Careless desert reclamation in Egypt is unsustainable

Op-eds Opinions

What kind of community would you build with 700,000 square kilometers of open space? Most likely you would want to build something that would last; something that would be sustainable, and make use of the contemporary “green” values that are incorporated into modern construction; something that could house many people in a comfortable amount of space and equip them with high quality public services. Of course, many other things could be added, but this would be the foundation, the primary ideas for an expanse this large. You obviously wouldn’t want to urbanize the entire area, but you would choose certain areas that would be best-suited for human habitation. I pose this question because the government of Egypt was faced with a similar situation in its Western Desert during the mid-1900s. The outcome was, indeed, appalling.

The situation has improved in recent years thanks to intervention from international and national development and research organizations, such as Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the American University in Cairo’s Desert Development Centre (DDC). However, much work needs to be done, and the government is itself to blame. With increasing population pressure, and a relatively high number of rural poor, government action and expansion was necessary; however, the way in which they have been carrying out the expansion is problematic.

First, it is helpful to give some historical and geographic context. With its roots in the 1952 Revolution, the Egyptian government planned their land reclamation program as one of its very first agendas. Its goal was to address the living conditions of impoverished rural farmers, while concurrently reducing population pressure on land and resources in the Nile Valley and Delta region.

The Nile Delta is one of the world’s oldest cultivated regions and, due to its highly fertile soils, is also one of the country’s most densely populated areas, with up to 1600 people per square kilometre.

With an ever decreasing land-to-person ratio, the government was under direct pressure to expand cultivable area.

Egyptian land reclamation spurred the development of agricultural and social structures in formerly unpopulated regions, with the goal of establishing farming communities.

The definition of land reclamation is broad and has changed throughout time. At one point, simply constructing communities that were able to cover input costs through minimal crop yields was considered successful reclamation. In many cases, once construction was complete, communities were abandoned by the authorities, and the upkeep of crucial infrastructure, such as irrigation canals and wells, was neglected. Addressing the poor conditions these communities were left in is a continuing pursuit for many concerned researchers and development practitioners. The bubble of promise and hope has all too often popped for many “beneficiaries” of this new regime.

One community established under the government’s land reclamation project was the remote community of Abu Minqar, located in Farafra Oasis. Abu Mingar is experiencing ongoing economic and environmental problems as a result of the government’s poor choice of community design.

To put the remoteness of this village into context, it’s closer in distance to neighboring Libya than to the Nile Valley. This has created a major barrier for farmers seeking to sell their yields in surrounding markets. Without any consideration of this area’s geographic and economic isolation, the government drilled its first deep well in 1960; in 1980, it began developing the settlement. Only seven years later, the first “beneficiaries” of the government-sponsored resettlement program began arriving.

Most migrants settled in the central village of Um Abu Minqar. However, the initial settlements were abandoned after people discovered that the land is unconducive to construction. Original homes were degraded due to the sandy nature of the ground; the mosque built in the centre of the village now sits stranded in the hot sun, as the residents fear its collapse. A market built by the government to provide a central place for farmers to sell their produce has become a lonely skeleton.

The lack of consideration into even the most simple and integral structures is astonishing, and continuous. For example, the government put little thought and investment into agricultural infrastructure. Despite agriculture being the primary source of livelihood in the village, only several unlined irrigation canals were constructed. Over the years, due to a lack of upkeep, these canals have become clogged with mud and weeds, causing a loss rate of 50 per cent between the wells and the fields.

Wherever the government didn’t build canals, the community built small mud trenches from the earth. However, the water is either drawn up by overgrown weeds, or evaporates. To make matters worse, farmers had no technology for irrigation practices other than flood irrigation, a practice that has been abandoned by other parts of the country due to its unsustainability and inefficiency. In what seems like an ironic contradiction, electricity is supplied only at certain times, while water flows from artesian wells 24 hours, seven days a week.

Notably, the water source upon which the community depends is the Nubian Aquifer—a saturated limestone rock beneath the desert floor. It’s also fossil, and, therefore, experiences no recharge. Everything removed from the well is permanently depleted. Wells that flow continuously are of grave concern, because they place the sustainability of the community’s water supply at risk. The longevity of this water supply is currently uncertain, though estimates suggest it may run out within 100 years—perhaps less, with increasing pressures from climate change and population growth.

In recent years, the community has attracted cattle farmers and large-scale farming corporations to the area in response to low land prices. Although this may provide some economic stimulus, serious pressure has been placed on this water source; several wells have already begun to run dry.

This is but one example in which desert reclamation has gone severely wrong. The poor state of infrastructure and dwindling water supply make maintaining life in the region increasingly difficult; only time will tell how long people will be able to survive.

Intervening agencies such as the IDRC and DDC have spent a significant amount of time in recent years seeking to improve the area’s water supply by cleaning and lining canals, introducing new and more efficient irrigation techniques, and creating a Farmer’s Association. Thanks to the work of these people, some hope for the future of these communities endures, though ultimately what can be done is limited, considering the state the government left the community in.

With the plans of reclamation slated to continue, there is a need for much more consideration and investment on the part of the government to ensure success.

So, what will become of this community in several generations? Who knows? Its future is ultimately tied with that of the water beneath it, due to the careless nature in which this case of reclamation took place.