Rushdi Said: The desert dream
Rushdi Said, 86, is more than a celebrated geologist -- one of Egypt's best known. During the reign of both late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat, he was, even more significantly, a leading public figure, notably the head of the National Mining Organisation, later the Egyptian Geological and Survey Authority, the body responsible for surveying Egyptian deserts for mineral deposits. He has written a handful of books: The Geology of Egypt , The River Nile Geology , Hydrology and Utilisation -- attempts to reconstruct the history of the River Nile from its origins to its present, but also to ascertain the amount of water carried by the river during the course of its history. His latest book, Science and Politics in Egypt: A Life's Journey , is an extended memoir in several volumes not only about the geological surveys and mining projects he witnessed but on Nasser's policy of industrialisation -- of which he was an enthusiastic supporter -- and the effect of president Sadat's open door policy. Said gave up politics and public service in 1977, resigning as minister of industry. This, he says in his latest book, was in response to rising corruption in the mid-1970s, together with Sadat's decision to give priority to the tourism and services sectors at the expense of the manufacturing industry. He then worked on various private projects, often abroad. He was in the US in 1981 when Sadat, weeks before his assassination, ordered his arrest along with some 1,500 other public, religious, and political figures. Since then he has continued to live in the US, coming back for only a few months a year. For decades he has been a strong advocate of saving the Nile Valley from further degradation and opening up new frontiers for population settlement in the desert.
"Let me share with you my vision for the Egypt I want you to inhabit." Thus said Said to the American University in Cairo graduates of February 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, and inhabited by a population limited enough in numbers to live in harmony with their environment, maintain a balance with natural resources. I envision the deserts of Egypt strewn with well-spaced and well-planned habitation centres, built around extensive industrial bases and fuelled by locally available energy resources. That, in a nutshell, is my vision."
After all, Said had seen Egypt as it can no longer be seen -- except in old movies: planned cities, wide clean streets, elegant residential areas and, most importantly, no traffic. To him the overcrowding that has been rising steadily in the last 25 years is oppressive; it is something of which living in the US during that time has probably made him all the more acutely aware. He can see how the problem worsens yearly; it is an obstacle to development, he says; and the only answer is to move out of the Nile Valley, that one per cent of the country's surface area on which the population traditionally lives. His motto: "Urbanise the [western] desert." That vast expanse of land is, to Said's mind, the way not only to accommodate population growth but to empty, thus preserve the Nile Valley. Urbanising, moreover, is different from reclaiming.
It would be an enormous undertaking, turning the desert into a place to live, necessitating a complete redrafting of the map of the country. Yet Said believes it can be done. He acknowledges that many others have realised the problem, but takes issue with the way they tackled it. Reclaiming the desert for agricultural purposes, for example, is not a sustainable goal, he says. It depends on underground water that will sooner or later run out. Even extending canals out of the Nile into the desert is too costly: whether through Al-Salam Canal or the Toshka Canal, 200km south of Aswan, the pumping stations make agriculture too expensive an activity to achieve its goals.
"Agriculture is an economically unfeasible process to start with," Said pronounces. "So let alone cultivation of the desert." That is why agriculture is subsidised in the US and the EU, even despite the fact that they depend mostly on rain for irrigation; they do not have to worry about transporting water, cleaning canals or running irrigation authority. Cultivating the desert is a daunting prospect because, water transport costs notwithstanding, Egypt has little water to spare. Egypt's share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic metres annually, which in Said's opinion is barely enough, given rates of population growth and growing industrial consumption.
Even better management of the water, which would reduce waste, would not provide enough for desert irrigation. And in the same context, cultivation for export purposes -- that indeed is what is most enthusiastically encouraged -- is not something an economy can depend on. Even the creation of new industrial cities strikes him as a failure, for the housing and services needed to attract people to them has been inadequate.
So dismal is his view of later developments, even the Cairo subway, he feels, compounded the problem by facilitating life in the city, bringing more people to previously unspoiled green periphery like Al-Marg, thus turning it into a shanty town. Money spent on extending the subway, he explains, should have been used to extend a line alongside the Ring Road -- which would have helped create communities outside the city. Nor does building up the northern coast help, given that it is only used for three months of the year. Said wants nothing short of emptying the Nile Valley altogether, reserving "one of the most fertile stretches of land on earth" for agricultural purposes only; and however far-fetched this seems, he insists, the project can be undertaken gradually, though it would take decades to complete.
And encouraging people to relocate requires, first and foremost, attention to sources of income. Businesses -- and many of the factories in question, including those in Al-Mahalla, Kafr Al-Dawar and Shubra, are already very old -- should be moved out of the valley and into the desert; around them, you would build well planned cities, providing all necessary services. Draw in the factories by providing access to cheap land, cheap energy and loans for support during the transitional period; utilise the country's 65 trillion cubic foot-strong reserve of natural gas rather than exporting it as raw material and make viable use of underground water: "The revenue out of one cubic metre used by the industry is much higher than that of a cubic metre used by agriculture." If there is need for more water, small water pipes may be extended.
"Individuals should be left to build their own houses the way they like, possibly even room by room." This, he says by way of lending credibility to the claim, is already being done -- in the shanty towns. A lot of money is being spent on haphazard housing. "Had we planned the cities and given people the land on which to build them," he says, things would have been different. What makes an ideal city, though? A place where you can safely cross the road, and where there are small, pedestrian-only streets between houses in which children can play. That is obviously not the case with Toshka, where too many funds have been wasted on what will at best be "some limited farming activity". With no fertile land, Toshka cannot have much of a future; nor is industrialisation particularly viable, given the lack of power sources. Where large-scale mechanisation can induce fertility, no urbanisation will be possible.
The alternative is rather more difficult, indeed: difficult enough to be made the national project, with everyone participating at some level. Said's conviction is that Egyptians must only put their mind to something to achieve it -- liberating Sinai being the last example. "Everybody worked hard, willingly; it worked." Some 30,000 workers deprived of their mining jobs in Sinai worked miracles, he remembers -- Said was head of the National Mining Organisation in 1967 when Sinai was occupied -- in order to return to their work.
Nor should finance constitute an insurmountable obstacle: "This is a project that could easily be domestically financed." Why, indeed, the effort to attract foreign investment when Egypt has all the necessary drawing mechanisms, as it were: usable, exportable raw material in the form of oil and natural gas; a large domestic market, with a population of over 70 million (consumption capacity would increase if living standards went up); and well trained labour (that might require improving the education system).
Yet nothing at all can be done until legal and bureaucratic procedure are facilitated.
photo: Hashim Abul-Amaim