Parliament to scrutinise Toshka
The extent of land reclaimed by the Toshka project was the subject of a heated parliamentary debate, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Questions over the economic viability of the massive Toshka project have dogged the land reclamation scheme since it was first launched amid fanfare almost a decade ago. Last Monday they reached the People's Assembly, where in a bad- tempered four-hour exchange opposition MPs Akram El-Shaer and Mostafa Bakri criticised the project as an intolerable drain on the nation's finances.
"In 1997," said Muslim Brotherhood MP El-Shaer, "the government attempted to sell Toshka to the Egyptian people as the country's fourth pyramid, a beautiful vision that would not only meet Egypt's huge food needs in the 21st century but turn the country into a major agricultural exporter."
Ten years on, he continued, and the dream has turned into a nightmare. Toshka, he said, has failed to meet every one of its objectives. Intended as a new community that would ease congestion in the Nile Valley, the mega project has resulted in the creation of a paltry 750 new jobs.
Nor, said El-Shaer, have any housing units been constructed since the necessary infrastructure is still lacking.
In 1997 the government claimed the project would provide 540,000 feddans of agricultural land within 10 years, and 3.4 million feddans by the end of 2017. Yet by February 2006 the minister of irrigation announced that just 23,000 feddans had been brought into cultivation.
"This falls dismally short of the original target," said El-Shaer, who questioned the accuracy of even this low figure, claiming that the actual area now being cultivated is probably closer to 4,000 feddans.
El-Shaer claimed that Toshka had been given the go-ahead without the necessary feasibility studies, and that the cost of the project so far has topped LE7 billion. "This means that the cost of reclaiming one feddan is a staggering LE1.750 million," said El-Shaer.
Bakri continued the attack by focusing on what he called the "corrupt practices that have marred the project". He criticised the government for allocating 6,000 feddans to The Kingdom Agricultural Company (KAC), owned by the Saudi Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal. The government, said Bakri, had volunteered LE1.6 billion in order to build the necessary infrastructure for KAC. "Yet in spite of all this," he said, "KAC currently uses no more than 1,200 feddans."
Bakri called on the government to withdraw the land from Bin Talal and offer it to Egyptian investors.
"The Toshka lands should be put up for sale in a public auction rather than being directly allocated to Arab investors such as Al-Walid," said Bakri.
In responding to the charges, Minister of Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid denied that Toshka had been an intolerable burden on the national economy. He said as many as 350 studies had been carried out on the project since the '70s, ranging from scientific and technical research to cost benefit analyses. A total of 14 studies, he pointed out, "conducted by such prestigious institutions as the World Bank and the US-based Arther Andersen Consultancy" had been devoted to examining the project's economic feasibility.
Abu Zeid went on to dispute the figures provided by both Bakri and El-Shaer. The project, he said, had already met 85 per cent of its reclamation targets. Some 41,000 feddans are already under cultivation, he said, while yet more land is being reclaimed. Work on several canals is progressing according to schedule, and the giant pumping station that provides the area with water for irrigation has been completed at a cost of LE1.5 billion.
"Some 42 Egyptian, Arab and foreign companies are now involved in making the project a success," added Abu Zeid.
The total cost of the project to date, he revealed, is now LE8.9 billion. "This figure includes the cost of land reclamation and of constructing the necessary infrastructure," said Abu Zeid, who argued the costs were sustainable as long as the project meets its reclamation targets. He dismissed El-Shaer's claim that the cost per reclaimed feddan was LE1.7 million, saying it was much closer to LE10,000, and pointed out that "Toshka products are now on sale in Arab and European markets."
"We are used to mega-development projects being the subject of hostile campaigns. It happened with the High Dam project in the '50s and it is happening with the Toshka project now," said the minister of irrigation.
"Yet we all know how valuable the dam has been. It has saved Egypt from both floods and from droughts."
Abu Zeid warned that Egypt's population is expected to reach 140 million by 2017. "Egypt will then be in desperate need of more agricultural land, for which reason the government is currently examining proposals for other major projects along the same lines as Toshka, with the aim of reducing population pressure on the Nile Valley.
The debate concluded with the People's Assembly agreeing to dispatch a parliamentary delegation to visit Toshka on a fact finding mission.