Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1295, (12 - 18 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Seeds of a plan

With proper planning, new reclaimed lands hold much promise, reports Niveen Wahish

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated the wheat harvest season in Farafra Oasis, in the New Valley governorate, southwest of the Western Desert. This is not one of the traditional spots where wheat is cultivated but part of a megaproject intended to reclaim 1.5 million feddans across the country.

The wheat was cultivated on a pilot area of 10,000 feddans. Around 280,000 feddans of the total project are located in Farafra. The pilot area also included barley and some fruits and vegetables. East Ewainat, further into the Western Desert, parts of Sinai and parts of Upper Egypt, including West Minya governorate, Qena and Toshka, also form part of the megaproject. Some of these areas were included in previous attempts to reclaim desert land, in the 1990s, and there are some pre-existing farms in these regions.

The initial scenario for cultivation in these new lands is that they be planted 70 per cent with strategic crops, such as wheat, and the rest with fruits and vegetables and high-export-value aromatic and medicinal plants, Eid Hawash, spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The megaproject is expected to be developed at a cost of some LE60 billion over a four-year period. Cultivation in the new lands will depend on underground water, Nile water and some treated drainage water in other areas, Hawash said.

Only the areas where underground water reserves are shown to last for 100 years will be cultivated, said Nader Noureddin, professor of soil and water sciences at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture, and one of the experts consulting on the 1.5 million feddan project. It has to be cultivable for at least two generations, Noureddin said. He said so far 1,000 wells have been dug. And starting in June, cultivation will begin on 400,000 more feddans.

The 1.5 million feddans aim to increase Egypt’s arable land by 20 per cent 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. Current arable land stands at eight million feddans.

The idea behind the project is not only to increase arable land but to create new communities and help Egyptians move out of the old valley. Currently, Egyptians live on around seven per cent of the country’s area concentrated around the Nile. The New Valley governorate, which represents around 40 per cent of Egypt, houses only around one per cent of the population, while the eight governorates of the Nile Delta house 55 per cent of the population, explained Noureddin.

It is estimated that on each new feddan between two to four people will be needed to work. If each brought along a family of four, that could mean that 500,000 feddans could encourage the relocation of two million people.

The project aims at establishing integrated communities where there will be housing and services for citizens. Industries are also expected to be set up in these regions for the onsite processing of crops, creating further job opportunities.

If Egypt succeeds in reclaiming 500,000 feddans annually it will have realised an unprecedented record, Noureddin said. The record so far has been around 80,000 feddans reclaimed annually.

But it is no easy task. Before a piece of land is chosen for reclamation extensive tests are carried out. The soil quality and underground water salinity must be appropriate. And it’s not only about the land: water and energy availability are crucial to its success. The presence of an abundance of good quality water and reasonable depths is one issue.

The second is energy, whether in the form of electricity to operate pumps to lift the water and for living and industrial purposes, or in the form of fuel to operate agricultural machinery.

There are two viewpoints regarding land reclamation, Noureddin said. The first is to use these new lands to plant crops needed to bridge the food gap. Egypt imports 55 per cent of its food needs. Topping the list is wheat where Egypt is the world’s number one importer of the cereal.

It imports 50 per cent of its need for yellow maize used for fodder and thus controls the prices of animal and poultry fodder which accordingly controls their prices. Egypt also imports 96 per cent of its needs for edible oils and 70 per cent of fava beans which are a cheap protein and a staple on Egyptian tables.

Another point of view to reclaiming land is to plant crops that can be exported at a high price for much-needed hard currency to make up for the high cost incurred in planting the reclaimed land, whether it be energy, digging, pumps and other expenses. “These are non-contaminated virgin lands which are ideal for cultivating organic crops that are much vetted for in-destinations such as the European Union,” Noureddin said.

One farm owner who preferred to remain anonymous agrees. He said that Egypt needs to use the output from these lands to create other resources. He prefers that the country focus on planting crops that can be exported at a good price and use that hard currency to spend on improving education and tourism infrastructure. “Our industries need a well-educated workforce and our tourism income is way below its potential,” he said.

The full potential of these lands remains to be seen, said Noureddin. So far the land was planted for only a few months in the winter. It is not clear what will happen with cultivation in summer, he said.

Noureddin is of the opinion that projects similar to the 1.5 million feddans should be postponed to when the economy is in better shape because of their need for much funding, something the economy cannot afford at the moment. Egypt’s budget deficit reached 11.5 per cent in fiscal year 2014-2015. What the economy needs now are fast-yielding projects.

Reclaimed lands need at least five years before there is profit. However, the government has decided to pursue the project, along with other initiatives aimed at quicker returns, said Noureddin.

The anonymous farm owner concurs that agricultural cultivation in reclaimed lands will not reap meaningful profits before 15 years. In the meantime, a lot of capital will be spent. “All the megaprojects that Egypt has embarked upon are excellent,” he said. “They are for our grandchildren. We will not feel their benefit today.”

The 10,000 feddans in Farafra were cultivated as a joint effort between the Ministry of Agriculture and the army, said Hawash. The land has not yet been allocated to investors. A company called Reef has been created to oversee the development of these new lands, said Hawash.

It is expected that large plots of land will be available to investors under usufruct contracts for 30 years. Smaller plots will be available to smaller farmers and graduates. The latter will be given priority in the areas where surface irrigation is available because they would not be able to afford the cost of extracting the water from the ground, said Hawash.

The farm owner hopes the allocation of land to investors will be an easy process that will be different from the existing bureaucratic system from which he said he has personally suffered in his attempt at ownership of new land.

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