Sahara Farming Village Struggles for Survival
Steven Stanek in Abu Minqar, Egypt
for National Geographic News
|January 8, 2008|
Deep in Egypt's western desert, the farming village of Abu Minqar appears like a mirage.
In a part of the world remarkable for its absence of life and color, this village of 4,000 people and their pastel-green fields seems to sprout miraculously from nothing in defiance of the laws of nature.
But the village is one of the most extreme examples of Egypt's plan to "green" its deserts, or take once-uninhabitable earth and convert it to farmland.
(See photos of Abu Minqar and other desert projects.)
Abu Minqar is far more remote than the majority of desert farmland in Egypt, being closer to the Libyan border than it is to fertile lands and flowing water of the Nile Valley.
Its unlikely existence is proof that Egypt can set up farms anywhere. But the hardships endured by its settlers raise questions about the resources and political will to sustain such projects.
Electricity and water run for just a fraction of the day, and many of the village's mud-brick huts are crumbling.
The government-built canals are mostly unlined and leaking, and farmers water their fields with primitive methods because there is no technology in place for more efficient irrigation.
"This is one of the most isolated communities—by distance and by desert—in Egypt," said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center (DDC) of the American University in Cairo, which leased a house in Abu Minqar two years ago to study the village's social patterns.
"In many ways these folks have been left to their own devices."
A Finite Water Source
Abu Minqar is far beyond the reach of the canals that channel the Nile water to most of Egypt's desert farms.
Instead, the community draws water from 15 wells—some over a kilometer deep—that tap into a thick layer of saturated sandstone beneath the Sahara known as the Nubian Aquifer.
The water source stretches into Chad, Libya, and Sudan and all the way up to the Sinai and southern Israel. (Related: "Vast Buried 'Fossil Lake' Reported in Darfur" [July 19, 2007].)
The sandstone is a highly porous rock that essentially acts like a sponge, holding water in some places and oil in others, but experts are unsure of how and when these substances got there.
"In general people assume this is 'fossil water,' which means it got there a very long time ago and it is not being replenished," Tutwiler said. "In other words, if you pump water out of that stone, there is no water coming in from anywhere else."
Experts estimate that the water will continue to flow for at least the next hundred years, but no one knows for sure how long it will last.
"The issue is not if it will run out," Tutwiler said. "It is when."
But the scarcity of water below ground is hardly apparent on the surface, where farmers are still flooding their fields to bring water to their crops.
In most of Egypt's desert farms, irrigation by flood is considered outdated and has been replaced with the more efficient methods of drip and sprinkler irrigation, which enable them to grow higher-value crops.
But those technologies are not available in Abu Minqar, where the mainstays are wheat and rice, and farmers are only allowed to flood one acre of land for an hour every 15 days.
There are only a few lined canals; the rest are simple mud trenches dug out of the earth, clogged and unclogged with mud to control the water flow.
Abu Minqar wasn't even on the map until the government drilled the first well in 1987 and began encouraging people to move here.
In addition to cheap land, part of the draw was the promise of improved government services and infrastructure. Since 1987, however, few amenities have been offered—a growing point of contention for villagers.
The mosque in the center of the village has been abandoned because residents fear its collapse. The village has only one doctor and few qualified teachers for schoolchildren. An outdoor government-built market, where settlers are supposed to be selling their produce, is eerily empty.
"They are promised things all the time ... but it just doesn't happen," said Tina Jaskolski, research and reports coordinator at the DDC, who has spent two years studying the micro-society of Abu Minqar.
The canals, for instance, are overgrown with reeds, and much of the precious water seeps back into the earth before it ever reaches the crop fields.
Farmers have been waiting for months for the government to provide an excavator to clean them.
"The government hasn't done anything for us. They didn't even line the canals," said Ali Yassin Mara'i, 29, whose father uprooted a large family and moved to a six-acre plot here 20 years ago. "Abu Minqar is far from the government's eyes."
Many farmers also grumble about the scarcity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which they say they can no longer afford. Corrupt government workers have been selling it at double the price on the black market, according to farmers.
"There is a big gap between the people and the government services," said Adel Mansour Mahdy, 24, who nevertheless stood proudly next two his two-acre plot of land, as water flooded into the grooves where he hopes wheat will grow by next year.
"There is a shortage of fertilizer, there is a shortage of tractors, and there is no marketing at all."
Hassan Mohammed Said, 28, said he came to the village as an entrepreneur with plans to start a rabbit farm. He has since canceled his business plans.
"The government encouraged me with the low price of the land and the offering of many services, but now they stopped all services. It is not good here to do anything," he said.
While farmers closer to cities export their goods to lucrative markets in Europe, Abu Minqar's farmers also struggle to find interested buyers. The quality and amount of their yield is low, and their isolation is sometimes insurmountable.
"Even if they did produce wonderful stuff and wonderful amounts of stuff, how would they get it to the market?" DDC director Tutwiler asked.
A Social Success?
There are already plans underway to help the people in these settlements, however, said Hussein I. El-Atfy, head of the irrigation department at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.
El-Atfy said part of the effort will be to establish "water users associations," or decentralized micro-governments in which people handle their affairs locally instead of waiting for the government's help.
Jaskolski said the DDC has been helping the community establish such low-level governance for almost two years.
"The government has been so sluggish in a kind of way that the community has been forced to do things on their own as much as they can," she said. "For example they are now pooling money to buy their own little power generator for a few households—this is something we are trying to build on."
Despite the hardships, Jaskolski added that the people of Abu Minqar have banded together to make the best of their lives.
"In terms of a social experiment, I would call it a success," she said. "You throw people together into the desert from all parts of Egypt and they can live together peacefully. We would have expected much more conflict."
"They share this frontier mentality," she added. "The will to make it work is what makes it work."
Indeed, with the green fields blooming each season in the harshest of desert conditions, it is difficult to characterize Abu Minqar as a failure.
"There are 4,000 people living here," Tutwiler said. "That is still pretty impressive."
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