|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 February 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (428)
Whether it was the promise of oil or the threat of invasion, the desert has at once fascinated and concerned Egyptians. In 1928, there were also anxieties over the Nile -- their main source of water. And the more Egyptians grew anxious over their water supply, the more they became obsessed with desert dreams of agricultural development, alternative sources of water and the generation of electricity. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk reviews the work of several Al-Ahram writers who dreamt of making the desert bloom/
The desert, which makes up 90 per cent of Egypt's area of one million square kilometres, has always been a source of anxiety for Egyptians. Most foreign invasions down the ages came from the desert. In the 20th century alone came the Turkish campaigns against the Suez Canal in World War I, the Israeli invasions of 1956 and 1967 from the east across Sinai and invasions of the Axis powers in World War II, halted by the Allied powers at Al-Alamein.
On the other hand, the desert has been a font of dreams. One was the dream of oil, which came true in the eastern desert south of Suez and in the northern part of the Western Desert -- albeit not to the extent Egyptians had hoped for. Another dream that has captivated Egyptians was to transform the chain of oases in the Western Desert into a fertile valley, which the Egyptians have dubbed the New Valley. Yet a third was to take advantage of the topographical characteristics of the Western Desert to generate electricity, towards which end water from the Mediterranean would be pumped into the Qatara depression.
A look at Al-Ahram over the past century reveals that the more Egyptians were haunted by anxieties over the Nile -- their main source of water -- the more they became obsessed with their desert dreams. This was particularly apparent in 1928.
The Nilotic anxieties that year had some solid foundations. Yielding to pressure from the British high commissioner's office, the Ministry of Public Works engaged Sir Murdock McDonald as its adviser on a number of projects it hoped to put into operation: increasing the height of the Aswan Dam, the White Nile project and reinforcing the barrages at Qanatir. Al-Ahram was suspicious of the appointment. On 26 February 1928, its editorial addressed this concern under the headline: "Calling a spade a spade." The concluding paragraph of the editorial read: "Everything is patently obvious, even if the names of the occupants of certain positions have changed. Can anyone truly believe that the people of this nation are unaware of the facts and that they can be taken in?"
This article was only the beginning of a campaign waged on the pages of Al-Ahram over the following weeks against British policy towards the Nile. One of the most ardent spokesmen for Egypt's rights to the Nile was MP Mahgoub Thabet, dubbed by his contemporaries the "Lover of Sudan." His article in Al-Ahram carried the headline: "To memory, truth and history: Who controls the waters of the Nile?"
Thabet reminded readers of the Ethiopian scheme to engage an American construction firm to dam Lake Tsana endangering Egypt's water resources. Once Britain got wind of the scheme, it pressured Crown Prince Al-Ras Tefri to abandon the project and simultaneously exhorted Washington to prevent the US firm from going ahead with the project. Thabet observed that the British believed that the damming of Lake Tsana would threaten the cotton industry in Sudan which was monopolised by several British firms.
Thabet then turned to what he termed "the second key" to the Nile: the Uganda and the Great Lakes complex of the equatorial plateau. In this regard, he cited an 1894 British blue paper stating that following the evacuation of the Egyptian army from the Equatorial Province in southern Sudan, the British secured control over the sources of the Nile, and that the power that controls these sources controls Egypt. This power is in a position "to wreak havoc on Egypt by withholding from it the flow of Nile waters," Thabet warned.
From the top: Sir Murdock McDonald, Dawoud Barakat, Hussein Sirri and Othman Muharram
Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief followed through on Thabet's article with one of his own entitled: "The Sudan belongs to us and we to Sudan: When will we have a Nile water policy?" If Dawoud Barakat was not as alarmist as Thabet, he had little praise for Britain's policies on Sudan and the Nile. London's first step for securing control over the Nile was to pressure Egypt into accepting a joint administration of Sudan. This arrangement was instituted following the capitulation of the Mahdists before the Anglo- Egyptian reconquest expedition, even though the British had reneged on their commitment to pay the 800,000 pounds that were to be earmarked from the Debt Fund for financing the campaign. Stage two in the British strategy was the construction of the Aswan Dam. The purpose of this was "to increase the cotton yield, not on behalf of Egypt, but on behalf of the Lancashire spinning and weaving plants that were facing increasing competition from their American counterparts." Barakat continues: "When the Debt Fund refused to finance this project, the famous British entrepreneur, Earnest Castle stepped forward with a pledge to provide the funds for construction, for which he was reimbursed at an exorbitant rate of interest from the Egyptian treasury."
In a subsequent article, Barakat complained of "a shortage of the water necessary for Nile boat traffic, especially in the tourist season, for which reason people are confused and worried, even though last year's flood was moderate and did not presage such low water levels." He goes on to say that some people attributed this phenomenon to the accumulation of water in the Mikwar reservoir constructed by the British in Sudan, while "others have asserted that the waters of the Nile are being held back in Sudan for political reasons." Barakat then asserts Egypt's natural right to the Nile, which by no means should be equated with what the British had come to refer to as Sudan's right to these waters. Proof of this lay in Sir McDonald's observation that Sudan's water requirements were met by the waters provided by annual Nile floods, that is to say, without the need for reservoirs.
At the time of these articles, negotiations were under way over the construction of the Jabal Al-Awliya' reservoir, which fuelled further controversy over the fate of the Nile. On 16 November 1928, Al-Ahram featured an in-depth report on this project by two of Egypt's foremost irrigation engineers, Othman Muharram and Mohamed Zaghlul, who warned that the reservoir envisaged for southern Sudan would pose a significant threat to Egypt. Above all, it would restrict the flow of water into Egypt in the summer from the White Nile which Egypt depends on during the season of the Nile's lowest water level.
Undoubtedly such Nilotic anxieties inspired desert dreams of agricultural development, alternative sources of water and the generation of electricity. Al-Ahram, for its part, helped air these dreams, and it was fortuitous that the Borders Authority and the Public Health Authority had commissioned the Health Authority's chemical expert, Monsieur Ezadian to submit a study on the western oases. His report, published in Al-Ahram, focused mainly on Farafra Oasis, located 300 kilometres west of Assiut between Al-Bahriya and Al-Dakhla oases. All of its 400 to 500 inhabitants, he writes, live in a single village: Qasr Al-Farafra. Curiously, he observed, the number of males was almost exactly equal to the number of females. Perhaps that was why, as he discovered, only five men in Farafra had more than one wife, leading him to conclude that the men of Farafra tended to take only one wife. He added that when the Spanish fever hit the oasis in 1917, it wiped out more than half the population, reducing it from 345 to 170.
In the course of his study of Farafra, Ezadian took the opportunity to talk with the people most knowledgeable about the oasis and its people: Sayed Ali, the village's religious elder who "recited to us the names of his ancestors seven generations back." The village is run by a mayor who "supervises the oasis with the assistance of two village chiefs." Through such contacts and extensive exposure to life in the village, Ezadian learned that although Farafra was the poorest of Egypt's western oases, "its people are of generous, sincere and humble character. In general, the inhabitants of the oases are honest people who readily help one another."
Qasr Al-Farafra, located on a low-lying plateau, consisted of some 115 houses huddled around the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress that commanded the highest point in that area. Writes Ezadian, "The villagers use the fortress to store their crops of dates, wheat, barley, corn, olive oil and olives." The fortress had a 40- foot-deep well but it has been dry for several years. Naturally, this was not the only well in the oasis. According to Ezadian, there were more than 20 wells, each of which had its own name, the most well-known being the Pharaoh's Well and the Nile Valley well, the water from which is salty."
As though urging Egyptians to visit the oases, Ezadian extols the salubrious climate which he attributed in part to the Farafrans' judicious use of their water resources. Through precise regulation of the water used in irrigation, consumption and other necessities, "no water goes to waste and, therefore, there are no stagnant pools of water, no humidity and no mosquitoes." Nature took care of the rest: the oasis is situated "in a vast depression that receives the wind from the north and the refreshing air it brings."
The Farafra economy was dependent mainly on dates. It took 700 camels to transport the date harvest to the various mercantile centres and each camel carried four 70-pound loads, or 280 pounds, but Ezadian points out that the load in other oases was 50 pounds. Other crops cultivated in Farafra were barley, corn and olives. From the corn, the Farafrans produced a special kind of round white bread and the olive oil they produced was famous, indeed "said to be better than the olive oil produced in all the other oases."
Contrary to popular belief, Ezadian wrote, the people of Farafra were not cut off from the rest of Egypt. There was a regular postal service running between the oasis and Beni Mazar, in the Nile Valley, operated by an Italian postal bureau. Of course, it took about one month for mail to arrive since it came by camel. In addition, two roads linked the oasis with the Nile Valley. Ezadian observed that the roads were better suited to camels, but cars used them. After all, the four-car caravan carrying Ezadian's investigation team succeeded in negotiating its way to Farafra on one of those roads.
A slightly better road linked the Nile Valley to the Al-Bahriya Oasis. Ezadian noted that the first stretch of the 360-kilometre road from Burg Al-Arab was rocky but that its middle part was paved. In 1922 the director of the Border Authority had travelled on the road by automobile.
Al-Dakhla and Al-Kharga were described by Ezadian as two of Egypt's "most fragrant gardens." The soil was excellent, the land extremely fertile. "This is due to abundant fresh water provided by the many springs and wells, with no need for pumping devices. All the people here have to do is dig a deep hole and the water gushes to the surface. Indeed, when they dug the Ein Al- Sheikh well, the water rose to a height of six metres." The abundance of water enabled the people of these oases to cultivate wheat, "which grows rapidly with no need for fertiliser," fava beans, barley, clover and rice. But the authorities in the oases banned rice cultivation last year on account of the fact that the accumulated water in the paddies breeds mosquitoes which spread disease. The oases also grew oranges and apricots, "which are delicious beyond description," as well as olives and date palms "which are the pillar of the prosperity in these parts."
Surprisingly, in view of this abundance, these oases, which once supported a large population, had become desolate, their inhabitants having long since migrated to other parts of Egypt "where they engage in assorted forms of menial labour." As for the people left behind, "they are beleaguered and poor and have become lazy, as a result of which some fields have gone arid, trees have dried up and wells have been left unattended."
Ezadian attributed the desertion of the oases to several factors. The promulgation of martial law was one major cause as people fled despotism, forced labour and imprisonment for the slightest offenses. A second problem was the lack of a proper system to regulate the ownership of land and wells. "When a group of people decide to dig a well, many of their fellow villagers chip in to help without wages. Thus, when the work is completed and the water emerges, all these people will have a share in the well and it could happen that the number of partners exceeds 80." Third, in spite of their poverty, the people received no government assistance in any form. Finally, despite the productivity of their land, their produce had few consumers because it could not reach a broader market. "Between Al-Dakhla and Al-Kharga there are only camels or dilapidated buses that take three days to reach their destination." He concludes that so long as these problems persist the oases will not attract people from the Nile Valley and that the dream of developing them for agriculture will remain remote.
At 6,990 metres below sea level, the 18,100-square-kilometre- wide Qatara depression is one of the lowest lying areas in Africa. The idea of using this topography to generate electricity was the subject of three Al-Ahram articles which demonstrated that the dream, advocated by Hussein Sirri, the director of the Survey Department, was there even if the writer of these articles, Kamel Nagati, thought that the dream was closer to a nightmare.
Nagati called attention first to the exorbitant costs such an ambitious enterprise would entail. There was the question of the two proposed underground canals to take the water from the sea to the depression. The construction of each would cost LE1.5 million per one kilometre. On top of this, the project required extending the Marriout railway line a distance of 50 kilometres to the depression, at a cost of no less than LE2 million, in order to transport workers and the necessary electricity-generating equipment. Then there was the holding basin that would have to be built as well as the breakwater in the Mediterranean at the inlet to the water conduits. In short, Nagati estimated that the entire project would cost LE34,280,000. Moreover, not only would it take 20 years to collect such a sum, but "we would not be able to profit from the project until the money has been fully repaid, along with the interest which would subsequently come to LE46 million."
In his next article, Nagati went into considerable detail about the location of the basin and the facilities required, after which he concluded that by the time it was completed the entire enterprise would have cost nearly twice the previously estimated figure, or approximately LE60 million. Then, in sarcastic tones, he reiterated the projection cited by Hussein Sirri: "He said in the daily Al-Siyasa that it is possible to move 40 million cubic metres of water a day from the Mediterranean through the two canals to the depression where it will plummet down 50 metres below sea level, and that the force of this water will turn the electricity-generating turbines at a speed approximately equivalent to that powered by a 300,000 horsepower steam engine." Nagati then proceeded to discuss the technical details that contradicted Sirri's projection.
Further technicalities follow in Nagati's third article in which he concludes that the electricity-generating dream in the Western Desert is impossible to realise. It was not just a question of diverting inland sea water to fall over a precipice; intermediate phases were involved. For example, when the water emerged from the conduits, it had to collect in a basin behind a dam no less than eight metres high and 200 metres long so that it could be distributed evenly through the pipes that would precipitate the water downward at high pressure. The pipes would have to be of a strength and diametre that defied the available technology of the time.
Sirri had also estimated that the generators and the buildings that housed them would cost LE15 million. Nagati scoffed at this estimate and added that it failed to include the costs of monitoring, maintenance and spare parts. "In addition, the fuel consumption will be enormous." In light of this and further technicalities, Nagati revised the cost estimates he cited in his first article. The first two phases of the project, he said, would cost LE50 million, to which had to be added six per cent interest rate over a 10- year period, raising the total cost to LE90 million. The figure, moreover, did not include an additional LE28 million for equipment, machinery and other facilities.
The controversy over the possibility of pumping sea water into the Qatara depression to generate electricity was such that it aroused the interest of the British press. In the opinion of the London Times, the concept of using water power in the Qatara depression to generate electricity appeared too costly to be financially feasible. The nature of the terrain made it impossible to consider constructing an open-air canal from the sea to the depression. This meant that water would have to be channelled through an underground tunnel some 40 miles long, "and it is quite apparent what a colossal operation the construction of such a tunnel would be."
Nevertheless, the British newspaper was not entirely pessimistic. It advised testing the rocky substratum through which the proposed water tunnels would pass. If the tests proved positive then perhaps the Egyptian authorities should contemplate going ahead with the project. Certainly the idea of generating electricity in the Western Desert had its attractions. "Transmitting the electricity generated there to the Delta would be easy and spare the Egyptians the costs of importing fuel for drainage and irrigation works, lighting up cities and powering the trams and trains. It would also supply Egyptian industry with the power to lead it forward," the Times wrote.
The Times did warn that the vast lake the project would create in the Qatara depression would have a major impact on the climate. It concluded, however, that while it would be intriguing to study this prospect, the chances were that it would not detract from the benefits Egyptians would gain from the abundant electricity that would be at their disposal.
In the end, Nagati's realism won out over Sirri's rosy optimism, at least as far as the Qatara electricity-generating dream was concerned. It was Sirri who became minister of public works from 1937 to 1939 and then prime minister from 1940 to 1942 but he never sought to put his plan into effect. Meanwhile, Egyptians had to await the completion of the High Dam for the dream of hydroelectric power to come true, even if its source proved to be the Nile and not the desert.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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