(Photo: Sima Diab)

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Farming the Sahara

Its population soaring, Egypt is facing a food-supply crisis. Can the government make a desert bloom?
Jan 8, 2016· 10 MIN READ
Peter Schwartzstein's writing for TakePart earned him the Society of Environmental Journalists' 2016 award for Outstanding Beat Reporting.

CAIRO—El Obour market, on the northeastern fringe of this megacity of 20 million, is the souk that never sleeps. Busy from before sunrise, when the first fruit trucks roll in, the cavernous warehouses are soon packed to the rafters as the vegetable dealers, many of whom hauled their goods from southern Egypt through the night, arrive around midmorning.

As wholesalers and restaurateurs from across Cairo descend en masse on the vast concourse to buy their provisions, the entire area echoes to the cries of vendors hawking their wares.

“Eggplants here. Fresh from Sharqiya,” one stallholder shouts, barely stifling a yawn after making a predawn trek from the Nile Delta’s eastern edge. “Mangoes, mangoes, mangoes,” a competing businessman barks, seeking to lure in a pool of passing potential customers. “Just look: I swear to God they’re fresh.”

Amid the hustle and near constant parade of pickups and flatbed trucks needling through the gates of Egypt’s largest market, it’s hard to imagine the country being in the midst of a serious domestic food shortage. So enormous are the mountains of tomatoes that municipal workers, laden with pesticide tanks on their backs, must spray the warehouses door-to-door to keep the hordes of swarming flies at bay. The flimsy loading docks sag under the weight of produce.

But away from El Obour’s agricultural riches, this mostly desert nation must grapple with a looming crisis. High birth rates and longer life spans have more than quadrupled the population since World War II to 90 million. With the figure rising by roughly 2 million a year—while scarce agricultural land rapidly succumbs to urban expansion—no volume of aromatic onions or sunbaked peaches from Aswan can mask the fact that Egypt has far surpassed its capacity to feed itself.

“We’re now bringing in 50 percent of our food from abroad,” said Ayman Abou Hadid, who has twice served as minister of agriculture and is a professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University. “I don’t have to tell you what an awful situation this is.” Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Egypt began to import large quantities of wheat in the 1980s. The dependence on foreign foodstuffs is increasingly seen as a crisis at a time of regional upheaval and limited foreign currency reserves.

To address the problem, the government is launching headlong into an ambitious desert farming program. Part of it, known as the "1.5 Million Feddans" project (the feddan is an Egyptian unit of land area roughly equivalent to an acre), involves drilling 1,300 wells and building several towns in the rugged west. By adding so much farmland to Egypt’s current 8.4 million acres (and perhaps 2.5 million on top of that, if all goes well with the first stage), officials aim to soon have the capacity to meet food production needs. Some in the government even hope to free the population from the narrow confines of the Nile Valley, envisioning millions settled amid the new farmland in the mostly unpopulated Sahara.

More striking is the attempt to resurrect Toshka, 620 miles south of Cairo and steps from the Sudanese border, a failed agricultural expansion project initiated by the dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in 2011. Desperate for hard currency in exchange for food exports, Mubarak poured an estimated 44 billion Egyptian pounds (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) into the bid to green the desert. It never really got off the ground, hobbled as it was by poor environmental planning and doomed from the outset by its inability to attract investors, who were repelled by its distant location and lack of infrastructure. The project ended up so small that today, only one of the 22 monster pumps built to siphon Nile water from Lake Nasser is needed.

The country is big enough for a million acres of new farmland, but where is the water?

Daniel Leroux, CEO, Saudi Arabian agribusiness Kadco

Experts are unconvinced that the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi can succeed where his former boss failed (Sisi was a military intelligence chief in Mubarak’s government). Agricultural projects of this magnitude in the region, including Moammar Gaddafi’s Great Man-Made River in Libya and Toshka’s first iteration, have failed spectacularly. Why, ordinary Egyptians are asking, will this time be any different? For them, there’s a lot riding on the success or failure of farming the Sahara: With high inflation and stagnant wages, the average Egyptian spends up to 40 percent of his or her income on food.

Proponents insist they aren’t blind to the pitfalls of developing desert agriculture. “There are risks,” former minister Hadid acknowledged. Such, however, is the gravity of the food deficit that they say planners must push on regardless. “You can’t look at this in a purely economic way,” said Ahmed Sedky, a businessman who’s involved in feasibility studies for parts of the "1.5 Million Feddans" project. “There is a lot of geopolitics in this.”

A woman carries chamomile at Makar Farms, on Sakara Road on Cairo's outskirts. Desert reclamation projects close to the Nile River have had greater success than efforts farther out in the Sahara. (Photo: Sima Diab)

Irrigating Sand

In the stretch of desert around the Farafra and Bahariya oases, 200-plus miles southwest of Cairo, the government aims to convert sand into soil. But the most obvious problem with the plan is that the scheme relies to a large degree on groundwater reserves that some experts doubt even exist. Egypt is among the most rain-deprived countries on Earth, and with no waterways, save the distant Nile, crisscrossing the arid hinterland, everything will have to be extracted from beneath the sands.

As is often the case in Egypt, details of the government’s plans aren’t easy to come by. Frequent ministerial changes since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year presidency have forced policy makers continually to change tack. There even seems to be some confusion among the few desert farmers now working the land in these regions about which part of the governmental bureaucracy is propelling the projects. (Reflecting the importance Cairo attaches to them, it’s the office of Sisi himself.)

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What is known is that a massive hike in groundwater pumping in the Western Desert could quickly drain the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, beneath the reclamation area, which is a fossil aquifer and therefore not replenishable. The 1.5 million feddans would then only produce until the aquifer ran out.

“The government water assessments are based on single-well tests in the area,” said Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad, a former official at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation who works for the European Union in Cairo. “But for a project of this magnitude, you need to be very careful in testing water capacity. Relying on one or two well tests, even if they seem promising, is not enough.”

(Map: TakePart)

Meanwhile, existing plots like Sekem Holdings’ 400 acres of palm trees and chamomile in Bahariya are contending with high levels of iron content in the water, which is rusting the company’s machinery.

To the south, at the resurrected Toshka project, three of seven wells have run dry over the past few years on a small experimental farm owned by Kadco, a Saudi-owned agribusiness with 25,000 acres on the project’s eastern edge. Now, just 20 of the smaller plot’s 1,000 acres are under till, growing prized medjool dates. The rest have been abandoned, left to return to the desert.

To many Egyptians today, Toshka is almost a byword for failed government megaprojects. In a compelling testament to the project’s waste, an enormous helipad, built exclusively to host the then president’s fleet of helicopters, sits cracked and deserted amid the parched fields.

Hadid, meeting in his office at his university’s agricultural building in an outer Cairo district, defended the projects. He said poorly orchestrated well boring has given many desert dwellers an overly pessimistic view of their water stores: “It was not done in a planned way, so you’ve had a negative impact.” He said improvements in infrastructure, coupled with advances in desalinating sea water, which he suggested will be ferried to the desert from the coast, will help secure the plan’s long-term viability. As things stand, Egypt has no large-scale desalination plants, though local researchers are trying to develop cheaper technology.

But with soaring temperatures, which most blame on climate change, intensifying crop thirst; this year’s El Niño expected to bring drought; and Ethiopia’s construction of a big dam upriver, which some suspect will cut Egypt’s share of Nile water, the margin for error is razor-thin.

“The country is big enough for a million feddans” of new farmland, said Daniel Leroux, CEO of Kadco. “But where is the water?”

Suleiman Mohammed Nour, who oversees a team at Kadco's farm in the Toshka desert agricultural project, weeds among date palms. He says many Egyptians are loath to uproot to the desert, whatever the amenities the government may try to lure them with. (Photo: Sima Diab)

Economic Factors

Apart from the lack of water, farming the Sahara has suffered from a lack of farmers. Executives at one of the four companies that have stuck it out at Toshka say one reason the area struggled to interest investors was a labor shortage in the isolated deep south. “I still don’t have enough workers. We face really big challenges to bring workers to the farm,” said Leroux.

It’s far from a given that agricultural laborers will transplant their families to the desert, even if housed and well paid. “Egyptians just don’t move,” said David Sims, a longtime Cairo-based urban planner and author of Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? “After all these years [of land reclamation], one has to ask the question: How many people have actually moved?” The implication is clear: Not many.

Suleiman Mohammed Nour, one of the relative few to have relocated to Toshka, where he oversees a team of laborers pruning and picking date palms on the Kadco farm, says a combination of financial and cultural concerns keep his former neighbors in the Nile Valley from following in his footsteps.

“For most of them, the day rate is insufficient,” he said, stooping to check for snakes and scorpions in the long grass. “And then we have our maxim: Go to the delta for a year, and don’t spend a day in the desert.” The government has hastily boosted necessary amenities in parts of the Western Desert, such as improving roads to reduce travel times and expanding subsidized housing in existing settlements, but many Egyptians might be just too wed to the river to stray far into the sands.

Then there are the doubts about government hopes to relieve the burden on the densely populated Nile Valley. The idea is to divvy up reclaimed Sahara land into five- or 20-acre pockets for individual families to till, but desert agriculture typically requires vast amounts of start-up capital and a tolerance for extended periods of low agricultural yields. Surely few smallholder farmers will be able to afford as much. A full decade after it started farming at Toshka, not even Kadco, with 5,000 acres under cultivation and 11 industrial-scale irrigation pivots, has turned a profit.

“New land doesn’t have organic matter, so you have to build it up with compost. The cost is higher because you have to use more fertilizer, and the crops are less productive,” explained Maximilian Abouleish-Boes, chief sustainable development officer for Sekem, which operates 1,600 acres of reclaimed land on several sites across Egypt.

Though agribusinesses have survived where much smaller operations wouldn’t, Sisi’s plan may still fail to feed Egypt’s bulging numbers even if the water is there and he manages to seduce families away from the riverine strip. Farming companies have a track record of turning to profitable cash crops, rather than dietary staples, and exporting their foodstuffs to Europe and the Gulf states, where prices are higher. The European Union alone buys in almost $1 billion worth of Egyptian agricultural goods every year. Without restrictions on exports or what crops can be planted, such transactions are likely to continue.

Irrigation pivots keep alfalfa plants at the Kadco farm at Toshka green with Nile River water pumped from dozens of miles away. (Photo: Sima Diab)

Reasons to Believe

Whatever the problems, the scale and ambition of a scheme that state-owned news outlets are trumpeting as the cure to many of the country’s woes are obvious. Already, the military has bored 725 of the 1,300 new wells that are set to irrigate the first million feddans, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hossam Moghazy said at a December press conference. Working at an impressive pace, contractors have more or less finished widening the road linking Farafra and Bahariya. The killing of 22 border guards by jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida at an area checkpoint in the summer of 2014 appears to have done little to impede their progress.

Even at Toshka, government planners may have learned lessons from its initial collapse. New Toshka City, a planned community for more than 20,000 would-be farmworkers and their families, seems to be near completion. The government is trying to provide some of the facilities necessary to support an enlarged local workforce—it can already boast of mosques, a school, and stores just eight months after construction started.

One of Toshka’s most conspicuous failures was the shoddy construction of its huge and costly network of canals. The plan was to channel nearly 1.5 trillion gallons of Nile water every year to irrigate the farmland. But “they rushed construction to finish before Mubarak came to inspect,” said Mohamed Adel Taha, who manages Kadco’s permanent crops and is battling soil subsidence on a patch of company land. As Taha spoke, water could be seen seeping through an adjacent canal’s crumbling concrete embankments into the cracked earth.

This time, however, army builders seem to have realized the value of solid infrastructure. An almost finished water branch—meant to service 17,000 newly reclaimed acres—looks neat, watertight, and fit to brave the area’s ferocious summer temperatures.

Local farmers say this canal, along with others at the Toshka project, was rushed to completion, resulting in wasteful leakage. (Photo: Sima Diab)

What’s Next?

When visitors to Cairo make their way downtown from the airport, one of the first things they see, mounted on the building that houses the government’s statistics bureau, is a neon-red notice board, reminiscent of the debt clock near Times Square in Manhattan. This is Egypt’s population counter, and as its digits turn over at a rapid clip, it provides a stark daily reminder of the challenge that planners hope the desert agriculture project will help address.

It’s impossible to shake the sense that the reason many Egyptian officials believe their plans will pan out is that the alternative is unthinkable: The stakes, were "1.5 Million Feddans" and Toshka to fail, are too high. Already the world’s largest importer of wheat, the country is losing up to 30,000 acres of agricultural land to urban sprawl in the Nile Valley and Delta every year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.

It’s reasonable too that with the region in chaos, weaning the country off foreign food imports would be of paramount importance to authorities in Cairo. Egypt’s historical success with land reclamation suggests it might be a commonsensical means of going about this. “It’s in the genes,” according to Mounir Makar, who owns a 50-acre organic farm at the foot of the ancient Saqqara pyramids. Perhaps it is—from 1980 to 2015, the amount of domestic agricultural land climbed from 6 million acres to 8.4 million.

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There’s also the sense, though, that however great Egypt’s problems, they don’t require such ambitious solutions. Two developers, who asked to remain nameless for fear of alienating powerful interests in the country, say a major reason they build on agricultural land is that it’s cheaper. They say that the military, which along with various well-connected businessmen presides over almost all of the desert, keeps prices for tracts farther out in the Sahara prohibitively high. Another less grandiose fix would be to expand the upgrades under way at some of the government’s grain stores—the infrastructure is so poorly equipped to keep out insects or the damp that up to 20 percent of domestically grown wheat goes to waste. And small-scale farmers, the bedrock of the labor force, have long reclaimed many small plots of desert land, over the years, on the margins of the Nile Valley. Why not encourage this? hydrologists ask.

But as with previous massive infrastructure improvements, such as the Suez Canal extension, which was finished last summer, and the recently announced plan to construct a new capital in the scrubland to Cairo’s east, this one looks to be guided as much by its power to impress as by its capacity to address a particular problem.

“They’re trying to cater to certain Egyptian requirements. They’re providing some quick psychological hits,” said businessman and environmental commentator Ahmed Sedky.

Battered by a weak economy, which is struggling to get up to speed after four years of postrevolutionary flux, increasing concern about Libya’s unraveling next door, and an uncertain campaign to defeat jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, the government seems to believe it must provide tangible evidence of its competence. Authorities have invested their hopes in vastly expanded desert farming, the long-term chances be damned.

Shoppers at the Saad Zaghloul market in the city’s Mounira neighborhood are hoping against hope that the new land brings some relief. “God willing, we will see cheaper prices soon,” said Fatima El Deeb, as she carefully searched out ripe bananas at a streetside stall. “Life gets harder and more expensive every year.”