Egypt "Greens" Deserts to Stem Housing, Food Shortages
Steven Stanek in Tahrir Province, Egypt
for National Geographic News
|January 8, 2008|
Three decades ago, a drive along the main road from Cairo to Alexandria was a sleepy trip through the desert, with nothing to see but a blank sandy expanse.
But today that road is lined with prosperous farms, neon-colored citrus fields, and farmers toiling in the suddenly fertile stretch of earth known as Tahrir Province.
This changing vista is just one example of Egypt's ambitious plan to cultivate the deserts that consume most of its landscape, a government policy that has been on the books for decades but which is only now achieving large-scale success.
"There is no desert left at all," said Mohsen Nawara, manager of South Tahrir Station, a research farm founded by the Desert Development Center (DDC) of the American University in Cairo. "It's all green now."
In the last decade, Egypt has "reclaimed" roughly a million acres (400,000 hectares) from its arid landscape, according to government officials, who say another 2.4 million acres (million hectares) will be added by 2017.
Egyptian policy makers believe such development is the best—and perhaps only—way to ease the burdens brought on by the country's exploding population.
(See photos of the desert projects.)
Roughly 95 percent of Egypt's 80 million people are packed into Nile Valley and Delta, which offers the country's most habitable land but makes up less than 5 percent of its landmass.
The population grows by about 1.5 million people per year, and population density reaches up to 4,900 people per square mile (1,900 people per square kilometer) in the cities, where unemployment is high and housing is scarce.
To make matters worse, prime agricultural land in the valley and delta is disappearing at a yearly rate of about 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares)—close to one percent of total arable land—due to urbanization.
By reclaiming the desert, Egypt hopes to move large swaths of people to settlements outside the Nile Basin, where they can find jobs and houses and help the country achieve food security.
To facilitate the migration, the government has offered plots of the "new land" at a discount to college graduates and investors. Government ministries also build the houses and basic infrastructure of the new settlements, promising city dwellers a better life in the desert.
"This plan is our requirement with the future, for our children and for our grandchildren—it is a vital project," said Hussein I. El-Atfy, head of the Irrigation Department at Egypt's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation.
"It's an ambitious plan, it's a plan that needs a lot of work and a lot of effort, but we are doing it."
"New land" now accounts for roughly two million of Egypt's eight million cultivated acres, according to government officials and experts.
"That's pretty impressive if you consider they only started around 1950," said DDC director Richard Tutwiler.
Government officials also estimate that Egypt now gains a net 150,000 acres (61,000 hectares) of land each year despite its urban sprawl.
Most of the Egypt's new development is based on an extensive network of canals and pumps, built by the government as early as the 1950s, that branch off the Nile and channel water to communities as far as the Sinai Desert.
The pumps take the water up and out of the Nile Valley to the surrounding desert, a lift that can be as a high as 164 feet (50 meters).
Settlers are also landing in the far reaches of the country, in remote villages near major desert oases, where they pump out groundwater from a sandstone aquifer deep beneath the desert floor. (Read about one such development, Abu Minqar.)
The reclamation statistics are boosted by several "mega projects," including the construction of a canal linking the Nile to the Sinai Peninsula, where the government plans to add almost 600,000 acres (240,000 hectares) of reclaimed desert.
Another 550,000 reclaimed acres (220,000 hectares) are planned for the south as part of the Toshka project, which will divert water from Lake Nasser to surrounding communities.
(Related: "Canal Linking Ancient Egypt Quarry to Nile Found" [October 24, 2007].)
While the gains look good on paper, Tutwiler cautioned that there is fine line between reclaiming land and cultivating it.
Reclamation often means little more than government workers flattening the earth and setting up a "very rudimentary" irrigation system, he said.
"If you spend the money, you can do it on the moon," he added. "But the question is whether that land will come under cultivation, and that's not entirely within the power of policy to determine."
It largely depends on whether the farmers and companies who are supposed to settle these new lands have the time and capital to cultivate them, he pointed out.
In the past much of Egypt's reclamation projects resulted in only marginally productive land, hampered by engineering problems and inefficient farming techniques.
Even today the government-built infrastructure, particularly in the more remote settlements, is often too minimal to sustain a community of new settlers.
Still, the success rate may be improving, according to experts, because it has been bolstered by new technology and the construction of a massive subsurface drainage system, which some say is the biggest in the world.
"I don't see a lot of reclaimed land sitting idle at the moment," Tutwiler said.
The desert development plan has also drawn its share of criticism, with some saying there are better uses for Egypt's deserts and limited water resources.
Rushdi Said, a noted Egyptian geologist, has argued that it would be smarter for Egypt to urbanize its deserts.
By moving most of the population and infrastructure away from the fertile land of the Nile Valley, that area could then undergo its own type of agriculture reclamation, according to Said's theory.
The land of the Nile Valley, after all, is some of the most productive in the world and yields twice the amount of crops of the desert farmlands.
He outlined his vision for Egypt in a graduation speech at American University in 2005.
"It is an Egypt in which the Delta and the Nile Valley have been transformed into one great garden—a natural reserve free of industry, wholly devoted to agriculture," said Said, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.
"I envision the deserts of Egypt strewn with well-spaced and well-planned habitation centers, built around extensive industrial bases and fueled by locally available energy resources."
Whether or not such a vision is realistic, most experts agree that the desert will never be an ideal place to farm.
"If you take a strict water-resources management perspective, then it's not smart to grow high-water-consuming crops in the desert," said Jakob Granit, project director at the Stockholm International Water Institute. "It is better to do that where you have a more humid climate or temperate climate.
"On the other hand we are dealing with reality here, and there is an economic incentive," said Granit, who added that many farmers in Egypt are now moving toward more efficient irrigation systems and crops that require less water.
Various other plans for the desert have been proposed by experts. Some say the desolate land should be devoted to the booming industry of ecotourism; others have argued for building giant solar panels and wind farms to create energy.
But perhaps the most commonly cited argument against the scheme is that such plans could exacerbate the already strained water ties between Egypt and other Nile Basin countries.
Under a 1959 treaty, Egypt won the right to use 55.5 billion cubic meters of water (about 2 trillion cubic feet) annually, while Sudan was only allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters (about 650 billion cubic feet).
Some fear that Egypt pushing ahead with its major projects, such as Toshka in the south, based on such disproportionate, colonial-era figures may foreclose future water use of nations upstream.
Desert development does not necessarily mean that Egypt will use more water, according to experts, who say that Nile water in Egypt is reused four to six times before draining into the Mediterranean.
A resolution may be coming soon. In 1999 Egypt, Sudan, and the eight other countries that share the Nile launched the Nile Basin Initiative, which is reportedly close to reaching an agreement on shared water use.
Those eight nations were not party to the 1959 treaty and do not recognize its figures.
In the meantime, however, Egypt is pushing ahead with its plans to turn the desert green.
"I don't see that they have so many other options," Granit said. "They need to move the people somewhere ... otherwise it could be a disaster for the county."
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