Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Promising better harvests

A project supposed to help farmers and save water may be negatively affecting their livelihoods, reports Sarah Eissa

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Clockwise from top: part of Al-Nawasah Canal that is covered with garbage; the clean side of the canal; a little boy playing by the pipes photos: Sarah Eissa

Villages are sometimes portrayed as small utopias, with clean air, singing birds, friendly people socialising with each other, and good food that farmers plant and harvest. The only utopian aspect about life in the village of Awad Keshk in the Beheira governorate is that people know and are well disposed towards each other. For the rest, visitors to the village can be confronted with sometimes shocking scenes.

The irrigation canal, for example, is full of garbage, even though it provides farmers with water. According to the farmers, the canal was originally uncovered, but it was then covered over as part of a government scheme, and it was then that the problems started.

"They told us that the government had selected our village as a model, and that it intended to cover the canal to turn it into a garden at the village entrance," says Ahmed Hassan, a farmer. Yet, apparently what happened was the opposite, and instead of the promised green space the villagers were faced with a garbage dump. According to the farmers and village residents, this was due to people who did not live near the canal.

Abdallah El-Maamoun, a researcher at the Land Centre for Human Rights, explains how the project was supposed to be rolled out. The government adopted a project many years ago to cover over drainage places in rural areas near residential districts, he said. While the project has been applied in many places, its implementation has been slow, and its aim was precisely to prevent problems like people throwing garbage into the canals.

The project was designed to save water, he adds, as it would decrease evaporation from lakes and drainage areas and eradicate the problem of vegetation near drainage canals that can provide a home for reptiles and insects. However, since the project began various problems have arisen, including with the pipes used to pipe water to local farms. Collecting water in areas of the canal that remain uncovered, the pipes have become blocked with refuse, leading to water shortages in the fields.

According to Hassan, the canal in Awad Keshk was supposed to be covered over in several phases, and there was supposed to be a guaranteed water supply. Things could have been fixed, he says, by altering the location of the feeder pipe or asking workmen to remove the garbage from the canal. "At least if the garbage remains there, I will know who is to blame," Hassan comments, adding that when the canal was uncovered local villagers did not experience irrigation problems, even with crops such as rice and cotton which require plenty of water.

Ahmed Mossad, another farmer, explains that the Al-Nawasah Canal is the main one feeding the village, being divided into branches going to other villages such as Shedresha, Kafr Al-Rahmanya, Al-Garbawy, Maglad and Fesha. "All these villages are now fed by a one-metre pipe that is prone to blockages," he complains. One of the villages does not receive any water at all, and residents have protested in front of governorate buildings to have the garbage removed. This took place, but then it was allowed to re-accumulate.

Umm Ahmed, a resident living by the canal, says that the garbage was not fully removed but was placed back on the side of the canal and sometimes burnt, affecting people living nearby. "The smell is awful, and every 12 to 15 days the same amount of garbage reappears," she added. Gamil Omar, who also lives by the canal, says that his nephew's lungs have been affected by the smell, adding that the villagers have found dead animals, stones and rotting hay in the canal.

Umm Ahmed said that the villagers had complained to the local council and even the Ministry of Irrigation, but the ministry had simply criticised the farmers for recycling drainage water. "Stop recycling sewerage water, and then we will come back," the ministry said. In the meantime, farmer Ahmed Meshref says that due to the lack of sanitation in the village people do indeed take advantage of the canals for sewerage purposes.

An acre of land is supposed to be irrigated for three hours, but due to a lack of water the villagers now irrigate the land in half-hour bursts. "We stand all day in the sun, with the humidity and dirty water, to make the water flow," Mossad says, Meshref adding that the crops are affected because they do not receive sufficient water. Last year, much of the harvest was spoiled.

Despite the shortages, however, farmers living at the back of the canal find themselves inundated with water, since blockages further up the system cause water to be dammed up and overflow, harming crops. While the villagers have to pay up to LE200 to have the canal and pipe cleared, this does not necessarily help. They also do not receive the proper allocation of subsidised fertiliser, they say.

After Al-Ahram Weekly's visit to the village, the irrigation department removed the garbage more than once, placing it either by the canal or in front of the houses ê" something which is not an idea solution since it can then slip back into the canal. El-Maamoun explains that such heaps of garbage can easily slip back into the water, causing the whole system to need cleaning a second time. Removing the garbage properly in the first place would require a larger budget. "Either they are trying to save the money, or they have allocated it but won't spend it," he said.

Officials from the irrigation department, who refused to be interviewed by the Weekly, said they could not comment without authorisation from the ministry, which was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, the department did respond to the farmers' complaints and removed encroachments made by other farmers. During the Weekly's visit to the village, allegations were made that certain farmers had encroached on the canals by enlarging their land and narrowing their width in places. The irrigation department also cleaned up the Shakra Canal, which had become choked with weeds.

Mossad said that the owner of a local pharmacy had also built over one of the irrigation canals. When he had talked to the man, also his uncle, he had not taken any action, feeling secure in the authority he enjoyed in the village. In general, the local farmers speak as one in saying that the project has been poorly executed. There should have been two pipes, not one, they say, and another pipe should be added to the Mahmoudiya Lake that feeds the Al-Nawasah Canal.

The pipes that have been installed have not been properly buried, El-Maamoun said. "They can't be paved over due to the weight of the slabs, but they should not be left exposed," he said. He praised the way in which work had been carried out in his own village, unlike in Awad Keshk. There was an annual budget for the project, he said, meaning that the work sometimes advanced slowly. Problems in Awad Keshk could be due to local corruption, he said, those in authority tending to take more account of areas in which they had an interest.

He recalled an incident that happened in his own village 10 years ago, when because of suspected corruption in the local council a sanitation project had taken far longer than planned and had gone over budget. "Pipes were only laid in streets where council members lived, and the project dragged on for years," he said.

When questioned about the problems, professor Abdel-Ghani El-Guindi, former dean of the faculty of agriculture at Ain Shams University in Cairo and an advisor to the Ministry of Irrigation, said that ministry projects would eventually cover all village watercourses. When shown pictures of the Awad Keshk project, El-Guindi said that the project appeared to have been ill-conceived, using drainage water for irrigation.

In response, Meshref said that the canal was fed from the Mahmoudiya Lake and was earmarked for irrigation. The problem was that people had thrown their garbage into the canal, to which El-Guindi repeated that the canal should be covered and pipes used to feed water to the farmers. Asked about responsibility for the problems in Awad Keshk, El-Guindi blamed villagers for throwing garbage into the canal. "It is a human problem, not a government one," he said.

El-Guindi, an expert in irrigation, said that the National Project for On-farm Irrigation Development in the Delta and in the Al-Wadi Al-Gadid was part of a national strategy with a horizon of 2030. Most of this project concerned land in the Delta and the Al-Wadi Al-Gadid, and it would result in the development of some five million acres. The aim was to supply water to all fields equally, while saving natural resources and gaining maximum benefit from every cubic metre of water and every square metre of land.

El-Maamoun said the solution to such problems was to introduce newer technologies, such as sprinklers or drop-feed irrigation. If such methods were used, water use could be reduced by as much as 90 per cent, he said. Alternatively, irrigation water and sewage water, once purified, could be recycled, and experiments were underway to achieve this.

The present method of irrigation, Al-Wadi Al-Gadid said, could lead to up to 50 per cent of the water being wasted. The government's aim was to look at ways of saving up to 75 per cent of irrigation water, using this for further land reclamation, necessary, he said, as a result of population growth.

Under its latest plan, outlined in the image below, an intake pumping station in the Nile transmits water to the primary canal that has an intake gate to the branch canal. From there, water is pumped into branch canals, which transmit water to the fields. The old mesqa, or joint branch canal, was uncovered, and this is now being covered over and pipes used instead, as part of the future plan. "This way, the system retains the water lost through the sides of the old mesqa, in addition to water that once evaporated," he said, while also preserving the water from pollution and possible infection with bilharzia.

Moreover, since the pipes are only six inches in diameter, instead of the four-metre width of the old mesqa, farmers will be able to extend their land and productivity.

The project is being piloted in the Beheira and Kafr Al-Sheikh governorates, and the ministry of water resources and irrigation has started developing lifting points. El-Guindi explains that the mesqas do not irrigate a fixed number of acres, though variations among farmers mean that some own as little as half an acre and others more than 50. Each farmer will be allocated water sufficient for his needs, he said. Each farmer participating in the scheme will plant the same crops according to the same rhythm, necessary if the system is to work.

While the scheme sounds promising, El-Maamoun has his doubts. There is already a shortage of water, he says, questioning whether the system will in fact be able to supply adequate water resources. Before farmers start their planting, they will sign a contract with the government or the private sector to sell their products for them, the price being fixed in the contract, Al-Wadi Al-Gadid says, arguing that farmers joining the scheme will benefit from good seeds and will not pay taxes. The country will benefit in that water is not wasted, and excess water can be used for land reclamation. Again, El-Maamoun has his doubts, criticising what he calls the "monopoly contracts" to be signed by farmers.

Meanwhile, farmers in Awad Keshk are facing water shortages during the rice season, meaning that the seedlings will be weak and small in size and will not thrive. Meshref says that some farmers have begun planting pulp seeds because of the better income these bring, even at the expense of the extra water.

"They want to plant the desert and make another Nile," he says. "Shouldn't they fix our lands first, where we already have the Nile but don't have enough water?"

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