Desert Development Corridor: Into The Sahara
Farouk El-Baz proposes a superhighway to solve Egypt's pressing problems
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Reclaiming the desert has been a recurring theme throughout the 20th century. Today, there is a pressing case for developing the desert
This article advances the case for a proposed superhighway west of the Nile from the Mediterranean Sea coastline to Lake Nasser. The proposal would provide numerous opportunities for the development of new communities, agriculture, industry, trade and tourism around a 2,000 km strip of the Western Desert. The Government of Egypt was unable or unwilling to pursue the project, when I first proposed it 20 years ago, for whatever reasons. Because the country is presently facing insurmountable problems, the proposal is resubmitted for consideration by the private sector -- local, Arab and international investors.
Adequate transportation routes and mechanisms are essential to ever- increasing development. From the time of establishing the Egyptian State over 5,000 years ago, the Nile served as a mechanism to transport people, news, products, armies and tax collector -- all aspects of a unified, sustainable state. Similarly, the Greek, Roman and Arab Civilisation assured the ease and security of travel within the boundaries of their vast territories. More recently, European development was greatly assisted by the ease of transportation at the rise of Western Civilisations. It is also clear that superb transportation systems allowed the United States to better utilise its vast natural resources to reach its present position of prominence.
It is not possible to foresee establishment of a modern network of transportation systems within the confines of the Nile Valley and its Delta, because that would reduce agricultural land. The fertile soil within the inhabited strip of Egypt was deposited by the Nile River over millions of years, and it is irreplaceable. In the meantime, the growth of population negates the potential of continuing to live on and utilise only five per cent of the land area of Egypt. Thus, it is imperative to open new vistas for expansion outside of the inhabited strip. This proposal provides an innovative solution to the numerous problems that face Egypt today.
In addition to facilitating transport throughout Egypt, the proposed superhighway would limit urban encroachment over agricultural land and opens myriad opportunities for new communities close to over-populated towns. It also affords unlimited potential for new schools and training centers, industrial zones, trade centers, tourism; providing virgin territory for development initiatives in every field. This in itself gives hope to the new generations of Egyptians for a better future. It represents the best possible use of one of Egypt's natural resources -- the strip of the Western Desert that parallels the Nile and is close to its high-density population centers.
This particular strip of land was chosen because of its unique natural characteristics. It is basically flat with a gentle northward slope from west of Aswan to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea; the lack of topographic prominences makes it easy to pave. This strip is also devoid of east-west crossing valleys that are prone to flashfloods as in the case of the Eastern Desert. It passes close to vast tracts of fertile soils that are amenable to reclamation; most of such regions have potential for groundwater resources. The strip is also comparatively free of sandy areas; it is not crossed by lines of shifting dunes as in the case of regions farther to the west. Furthermore, the region is endowed with plentiful sunlight and persistent northerly wind. These conditions allow the use of renewable solar and wind energy in the future.
Based on the above, the proposed project includes the establishment of the following:
1- A superhighway to be built using the highest international standards, 1,200 km in length, from west of Alexandria to the southern border of Egypt,
2 - Twelve east-west branches, with the total length of approximately 800 km, to connect the highway to high-density population centers along the way,
3- A railroad for fast transport parallel to the superhighway,
4- A water pipeline from the Toshka Canal to supply freshwater, and
5- An electricity line to supply energy during the early phases of development.
1- NORTH-SOUTH HIGHWAY
The main highway runs parallel to the Nile River from Egypt's Mediterranean Sea coastline to its border with Sudan. Its distance from the Western scarp of the Nile Valley varies from 10 to 80 kilometers, based on the nature of the crossed land. It begins at a point between Alexandria and El-Alamein, perhaps near El-Hamman, to be selected for the establishment of a new international port. Egypt requires a technologically advanced port to serve future needs of import and export as well as increased trade with Europe and the expansion of maritime transport worldwide. In the meantime, the northern branch of the superhighway extends to Alexandria and its present port and airport and eastward through the Nile Delta coastal highway to Rosetta and Damietta.
The superhighway ends near the border with Sudan to allow a future extension to better link the two neighboring countries. Better ground links between Egypt and Sudan would have a positive impact on the economies of both countries. Near the terminal point, branches extend to Lake Nasser, Abu Simbel, and the Tushka depression -- all regions that have promise in development of fisheries, tourism and agriculture, respectively.
The aforementioned characteristics of the superhighway require the establishment of a private sector organisation to manage the road and its maintenance. The organisation would be responsible for manning the toll stations, providing emergency services, and maintaining the utility of the superhighway. Naturally, such an organisation requires a specific mandate and clear laws and regulations by the Egyptian Parliament to assure the safety and utility of the highway while placing limits on excessive government regulations or company profits.
2- EAST-WEST CONNECTORS
Branches of the main highway oriented in a roughly east-west direction would connect it to the main centers of population. They assure easy transport between the main cities of Egypt and between the main production areas and the outside world. Such branches may include the following:
Alexandria Branch: This branch connects the main north-south highway to the road leading to Alexandria, its port and airport. The eastern terminus of this branch would connect with roads leading to the northern cities and towns of the Nile Delta coastal zone including Rosetta and Damietta.
Delta Branch: This connects the superhighway with the heart of the Nile Delta, for example, at the city of Tanta. The branch would best be an elevated new road within the Delta to limit encroachment on the fertile land. It also might require a new bridge over the Rosetta Branch of the Nile River. From its terminal point at Tanta, it branches to upgraded roads leading to cities and towns of the Nile Delta. This would assure better links between the Delta and the rest of Egypt and the outside world.
Cairo Branch: This branch connects the superhighway with the Cairo-Alexandria road. It is envisioned to link it with upgraded roads leading to Maadi and eastward to Suez. This would allow the use of cargo land transport between Alexandria and Suez (the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea) as an alternative to the Suez Canal when the need arises.
Faiyum Branch: This connector would allow the development of the desert north of the Faiyum depression by establishing sites for tourism, new communities and agricultural areas. It also would allow an extension to the west of the depression for establishment of industries such as cement production.
Bahariya Branch: This branch improves the existing road to the Bahariya Oasis as a northern link to the New Valley Province to the south. It would also allow further development of the natural resources of the Bahariya depression including the iron ore deposits.
Minya Branch: The city of Minya has been one of the major population centers from ancient times. However, little development has reached its shores because of the centralisation of projects in and near Cairo. Minya has a university and can generate numerous avenues for local and regional development if it is better connected to the national market.
Assiut Branch: This case is identical to that of Minya in all aspects. In addition, Assiut has an airport that could be upgraded for civilian transport. It is also the end point of the road from Kharga, the capital of the New Valley Governorate, at the Nile Valley. This road is paved over the ancient Darb El-Arbain, the track of camel caravans connecting the Nile Valley and the oases of Darfur in northwestern Sudan, which can be upgraded and revitalised.
Qena Branch: This connector would open for agricultural development a vast area south of the Nile from the Qena Bend in the east to Nag Hammadi to the west. This plain represents fan deposits of streams that were more active during wetter climates in the past; therefore, groundwater resources would potentially underlie it. A westward road could also connect it with the existing road to the Kharga Oases to link the superhighway with the southern part of the New Valley Province.
Luxor Branch: This branch would allow unlimited growth of tourism and recreation on the plateau that overlooks the largest concentration of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites. It allows the erection of hotels and resorts on top of a magnificent plateau overlooking the Nile Valley.
Kom Ombu-Aswan Branch: Like the Qena Branch, the Kom Ombu segment opens up a vast tract of fertile land west of the Nile for reclamation. The region once hosted the channel of the Nile; segments of its ancient courses were revealed by radar images from space. Because of geological reasons, the Nile shifted its course eastward to its present location. Therefore, the abandoned land to the west would include fertile soil of the ancient Nile sediments. This makes it an excellent location for the expansion of agriculture west of the Nile. The Aswan segment connects the superhighway to the city of Aswan. It would allow the transport of products to and from the northern governates and the outside world. It would also allow the expansion of winter recreation resorts and tourism near the many archaeological sites and the High Dam.
Toshka Branch: The superhighway goes through the northeastern edge of the Toshka depression, where a canal from Lake Nasser has created several lakes. This region is slated for agricultural expansion. It is presently devoid of an adequate transportation infrastructure. The superhighway would provide all necessary mechanisms to transport people, material and products to and from the Toshka region.
Lake Nasser Branch: This connector is to be selected at a site that is amenable to the development of a major fishing port along the shores of Lake Nasser to the north (downstream) of Abu Simbel. Plentiful fish from the lake could be transported via the railroad to distribution centers throughout Egypt. The branch might also increase the potential use of Lake Nasser for eco-tourism.
3- MODERN RAILWAY
Egypt's railroads are very old and their tracks are laid on relatively soft soils that do not allow fast movement by heavy loads. Thus, the need exists for an advanced railroad system to serve present and future requirements of development. A rail- track parallel to the superhighway would serve that purpose. If deemed necessary, connecting tracks could be established along some of the east-west road branches in the future.
The aluminum manufacturing plant at Nag Hammadi west of Qena represents a good example of the need for a new railroad for industrial uses. At present, the raw material arrives from abroad at Alexandria. It is transported by heavy trucks from Alexandria to the factory in Nag Hammadi on the ailing and very crowded road network of the Nile Delta and Nile Valley. After processing, the aluminum is transported northward along the same road network. A railroad from the Mediterranean port to the Nag Hammadi connector would ease the operation, in addition to saving lives and property along the existing road network.
The superhighway ends at the southern border of Egypt along the Selima-Edfu camel caravan route. At this point, a short segment of road would connect it to the shores of Lake Nasser across from the town of Wadi Halfa, near the northern border of Sudan. There is a railroad that connects Wadi Halfa to the rest of eastern Sudan. Thus, it would facilitate transport between Egypt and the main cities and towns of Sudan.
4- WATER PIPELINE
No development could be assured without the presence of freshwater. Even though several areas along the path of the superhighway promise the existence of groundwater, a pipeline of fresh water from the Toshka Canal is required to run the length of the superhighway. It is envisioned that a pipe of about one meter in diameter would provide the necessary resources for human consumption during the early phases of the project. Agricultural and industrial development along the east-west connectors would be supplied either by groundwater resources or subsidiary canals from the Nile.
The length of the required pipeline is about 1,100 km. This is less than half that of the Great Man-Made River system in Libya. In the latter case, the main pipeline is four meters in diameter, is buried under seven meters of soil, and carries water from numerous wells in the south to the coastal zone with a total length of more than 2,000 km. Feeder pipelines with a diameter of 1.6 meters carry the water to the main pipeline. Within each of the well fields numerous pipelines carry the water from hundreds of wells to the feeder pipelines. In comparison, the proposed pipeline is neither technically difficult nor economically taxing to accomplish.
After pumping the water from the Toshka canal up to the plateau for approximately 300 meters, it would flow northward along the topographic gradient without any need for energy. It is even possible to imagine that the water flow down-gradient might be usable to produce mechanical energy that can be converted to electricity.
5- ELECTRICITY LINE
Initial phases of the proposed project require energy for lighting, and refrigeration. Therefore, a line to supply electricity is one of the requirements of the project. The required power can be supplied by any one of the generation plants along the Nile Valley as deemed appropriate.
Urban communities, industrial plants and agricultural farms to be initiated along the east- west branches should be encouraged to utilise solar and/or wind energy resources as much as possible. This encouragement can be in the form of tax breaks or grants from the Egyptian Government or international environmental agencies.
It is important to evaluate the pros and cons of any proposed project. In the case of the present proposal, it is difficult to think of any drawbacks from the environmental or socioeconomic points of view. The only question that comes to mind is how long it takes to secure a return on the investment of such an elaborate infrastructure. This question can only be answered by feasibility studies.
In the meantime, it is possible to list the benefits of the proposed project as follows:
* Ending urban encroachment on agricultural land in the Nile Valley
* Opening new land for desert reclamation and the production of food
* Establishing new areas for urban and industrial growth near large cities
* Creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Egyptian labour
* Arresting environmental deterioration throughout the Nile Valley
* Relieving the existing road network from heavy and dangerous transport
* Initiating new ventures in tourism and eco-tourism in the Western Desert
* Connecting the Toshka region and its projects with the rest of the country
* Creating a physical environment for economic projects by the private sector
* Involving the population at large in the development of the country
* Giving people, particularly the young, some hope for a better future
* Focusing people's energy on productive and everlasting things to do
Method of Execution
Although the project was proposed twenty years ago for execution by the Egyptian Government, its scope and the variety of its benefits suggest that it can best be accomplished by the private sector. At the time of the original proposal, experts placed its cost at six billion dollars. Perhaps now the necessary infrastructure would cost four times as much. However, the cost would not be too high for decisive solutions to many of Egypt's present problems, and tangible options for a better future. Furthermore, it would not represent a burden to the Egyptian Government, because it would be totally financed by the private sector -- local, regional and international investors. Naturally, this would require a vigorous and well though-out marketing campaign.
During the past twenty years, I have repeatedly written and widely lectured on the proposal at universities and research centers throughout Egypt. Audiences receive it with great enthusiasm and consider it ideal for a "national project," that is, something the whole nation can get involved in its planning, execution and utilisation.
Therefore, it is envisioned to involve experts from universities and research centres in the study and evaluation of various aspects of the proposed project. It would also be necessary to plan the training of workers in numerous fields for employment in the various aspects of the project. In addition, governorates may initiate lists of the kinds of development projects that could be established in their territories once the project begins.
It would also be advisable to involve the young in the process; the project is proposed to assure a better life for future generations. University students could compete for prizes in recommending projects on either side of the connectors along the superhighway. High school students could be given opportunities to compete for other prizes for naming the east- west branches and the new towns and villages to be established along these branches. If a large number of people become involved in the project, it would have a better chance for being considered a "national project," one that the society as a whole owns and protects.
My granddaughter Yasmeen is 10 years old and attends school in Washington DC, where her parents live. She returned from school one recent day to tell her mother that the teacher mentioned Egypt in the first lesson in history. She added that the teacher said that history repeats itself and asked if it were true. When her mother answered positively, she excitedly asked: "Does this mean that Egypt can be great again?"
We need to answer the question of this youngster who lives far away, but keeps Egypt in her heart and mind. The answer requires deep thinking and hard work by a generation or two. Egypt has lived through many great episodes when its people were focused on their work, supportive of each other, and aimed at the common good. Once in a while, Egyptians fall into a quietude, hermitically sealing their minds, and receding from the world around them. But, stagnation episodes are usually short, and Egyptians spring back into action leading the way to civilised life. Is it fair then to ask: "When will Egyptians return to holding the banner of civilisation?"
From the earliest time of recorded history, civilisation blossomed among groups of people who were collectively able to achieve the following:
1. Production of excess of food, for the growth of their bodies and minds
2. Division of labor among the society, in a fair and well organised manner
3. Easy living in urban areas, where some of them could create and innovate
Therefore, Egypt needs to satisfy these three conditions before paving the road for the re-spread of civilisation along the banks of the Nile River. It is my belief that the proposed superhighway would go a long way toward achieving these goals. This needs strong faith in the resilience of the descendents of the energetic builders of the Pyramids. It would require a mere generation or two for this development initiative to bear fruit. This is not a long time in the 8,000- year history of Egypt, which deserves a distinguished position among great nations now and in the future.
Farouk El-Baz is Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, Boston MA, US and Adjunct Professor of Geology at the Faculty of Science, Ain Shams University. He is Senior Advisor to the World Bank/UN World Commission on Water for the 21st Century.
From 1967 to 1972, El-Baz participated in the NASA U.S, Apollo Programme as Supervisor of Lunar Science Planning. In 1973, NASA selected him as Principal Investigator of the Earth Observations and Photography Experiment on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the first joint American-Soviet space mission of July 1975.
Emphasis was placed on photographing arid environments, particularly the Great Sahara Desert of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. El-Baz analysed space photographs utilizing innovative techniques to select sites for detailed ground investigation. He first used this approach in the Western Desert of Egypt and soon applied the method to study deserts in the Arab Gulf states, China and India. His research methods are now commonly replicated in desert studies throughout the world.
El-Baz is also well known as a pioneer in the application of space-borne data to ground-water exploration. He successfully applied his methods in the arid lands of Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Oman.
El-Baz is a member of the United States National Committee for Geological Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences and serves on the Board of Trustees of many academic and scientific organizations.
He has won numerous honors and awards, including NASA's Apollo Achievement Award.