Green desert -- at what cost?
Last week saw the inauguration of the Mubarak Water Pump Station at Toshka. Fatemah Farag steps back from the festivities and considers the ramifications
"Nobody in Egypt realises what we are doing here," lamented Ahmed Fouad, an engineer at Al-Mamlakah, the Toshka farm owned by the Saudi Arabian billionaire Walid Bin Talal, one of the project's biggest investors. "A couple of days ago we gave the pumps a trial run and people were literally weeping with joy when water gushed through the gates," he added.
For the 10,000 men who have withstood the insufferable heat, scorpions and snakes, the unrelenting sands of the scorched desert and the longing for their families, Toshka is taken very seriously. "After graduation I worked in the Gulf and then the job market crashed. I came back to Egypt and looked desperately for a job but to no avail. Then I was offered this job and the pay is good so I came out two and a half years ago. The worst thing is being so far away from my family. And then there is the heat, of course. When I came here it was all sand and rocks, but now look at it," Fouad said, as he proudly pointed out to the patches of green and tunnel-like yellow plastic greenhouses. Today, Al-Mamlakah boasts exports of asparagus, grapes and cantaloupe, to name but a few products.
We were all gathered to attend the inauguration of the Mubarak Water Pump Station, said to be one of the largest concrete structures in the world. Since the station came into operation, it has been pumping 14.5 million cubic metres per day of water from Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan High Dam, to irrigate over half a million feddans (one feddan = roughly one acre) of desert land. With the completion of similar pumps and canals, the Toshka project is expected to increase Egypt's agricultural land area by 540,000 feddans.
This is part of a national project to reclaim a total of 3.4 million feddans by the year 2017. In addition to Toshka, the East Oweinat project in the south-western desert aims at reclaiming another 200,000 feddans and the North Sinai Development Project yet another 400,000 feddans.
The overall atmosphere was one of celebration in Toshka last week. Work began at Toshka on 9 January 1997, one of five "mega-projects" launched under former Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzoury. But by the time he was ousted from office in 1999 the projects had been blamed for creating the foreign-exchange shortage that eventually forced the government to devalue the currency. Critics also cited the fact that parliament's Agricultural and Irrigation Committee had been excluded from the pre-approval round of debates; that the capital-intensive nature of the project makes it a poor provider of job opportunities and that the project is simply too expensive for a country of Egypt's means.
Despite the bouts of heated debates on its viability, last week's festivities demonstrated that, at the very least, the Toshka project has by no means not been put on hold, albeit having been put slightly behind schedule.
The pump, constructed under the auspices of Hamza Associates -- the same firm that built the Bibliotheca Alexandrina -- is heralded as yet another example of the advanced state of Egyptian engineering. The greenery, albeit patchy, is evidence that crops can grow in Toshka, and the fact that exports have begun is an indication that the project might play a role in improving Egypt's agricultural exports prospects.
The project relies on water from Lake Nasser on the one hand and subterranean water pumped from a current total of 114 wells on the other. And while Bin Talal boasted that the Al-Mamlakah company this year registered a 17 per cent profit, the question remains: at what overall cost?
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IS THERE ENOUGH WATER TO GO AROUND?: The abundance of water at Lake Nasser contrasts with the dry water channels that have been dug in the desert; modern irrigation techniques are costly to install but essential to conservation
The idea behind the Toshka project is for Egypt's burgeoning population to break out of the narrow confines of the Nile Valley. The irony here is that while $3.7 billion is spent annually by the government on all three projects, urban sprawl within the fertile valley itself is allowed to continue unchecked, thereby eating up highly fertile agricultural land on a daily basis.
Egypt's case is typical of the rest of the Middle East region where it is estimated that 60 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, cities are growing faster than countries can cope with, while population growth in rural areas feeds a pool of potential rural-to-urban migrants. Noteworthy is the fact that people in cities tend to use more water than those living in rural areas, which means urbanisation can exacerbate water deficits.
Further, Egypt argues that Toshka, and the other reclamation projects, can be managed within its 55 billion cubic metres per year quota -- a quota stipulated by the 1959 Nile Treaty. This argument is made on the grounds that in addition to the 55 billion cubic metres of Nile water, Egypt receives 1 billion cubic metres of rain annually and has 7.5 billion cubic metres of ground water at its disposal. Added to this is 5 billion cubic metres of recycled agricultural drainage water per year. According to the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources, with the development of a modern irrigation system and the cultivation of crops requiring minimal water, the country should have more than enough water to supply the national land reclamation project including the 5 billion cubic metres of water per year required by the first phase of the Toshka project to reclaim 500,000 feddans of land.
But the installation of modern irrigation techniques is costly and the overhaul of the national irrigation system is taking time. And hence every year there are reports of agricultural lands within the Nile Valley that are not receiving sufficient irrigation water. In addition to this, water intensive crops -- namely sugar cane which is cultivated in Upper Egyptian governorates -- remains one of the most viable cash crops within the liberalised agricultural economy. Field visits to Upper Egypt by Al-Ahram Weekly have shown that farmers in newly reclaimed lands have little choice but to cultivate sugar cane if they are to meet the basic needs of their families.
And while local water management agents struggle to meet domestic challenges, fears of regional and global water shortages continue to grow. Today, the generally accepted argument is that that future conflict within the region will erupt as a result of water shortages rather than politics. According to the Population Reference Bureau based in Washington DC, "the Middle East and North Africa is the most water-scarce region of the world. Home to 6.3 per cent of the world's population, the region contains only 1.4 per cent of the world's renewable fresh water." Algeria, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and all the Gulf countries are defined as water-scarce (i.e. with less than 1,000 cubic metres of renewable fresh water per person per year) and Egypt is not far above the mark.
The 10 countries that share the Nile Basin have been embroiled in political conflict on and off for decades. Each of the largest three countries in the basin -- Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan -- can only increase their share at the expense of the other two. The latest of Egyptian concerns has been the Machakos Protocol -- which was signed on 19 July and aimed at ending the decades-old civil war in Sudan. The protocol stipulated a referendum that might give southern Sudan total independence from the north. Cairo expressed fears that this would increase competition for and conflict over the Nile waters. More importantly for Egypt, however, is the situation in Ethiopia, since 85 per cent of the country's water comes from the Atbara and the Blue Nile branches of the river which originate in the Ethiopian highlands.
Within this climate of unease, Toshka can only be regarded with trepidation by the nine other riparian states.
Both Sudan and Ethiopia expressed their ire at the outset of the project, and Ethiopia went as far as to request an amendment to the 1959 Nile Treaty. Since then, Egypt has been loath to acknowledge any distress its water and land reclamation projects may be creating up-stream. Emphasis has instead been placed on the leading role played by the Egyptian government in coordinating and initiating advanced water management and conservation efforts among riparian states.
Fears of water scarcity in the region are part of a global problem. Over the past 50 years world water demand has trebled as a result of population growth, the commercialisation of agriculture and the spread of diesel and electrically driven pumps which consume more water than conventional pumping methods. This week, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reminded the world once again that 800 million people across the globe are starving and that water conservation and fair water distribution is the backbone of adequate agricultural production.
"The worst thing is that when I go back home nobody understands the importance of my work. When the High Dam was being built the people working on the project were considered national heroes. Today, because the private sector has taken over everything, this is considered just another job -- all that counts is how much money you can make out of it. But I cannot believe that. Our lives are being spent on a great national project," Fouad told me. His voice was full of conviction. The eyes, however, searched for confirmation.