CAIRO — WITH its 55 million people entirely dependent on the capricious offerings of the Nile, Egypt is more vulnerable to water shortages than any country in the Middle East. During the 1980s, Egypt was placed on notice by the worst drought in a century. River traffic was stranded, water and power rationed, and the country's strategic water supply, trapped behind the giant Aswan High Dam, reduced to 20 percent of capacity.
The country was saved by good rains upstream in the Ethiopian highlands last year. But with 1 million new mouths to feed every nine months, and with drought cycles growing longer and more frequent, the respite is only temporary.
With virtually no rainfall, Egypt relies on the Nile for agriculture, industry, and domestic use.
To make Nile waters go further, the government has launched ambitious conservation and reclamation schemes, revamping antiquated irrigation systems cutting back on water-intensive crops like rice and sugar cane, and probing for an estimated 25 million cubic meters of water held in nonrenewable aquifers.
``It's a matter of life or death now,'' says Mahmoud Abu Zeid, chairman of Egypt's Water Resource Center, in reference to the government's widening public education campaign to encourage water conservation.
But savings from conservation could be offset in the currently unlikely event that development projects are started in Sudan and Ethiopia, the source of 80 percent of Nile water reaching Egypt.
More troubling is a long-term decline in the volume of the Nile. This will put a crimp in Egypt's plans to grow more food to meet the needs of a population that could swell to more than 85 million by 2010.
``There are 6 million acres under cultivation now,'' says Usama al-Baz, a foreign policy adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. ``Using our known resources, we can add 2.8 million acres to them, but this will not meet more than 50 percent of our needs for wheat.''
``I don't know how you define the day of reckoning for Egypt,'' says a Western development official in Egypt. ``From a political standpoint, it's already passed. How can a country that imports 60 percent of what it eats be independent?''