Mitigation or sustainable development? Egypt’s 1.5 M feddan bet
A Farmer is cultivating a piece of land in the desert (Youm7 archive) the picture was taken in April 2008.

CAIRO: A proposed 1.5 million feddan reclamation project would require more than 2 million cubic meters of water annually in a country that has experienced water poverty for years.

Cultivating the swathes of land in the desert was one of the projects proposed in President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s electoral platform; a number of mega projects have recently been declared in light of the government’s program to achieve comprehensive sustainable development.

Reclaiming the land, which is the first phase of cultivating a total of 4 million feddans (one feddan equals about 1.038 acres) nationwide, will depend on pumping water out from five renewable and non-renewable aquifers (Moghra, the Carbonate aquifer, Nubian Sandstone aquifer, Toshka aquifer, and an aquifer at Tor Sinai,) head of Ground Water Sector of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Sameh Sakr told The Cairo Post.

New urban societies are planned in these lands over two years to ease population density around the Nile banks and its Delta, and to shrink the food gap in the society. However, the lifespan of underground water upon which the project depends is expected to last between 100 to 160 years, which casts doubt on the projects long-term sustainability; the Egyptian population will hit 91 million people in June 2016 and is expected to reach 200.8 million people by 2100, according to United Nations projections.

Egypt’s average water resources per capita have dropped to 663 cubic meters per year, and are expected to plummet to 582 cubic meters by 2025, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 2014; meanwhile the international benchmark is 1,000 cubic meters annually per capita.



Sustainable or not?

“Desert reclamation anywhere is never expected to be productive indefinitely….sustainability means to remain diverse and productive,” Egyptian-U.S. expert at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  (NASA) Dr. Farouk El-Baz told The Cairo Post via email.

Dr. El-Baz continued that establishing urban societies should be in places with assured water supplies “from beneath the ground that are tested and proven,” adding that fossil water does not exist in layers of the earth at the same depth.

“No one should generalize about areas within the 1.5 million acres, now being considered for land reclamation west of the Nile. There are regions adjacent to the river, including the plains west of Kom Ombo and southwest of Qena. These plains are underlain by Nile water and would continue to be supplied as long as its water flows,” he said.

“The water-bearing sandstone layers exists on top of varied topography of base rock. For example, the groundwater reservoir in Sharq Oweinat in the southern part of the desert is confined within a basin. Today over a thousand wells pump water to irrigate wheat and chickpeas in addition to other crops. The groundwater reservoir within that basin was estimated to last for irrigation of more than 100,000 acres for at least 200 years,” he continued.

Technical Advisor of Water and Rural infrastructure at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Audrey Nepveu de Villemarceau told The Cairo Post that putting people in these locations for a hundred years and water could be finished is not sustainable.

However, she added that due to increasing population, it could be an alternative strategy, noting that it could be a security strategy amid building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the river’s tributary of Blue Nile.  “Once you have secured that, it is a mitigation strategy. You cannot stop people from living,” she continued.

Amid the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia over the under-construction dam, millions of Egyptians have been gripped by fears  of affecting their share of Nile River; President Sisi has expressed his and Youths’ concerns over the water poverty, saying “there will be an agreement with Ethiopia about retention of  the water for many years. Thus, Egyptians have to be aware of sustainability of other resources of the underground water for future generations.

Director General of International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) Ismahane Elouafi told The Cairo Post that this project is “quite sustainable;” “sustainability does not mean everlasting, but it indicates using the natural resources are available for a long time through a very low input strategy.”

Elouafi added that sustainability of the project boils down to the management of cropping and irrigation system by giving the land the required rest, carrying out proper rotation system of irrigation, and giving the land the fertilizers it needs, and above all choosing proper crops.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Fawzy Diab, water expert at the Desert Research Center, said sustainability of water resources means the continuation of the resource or should not be negatively affected by any other factors. He says if a project lasts for 50 years, that means sustainable .

“The economics of sustainability” boils down to having money to provide solutions for existent and expected challenges, said Diab.  Egypt has varies of water resources including the Nile, rain water, underground water, desalinated water, treated water, another resource for water boils down in using the water for more cycles. He continued that in case all these resources were well-used, water share per capita would surpass the poverty line.

However, Diab noted ground water coming from Nubian Sandstone aquifer saw decline in its level, due to the Libyan man-made river that was constructed during late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.

“A general decrease occurred in water levels in places such as the Siwa Oasis,” he said, noting that creating urban societies in places of the project will lead to decrease of the water level in the aquifer which took thousands of years to be replenished.

Government’s plan

Cultivating desert lands via underground water is one of the government’s solutions against its demography challenges; the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation framed a strategy to guarantee sustainability, said the head of the Underground Water Department at the Ministry.

Sustainability ” and the country would provide the consumer with the amount of water that ensures the sustainable development; the country also should run this matter in participation with the consumers scientifically with very low running cost,” Sakr continued.

The ministry will adopt using new methods of water pumping and irrigating that differ from what has been used in the past, via using solar power with lower cost, said Sakr, saying “so, the government will run the wells as if the underground water were non-renewable,” he said.

Sakr continued that sustainability means the ability to pump out the water with using modern technologies and at very economic cost.

Solar power is one of good mechanism to get water, as Egypt was ranked as the Arab country receiving the most sun hours per year, according to a study by the Environment and Climate change Research Institute (ECCRI) in April 2012.

In order to mitigate water use, the Ministry of Agriculture has excluded number water-intensive crops, such as rice, from reclaimed lands. Previously, Ministry spokesperson Eid Hawash told The Cairo Post that the government will plant other field crops over 70 percent of the project lands, while other 30 percent for fruits.

Sakr clarified that formation of urban communities in these reclaimed lands aims to relieve population congestion around the Delta and Nile Water, to increase arable areas to 9.5 million feddans nationwide, and to inhabit the desert areas to prevent presence of militants infiltrate from neighboring countries see political and security turmoil such as Libya. Sakr said desalination plants will be established, noting that the new urban communities have been linked with big road networks.

Assuring the sustainability of some aquifer, Sakr said that other aquifers beneath them, saying that Moghra aquifer could replenish its water from a beneath aquifer of Carbonate that is being fed by Nubian Sandstone aquifer that underlies Egypt, Libya, Chad, and Sudan.

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