Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Boosting arable land

Some 1.5 million feddans are to be added to Egypt’s farmland in the first phase of a mega-project inaugurated last week, writes Mona El-Fiqi

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated the first phase of a new mega-project last week to increase Egypt’s arable land by 20 per cent in what has become known as “the 1.5 million feddans project.”

The project, first highlighted during Al-Sisi’s presidential campaign in 2014, aims to increase Egypt’s cultivated land from the current eight million feddans to 9.5 million feddans to help fill the gap between the country’s food production and consumption. Egypt’s population of 90 million depends heavily on importing basic food commodities.

The project also plans to establish new integrated communities away from the crowded Nile Delta and will be applied in three phases, giving priority to Upper Egypt and the Western Desert.

The first phase includes the reclamation of 10,000 feddans in Sahl Baraka in the Farafra Oasis in the New Valley Governorate in the Western Desert. According to plans, a total of 280,000 feddans in the governorate will be reclaimed in the project’s three phases.

Around 420,000 feddans will be developed in Upper Egypt’s Minya Governorate.

The plans also give priority to Sinai and Toshka, where an agricultural mega-project was initiated during the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak but halted due to poor planning and mismanagement.

Around 25,000 jobs will be created in each phase of the project and a total of 3,000 feddans will be allocated for industrial zones near the newly cultivated land.

Experts are optimistic that newly arable land in areas like Farafra will act as a starting point for the larger project. Expert Mukhtar Al-Sherif said, “The idea of cultivating even one more metre of Egypt’s land is a good one because we urgently need to increase agricultural production. I am hopeful that this project will lead the agricultural sector into a new era.”

Egypt has the potential to increase its agricultural production since less than four per cent of its total land is currently cultivated. “But the land that can be reclaimed is not as extensive as some people imagine,” Al-Sherif said.

The current reclamation project will depend on underground water, which will supply 80 per cent of the water needed for irrigation, while the remaining 20 per cent will be covered by the Nile. The project includes digging over 5,000 wells at a total cost of LE6 billion.

In November, the cabinet approved the establishment of a public company to manage the project with capital of LE15 billion. Called the New Egyptian Countryside Company, it will be the master developer of the mega-project. It will establish zones for agricultural investment be responsible for providing utilities, basic infrastructure, roads and housing needed in each developed area.

Direct ownership will make up 20 per cent of the project, with priority given to eligible young people. Conditions announced this week include having Egyptian nationality, being under the age of 40 years, and being committed to the area’s agricultural plans.

The Ministry of Irrigation and Land Reclamation has the right to cancel the contracts of anyone breaking the land-ownership regulations.

In order to encourage young people to become involved in the project, Al-Sisi said during the inauguration that the government and the banks will provide credit facilities at less than six per cent interest. The Ministry of Irrigation and Land Reclamation will provide a developed surface-irrigation system to young owners since they will not be able to pay the high costs of irrigation by wells, he added.

However, Nasr Kazaz, a professor of agriculture at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, commented, “It is not a good idea to divide land ownership by giving each person five feddans, as has been suggested. It would be better to set up large-scale farms with production directed to exports.”

Under the project, the remaining 80 per cent of the new land will be available for investors under usufruct contracts for 30 years. An investor will be able to obtain 100,000 feddans or more if he is committed to the project rules, and the government can renew the contracts.

The project attracted investors even before its launch. The Ministry of Agriculture signed agreements and cooperation protocols with 26 local, Arab and foreign companies during the Egypt Economic Development Conference held last year in Sharm El-Sheikh. The parties involved expressed interest in reclaiming a total of 670,000 feddans.

Egypt has eight billion cubic metres of well water, of which the project will need around two billion cubic metres, according to figures from the Ministry of Irrigation.

Kazaz said that depending on underground water is a good thing, but no research has been carried out to say how long this water will be available. “The Ministry of Irrigation said it will be enough to cultivate the new land for 100 years, but the accuracy of this statement is questionable,” Kazaz added.

Since the project depends on underground water, Al-Sherif said that the culture of farmers whose families have lived in the Delta for hundreds of years and depended on the Nile for watering their crops will need to be changed to suit the more expensive underground water.

He said an advanced system of irrigating, harvesting and marketing will need to be adopted to save as much underground water as possible.

The willingness of Egyptians to move to the new land will be the main indicator of the project’s success. “Increasing the farmland in Egypt will definitely ease the pressure on the Delta region, but it will not be a success unless the new land attracts inhabitants and large numbers of people to live there,” Al-Sherif said.

Salem Mahmoud, a farmer in the Sharkiyya Governorate, said he would be ready to sell his existing land at a high price and buy cheaper land in the new project. He added that many of his neighbours could also be interested in moving with their families to the new zones.

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