Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Farming in a changing climate

Egyptian farmers are exploring new ways of coping with climate change, says Mahmoud Bakr

Al-Ahram Weekly

Climate change is not just about the sudden storms or erratic weather we have been experiencing in Egypt recently.

A main challenge facing the world, and the Middle East region in particular, is the threat to the population from decreased food production. With experts warning that precipitation will be less and temperatures higher, something must be done to adapt farming techniques.

Current techniques, including flooding, are not going to be viable forever. Drip irrigation, a change in plant strains, and less reliance on chemical fertilisers seem to be the way towards a sustainable future.

Experts expect a 25 per cent drop in precipitation in the Arab region in the next few years. This will mean that underground water will be at greater distances from the surface, having an adverse effect on farming.

By 2050, experts predict a decline in the production of major crops in the Middle East and North Africa, by 30 per cent for rice, 48 per cent for corn, and 20 per cent for wheat. Experts from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) predict a drop of wheat production of up to nine per cent in Egypt by 2030, or 20 per cent by 2060.

Introducing green policies could help Egypt save more than US$1.3 billion in agriculture and US$1.1 billion in water, notes a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Such policies could also decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 13 per cent and water consumption by 40 per cent, says environment minister Khaled Fahmi.

In Egypt, experts predict a drop in per capita water resources of more than 30 per cent by 2025. In a country where natural resources are being depleted at the rate of 3.78 per cent per year, green interventions are increasingly viewed as the only way forward. The UNEP report, prepared in cooperation with the ministry of the environment, underlines the need for a different approach to irrigation and farming.

At present, agriculture constitutes nearly 14 per cent of Egypt’s GDP, down from 30 per cent in 1970. Over the past few decades, experts say, Egypt has lost part of its biological diversity, a portion of its arable land, and has suffered from a decrease in land fertility. But it is not too late to reverse some of the adverse effects of traditional agriculture. Green interventions can help remedy the soil, improve irrigation, protect the environment, and increase production.

Experts have advised Egyptian farmers to switch to organic agriculture, use modern irrigation techniques, and recycle refuse in a more sustainable manner. Turning 20 per cent of the total arable land, or 1.4 million feddans, from conventional agriculture to organic farms could save the country LE1 billion (US$130 million) in fertiliser per year, Fahmi said.

According to the minister, Egypt could save water valued at LE7 billion (US$900 million) by 2017 if farmers decreased areas planted with rice and sugarcane and used strains that are faster to mature. Drip irrigation could reduce 40 per cent of the water needed for irrigation, leading to cash savings of nearly LE23 billion (US$3 billion). Egypt is already struggling to make ends meet in food production. It currently imports around 5.5 million tons of wheat per year.

In Upper Egypt, where the situation is getting more and more serious, farmers have been listening to expert advice on green agricultural techniques. Experts from the Agricultural Research Centre and the ministry of agriculture, assisted by community groups in various villages, have been meeting with farmers to explore ways of coping with climate change.


MITIGATING CLIMATE CHANGE: agricultural minister Adel al-Biltagi has also been exploring ways of countering the adverse outcomes of global warning. The ministry has applied for funding from the global Climate Adaptation Fund to improve agricultural techniques in Egypt.

One project led by the ministry of agriculture (MOA) involves advising farmers in 14 vulnerable villages in the five Upper Egyptian governorates of Asyut, Sohag, Qena, Luxor, and Aswan. Through the use of high-yield seeds, farmers in these villages have been able to double the production of wheat from 13 erdabs to 25 (an erdab is approximately 150 kg).

New irrigation techniques used in a number of pilot projects have led to a reduction of 30 per cent in water needs. The four-year project, costing US$5 million, is funded by the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

Al-Sayyed Khalifah, chief of the MOA Agency for Comprehensive Development Projects (ACDP), says that climate change may lead to the disappearance of certain crop strains. Extreme temperature fluctuations, shifting winds, and altered precipitation patterns can distort well-established crop patterns, he notes.

According to Khalifah, a rise of only two degrees Celsius can decrease productivity by 14 per cent for wheat, 19 per cent for corn, 28 per cent for soya beans, and 20 per cent for barley. Higher temperatures will also mean that farmers following traditional methods will need to use more water at a time when water will be getting scarcer.

Othman al-Sheikh, who runs the MOE Building Resilient Food Security Systems Project (BRFSSP), says that 14 villages in Upper Egypt have joined the project. Experts are training farmers in these villages on techniques allowing them to survive and even prosper in global warming conditions.

Terrace agriculture, mechanisation, new strains of crops, better irrigation, and the combined farming of small plots can all increase production. Organic farming, in which more emphasis is given to non-chemical fertilisers and pesticides, can also increase productivity, al-Sheikh says.

Agricultural experts are working hand-in-hand with community associations in various villages to make sure that farmers are aware of the potential of new irrigation and agricultural techniques. The project’s managers have also come up with the idea of a climate guide, a person whose job is to access IT sources for early warning of weather abnormalities. 

According to al-Sheikh, MOA regional directorates will soon have early warning units to alert farmers about changes in the weather, and community associations cooperating with the ministry are also developing their own early warning teams.

In agricultural schools, students currently receive practical training on modern agriculture and learn about ways to reduce the impact of climate change on plants and animals. Plans are also in place to introduce climate change as a topic of study in colleges around the country. The Agriculture College in the South Valley University is already moving in this direction.

As part of the project, experts and civil society groups are engaged in awareness campaigns. Project administrators have offered loans to small farms and micro agricultural projects. Many of these loans are given to businesses run by women and young people, al-Sheikh notes.

The project is running five training programmes for 14 civil society groups in Upper Egypt, he says. The aim is to raise the skills of these groups in financial programmes involving the provision of loans that can be in cash or in kind. Women operating small businesses and small-scale farms are encouraged to borrow money to enhance their operations in a sustainable manner. So far, nearly LE3 million (US$400,000) has been offered in loans to farms and rural facilities, with the focus being on new agricultural techniques and animal breeding.

Sugarcane farmers can also limit the impact of unpredictable climatic shifts on their crops by using new strains that need less water. In Qena, Luxor and Aswan, experts from the Sugar Crops Research Institute are meeting with farmers to offer them guidance, encouraging them to follow new techniques that help increase productivity while reducing the risk to crops from extreme weather conditions.

According to al-Sheikh, new strains of sugarcane with smaller leaves than the type now in use can reduce evaporation and resist disease, while using up less water. Plans are underway to plant 200 feddans of sugarcane in model farms at Abu Tisht in Qena, Isna in Luxor, and Drao in Aswan as a first step to introducing Upper Egypt to weather-resistant strains of the crop.


KEY MEASURES: Hani al-Kateb, presidential adviser for agricultural affairs, argues that forestation is the key to confronting climate change in Egypt.

Al-Kateb, who teaches forestation at Munich Polytechnic University, has designed models to protect agricultural projects in Egypt from extreme weather conditions. If farms are surrounded with forests, which can be grown on drainage water, a micro-ecosystem will be developed that offers humidity and wind protection to the farms, helping crops to grow in steadier conditions, he says.

Egypt could use about 11 billion m3 of irrigation water to plant 1.5 million feddans of forests. If this was done, the forests would absorb 2.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, thus cleaning the air while sheltering farms against drought and desertification. Cairo University has offered some of its land for use in pilot projects using al-Kateb’s model.

Hassan Ramadan, a farmer from Nogu Qibli, a village near Esna in Upper Egypt, says that he owns half a feddan (2,100 m2) which he used to run as an independent farm. After visiting some pilot projects on modern agriculture, he got together with nine of his neighbours, all running equally small farms, and decided to remove the barriers between them and operate them as one larger farm. The combination of the small plots helped quadruple their production, from six erdabs of wheat per feddan to 25 erdabs.

Abdel-Al Abul-Hassan, mayor of Nogu Qibli, says that when climate change experts came to the village people were sceptical at first. But when local farmers followed some of the new ideas, their position changed. “I am now planting 22 feddans of wheat and have been able to triple my production from eight erdabs per feddan to about 24 erdabs,” he said.

Hag Ahmad Abdel-Bari, a farmer in the same village, says he has been able to plant sorghum, a grain that farmers had previously abandoned for nearly 30 years. Instead of the usual five erdabs of sorghum, he has been getting 18 erdabs, enough to feed his cattle and sell the rest.

Ruhiya al-Nubi, president of the Rural Women Development Association in Nogu Qibli , says that her association has formed teams to brief villagers at home and take them to visit pilot farms. Rasha Khamis Ibrahim, a member of the same association, says that farmers can benefit from terrace agriculture, the combination of plots, and new irrigation methods. 

Karimah Halabi Abdel-Nabi, another member of the association, says that farmers resisted the new ideas at first, but after talking about the new methods and visiting pilot farms they are now interested in recycling and have started making their own organic fertilisers and turning agricultural refuse into cattle fodder.

The project, Abdel-Nabi added, offered farmers not only new ideas, but also access to bulldozers, hay-grinders, and other tools necessary to put the new ideas into motion.

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