Egypt’s land reclamation plan should heed history lesson

For the past year, the government has been contemplating a new project to reclaim one million feddans, and in August announced it would add yet another 500,000 feddans.

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As the Egyptian government prepares its ambitious project to reclaim 1.5 million feddans (one feddan equals 0.42 hectares) from the desert, it may first want to consider the results of another mega-project to turn the desert green – that of Toshka that it began in the 1990s.

For the past year, the government has been contemplating a new project to reclaim one million feddans, and in August announced it would add yet another 500,000 feddans.

Eighty per cent of the required water is to come from underground sources and the rest from the Nile.

The government plans to spend 6 billion Egyptian pounds (Dh2.8bn) to drill more than 5,000 wells in various parts of the Western Desert, Al Ahram newspaper quoted an irrigation ministry official yesterday as saying, with 600 wells already drilled.

The new reclamation project will be carried out in three phases in nine areas of the Western Desert, including the Farafra Oasis, the Qattara Depression, Toshka and areas around Minya.

The project is an extension of a decades-old dream of moving large parts of the population out of the Nile Valley where the vast bulk of the population lives, but which makes up only 4 to 5 per cent of Egypt’s total area.

Egypt’s last major attempt to conquer the desert was an expensive disaster: the Toshka project that began in 1997 and one of its largest projects since it constructed the Aswan Dam in the 1960s.

Under that project, the massive Mubarak Pumping Station with 24 pumps was built to push 25 to 30 million cubic metres of Nile water a day from the reservoir behind the Aswan dam over a 220-metre-high ridge. From there, the water enters the specially built, 30-metre-wide waterway, Sheikh Zayed Canal.

It then travels 60 kilometres down a gentle slope into a huge depression in the desert, at which point it splits into four branches that lead to the edge of four areas to be reclaimed.

At the time, officials projected that the pumping station would cost 1.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($440 million at the time – the pound was 3.43 to the US dollar in the late 1990s and early 2000s) and the canal and branches 4.5 billion pounds, to be paid for by the government.

A total of 540,000 feddans were to be reclaimed. Private investors would be responsible for extending the irrigation and drainage channels into the four areas and upgrading the soil. They would pay the government 50 pounds per feddan for the right to exploit the land tax-free for 49 years – and get their water for free.

Officials promised that the Toshka project would link up with a series of other large agricultural projects in the southern new valley, many of which would be irrigated with underground water. In turn, these would attract industry, tourism and other services, and eventually about three million people would go there to live, releasing the country from the confines of the Nile valley.

Assuming no additional expenses, this put the government’s initial outlay simply to deliver water to the edge of the unprepared land at 11,100 pounds per feddan. That alone represented a significant portion of the price an investor would have to pay for land already under cultivation at the time in the Nile Valley.

Not yet included were the high costs private investors would have to incur to extend the canals and upgrade desert soil to sustain crops, and those the government would incur extending roads, power lines and other essential infrastructure into the remote location, then maintaining them.

Since then, the Toshka project has been plagued with problems. The land is salty, and its run-off is said to seep into the ground, contaminating the area’s groundwater. One estimate put the amount of money spent on Toshka at $70bn. As of 2012, only about 10 per cent of the land had been cultivated, according to the US Geological Survey.

And what about relieving population pressure in the Nile Valley? Agriculture is increasingly capital-intensive business these days. In North America and Europe, fewer than one per cent of people now earn their living from farming, and the new farms in the Egyptian desert similarly rely on modern agricultural methods.

Officials at the time said that Toshka’s 540,000 feddans would absorb 50,000 residents, which translated into a cost of 120,000 pounds per person under the initial cost estimates, not counting housing, schools and other services.

The reality is that most workers still commute back to their homes along the Nile from bachelor housing at the desert farms.

Then there is the question whether it makes sense to use Egypt’s limited water supplies for massive agricultural schemes. Countries upriver plan a series of dams that could cut into Egypt’s water supply, making its non-replenishable reservoirs of fossil groundwater crucial.

Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years.

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