been blamed on generous fuel subsidies that favour truck cargo transport. Fluctuating river water levels and delayed dredging of navigable river sections have also been identified as factors.

A previous study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency for Egypt’s Ministry of Transport estimated that the current share of cargo for the inland water transport sector could rise marginally to 1% of the country’s anticipated 816 million tonnes of cargo by 2027.
According to the World Bank, some private companies that had previously invested in Egypt’s inland waterways are still finding it difficult to operate and make a profit because of “insufficient lock capacity and operating hours, the lack of sufficient guaranteed depth, and availability of navigation aids along the navigation corridors”.

In fact, Nile Cargo, affiliated to Qalaa Holdings (formerly Citadel Capital), said in a report that although the company had opted to invest in Egypt’s river transport operations after the government assured “the water depth would be at least 2.8 m, enough for Nile Cargo’s new 100 m-barges that require 2.2 m of water depth or draught, along with 50 cm”, it was later forced to change its investment plan.

The company had to now “build smaller barges” as “water levels were frequently below that water level and barges often ran aground”.

New dredgers

However, government agencies have recently announced contracts for the design and construction of small- and medium-sized dredgers to carry out scheduled maintenance. These plans indicate a shift towards removing the bottlenecks along the 2,600 km of navigable sections of the Nile River, which include the Cairo-Alexandria, Cairo-Damietta, and Cairo-Upper Egypt sections of the Nile.

According to the country’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, in addition to transporting general cargo, the channels that are targeted for dredging are also used by sailing boats to transport building materials, river barges, and passenger ships, including cruise, especially between Luxor and Aswan for ferrying travellers.

The ministry, in conjunction with other government agencies involved in inland water transport, hopes, in the medium term, to transform the Damietta section into a navigable waterway and also revamp the section of the river that runs alongside the city of Rosetta. This work would result in year-round navigation, connecting it with the Rayah el-Beheira Canal.

Furthermore, the government intends to improve navigation conditions in the Ismailia Canal although the project has been put on hold to allow for further investigation into how its connection with the Suez Canal will impact marine traffic.

Preferred depths

According to the River Transport Authority, navigable rivers in Egypt should ideally have a draught of 2.3 m for safe navigation as this allows for 1.8 m draught and 0.25 m clearance.

The authority recommended a minimum depth of 1.45 m. However, a previous experiment that allowed for the release of about 75 million m3 of water per day from Lake Nasser, via a reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam, found about 16 locations between Aswan and the Delta Barrage “where water level is below the recommended minimum depth”.

There is no policy to ensure that release of water from Lake Nasser specifically supports inland navigation in Egypt. The daily release of 60 million m3 is also required for consumption by municipalities along the Nile River. The River Transport Authority must look to dredging as a way of addressing the shallow sections that hamper navigation.

The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation identifies the unstable condition of some shipping locks on the Ismailia Canal, the shoals on the Nile River, and the shallow depths of the Nubaria Canal, as some of the challenges constraining inland waterway navigation in Egypt.

It proposed the replacement of the lock at the Ismailia Canal with a larger and deeper one, and dredging and bank protection of the shallow depths on the Nubaria Canal.

Offering access

According to the River Transport Authority, 256 of the 300 hotel boats (cruise ships) registered in Egypt, with capacity to carry between 17 and 464 passengers, navigate through waterways with a draught of 0.65–2.3 m. The authority said about 35 boats, with total passenger capacity of 4,700, exceed the 1.5 m draught limit and hence, require deepening to enable effective operation.

Some of the international beneficiaries of Egypt’s planned deepening and widening projects include Netherlands-based Royal IHC and Chinese dredger and dredging equipment manufacturer Jiangsu Hansel Marine Equipment.

Royal IHC is constructing 10 IHC Beaver 45 cutter suction dredgers (CSD) and two Delta multicraft 1450 work boats for Egypt’s Armed Forces Engineering Authority, which oversees the construction of new mega-projects launched by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

According to Royal IHC commercial director Rogier Kalis, the tender “confirms the success of our dredging partnership for maintenance of Egypt’s lakes and waterways”. The company will offer maintenance training for Armed Forces Engineering Authority personnel that will crew and operate the new small vessels.

The training, which Royal IHC has rolled out for its clients across the world, covers the equipment design, maintenance, measuring and reporting wear and tear, hydraulic systems, mechanical systems and components, and electrical and programmable logic controller systems, in addition to vessel troubleshooting.

Other projects

In April 2018, Royal IHC had supplied 10 further CSDs, including three floating IHC multibooster stations each with capacity to deliver 895 kW and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) floating pipelines, to maintain Egypt’s lakes and waterways.

The Dutch company has also been contracted by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) for the design and construction of two custom-built 29,190 kW heavy-duty rock CSDs to be delivered this year.

The vessels will have an overall length of 147.4 m with maximum dredging depth of 35 m, and can accommodate at least 73 people.

IHC Royal said the type “is equipped with one submerged and two in-board dredge pumps; the cutter power will be 4,800 kW”.

According to Kalis, the dredgers will be used in the “removal of excessive sedimentation, deepening of waterways, and environmental dredging”.

Furthermore, the vessels will be built at SCA’s shipyard in Egypt, boosting the country’s manufacturing sector that contributes 16.7% to the country’s gross domestic product.
The sector’s value-added output increased from USD35.2 billion in 2010 to USD38.7 billion in 2017, making Egypt the preferred manufacturing investment destination in North Africa.

Because of its “optimal geographic location, low wages in global terms, and a rapidly growing population, it is already a favourable destination for multinational manufacturers”, said consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in its report The Future of Manufacturing – Egypt.

“The new state-of-the-art CSDs from Royal IHC will enable SCA to participate in deepening and widening the waterway and help realise the Egyptian plan to develop local ports,” said SCA chairman and managing director Mohab Mameesh.

Customised CSD

Meanwhile, Chinese dredger maker Hansel Marine has recently dispatched a new HS-55CB CSD to Egypt, enabling easy mobilisation in “shallow water areas”.

The customised CSD, which has an overall length of 38.95 m and depth of 2.2 m, was launched in early January 2020. It has a five-blade cutter, powered by 170 kW of energy with a maximum speed of 30 rpm.

Egypt’s socioeconomic development has been attributed to its political stability and foreign direct investments. The planned expansion of its inland water transport system is expected to compete effectively with road and rail modes of cargo transport, creating more opportunities for dredging companies and dredger manufacturers in the medium and long term.