Revitalising the peninsula
Mai Samih discovers how science is helping to develop agriculture in Sinai
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Clockwise from top left: preparing the seedlings; tomatoes in the closed agricultural system; school children learning how to plant pelroties mushrooms developed from rice straw in Al-Tor City in Sinai;the closed agricultural system
When the Ministry of Scientific Research decided to start receiving research proposals in August from research centres throughout Egypt to help develop Sinai, it was looking for creative ideas. This was because for Sinai, a link between Africa and Asia and a centre for trade between east and west for millennia, creativity in research is a must.
The research that the ministry was interested in was how to develop agriculture in Sinai and how to help local residents learn skills from which they can make a living. Back in 2010, attempts were made by the government to develop the peninsula but little materialised. However, some of the ideas presented to the ministry then were tried in other governorates, and they turned out to be profitable.
For an area rich in mountains, plains, valleys, and coastline and home to around 400,000 people in north Sinai and around 160,000 in south Sinai, according to statistics from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), there is great room for development.
Professor Sami Abu Raya at the National Research Centre (NRC) is currently supervising a project to plant nuts like pistachios and walnuts in north and south Sinai that is to last five years and promises huge benefits if it can be properly implemented. "We need funding as this plantation could bring in huge sums of money, and according to our research we could plant it at a quarter of its projected cost," Abu Raya said.
The project includes making use of the large spaces between peach trees in Sinai to plant nuts. A similar project started in 1998 and ended in 2002, and another took place from 2005 to 2007. According to professor Bahaaeddin Mekki, NRC head of field crop research, it is only through teaching the Sinai Bedouin farming that they will ever achieve stability.
Irrigation could be a challenge, and though Sinai has almost 3,000 wells in the north, there are only 130 in the south, according to official figures. "The NRC pioneered the use of well-water for planting vegetables under the supervision of the northern and southern Sinai governorates and the Academy of Scientific Research, but the problem is that a project tends to die after its funding ends or its supervisor changes. Sinai depends on wells for irrigating the land, and this needs coordination from the Ministry of Irrigation to ensure that the Bedouin do not migrate from the land."
Mekki has been supervising many studies carried out in Sinai and implementing others himself. "We have been planting wheat, fodder and legumes like broad beans that are used locally as well as canola oil that can survive high winds and salination," he said. Egypt currently imports around 60 per cent of its needs of canola oil, which is now planted in winter in Sinai since it cannot be planted in the Delta because strategic crops like wheat are given priority there.
Mekki has sent three projects for the development of Sinai to the Ministry of Scientific Research, including planting oil plants, and increasing peanut, soya and sunflower crops, which should provide residents with their needs and give them a chance to export the surplus. His team has been working on research in Rafah, Arish, southern Sinai, Sharm El-Sheikh, and Al-Tor.
Another enthusiast scientist, Hisham Afifi, NRC professor of plant physiology, has supervised five MA and seven PhD theses on Sinai development, and he believes that there are many projects there that could boost national income. "We could avoid toxic ingredients in plants, like tackling the problem of broad beans that cause anemia in some children, by better managing things in Sinai. We are also looking into crops that can adapt to winds, the scarcity of water or even the salinity of water," he said.
Afifi's team has been planting wheat in Fayoum and helping the plant adapt to winds and highly saline water by spraying it with amino acids to alter its hormonal composition, raising gains by 9.8 per cent per acre. This project was carried out over two years as a pilot before its migration to Sinai.
"Other areas include growing potatoes from seed instead of importing them, along with using another type that only grows in winter, decreasing the 'sleep phase' of the plant. There have also been experiments to increase the yields of chillies, as well as to save on agricultural space, increasing yields in some cases by up to 80 per cent. The same goes for peanuts and some other types of beans. As far as cotton is concerned, we have been working on improving yields and strengthening the resistance of the plants," Afifi said.
The government needs to do more to provide scientists with what they need to implement such projects, however. "The equipment is important, and more should be done to cut red tape."
Other scientists like Samir Ragab, NRC research professor, have been working on methods of saving water for agriculture and reusing it. Ragab has been experimenting on using non-soil agriculture in south Sinai, which suffers from a scarcity of water. The population depends on ground water as there is no Nile water there. Non-soil agriculture is based on the idea of using the least amount of water possible to grow crops and reusing it in a system that will produce essential vegetables for residents.
In this system, water goes through a cycle powered by energy from solar generators to fill containers with water that then contains the seeds. Surplus water is drained off to huge containers ready to be used again. This is called a closed system of irrigation, and Shaaban Abu Hussein, NRC agricultural and biological research professor, worked with Ragab from 2007 to 2010 and explains how the project started.
"There were EU funds available for those presenting ideas for developing Sinai. As a research group we presented a project to help the Bedouin grow their own vegetables instead of buying them from the Ismailia governorate. Because water is scarce in Sinai, we thought of a system to grow vegetables without wasting water, namely the closed system of irrigation. This has meant that we can plant lettuces, tomatoes, chillies and cucumbers with the least amount of water and achieve the best quality."
Agricultural waste is also used to make fertiliser. Abu Hussein has also been teaching Sinai residents how to plant mushrooms, now a profitable crop there. "We are also training women to work in agriculture, which should help to make Sinai even more developed."
There have been efforts to allow more women to earn their living by training them to raise goats, plant crops and make their own fodder to feed their animals. The NRC has thus far distributed 39 goats as part of a pilot project, and it now aims to distribute more to help 420 needy families within three years. The project aims to help families start projects like dairies or farms that can increase meat production using modern scientific methods.
According to CAPMAS, the percentage of poverty in south Sinai from 2010 to 2011 stood at seven per cent, while it was 21 per cent in north Sinai.
On the ground, women like Umm Hamed, 39 and the mother of six, recounts how the projects are affecting lives. She is the supervisor of one of the NRC projects in a village on the outskirts of Arish. "The NRC provided us with goats and water containers to feed them. Scientists have also been surveying the residents here. What we need now is a well for each home, which will help us plant and will provide us with our daily water supplies to help us live better lives," she said.
Umm Asaad, 43, the mother of one child and a resident of central Sinai who has been working with NRC representatives in many fields for the last 10 years, has no reservations about the work being done by the NRC. Instead, her problems are geographical. "We suffer from a scarcity of water in central Sinai, with water only being available in Arish. I have to send water in containers to my mother who lives 40km away from my house using vans as they also don't have water in Qusseima where she lives." Umm Assad works in planting grapes and growing dates and olives, and in winter she plants wheat, barley and watermelons. Because of climatic changes, it rains less and less often in Sinai, badly affecting agriculture, she says. "Some of those with cattle have moved to Ismailia to raise them," she adds. Cattle have been decreasing because of the difficult conditions, and camels have nearly disappeared, she says.
Despite the difficult conditions Umm Assad and her neighbours face, she has practical solutions. "Those who raise chickens and pigeons profit more as it takes less water to do so. I think they should sponsor other kinds of projects until the water problems come to an end."
Although the government has started to implement research ideas in Sinai, much more work and funding is needed to develop them. Mekki also has other reservations. "This is a Bedouin society that needs stability and should not be marginalised," he comments. "They should also be included in the projects, as they will have a big role in them and there will be no progress without them."
Mekki believes that central Sinai is also in need of more attention due to its arid climate that helps to exacerbate security problems. He argues that the criteria for choosing governors of Sinai should focus more on being able to work with the NRC and should have less to do with military background. For researchers to carry out any kind of research, he says, they need certain basic goods, including "suitable accommodation to enable us to do our work and cars that don't break down in the desert." Like researchers all over the world, Mekki also dreams of having additional funds.
For Umm Asaad, her dreams are more straightforward. "I dream of drinking a cup of water from the Nile and of pipes that can provide us with water to grow our crops. People must be able to drink first, and then they can plant."