More Golia on land reform

I've linked before to Maria Golia's Daily Star columns, in which she's currently exploring Egypt's catastrophic and little-discussed land problems -- the way it is administered, what's being farmed on it, what's being built on it, and what the government is doing about planning for the future of an ever scarcer resource. In her latest missive she takes another look and land reform, what's being proposed and what's (not) being done. Unfortunately, the Daily Star has recently started putting them behind a wall, so it's reproduced below for your enjoyment. And remember to buy her book on your way out.

The line between famine and abundance is clearly drawn in Egypt, a green vein of Nile-fed land surrounded by lifeless sand. Yet administrative and public denial of land and water shortages is nothing short of suicidal. Given accelerated unplanned growth, only a cathartic reassessment of Egypt’s situation coupled with comprehensive land reform can rescue this uniquely challenged nation from ruin.

It’s difficult to know precisely how much arable land Egypt possesses since part of it is reclaimed, and figures vary. A 2003 Ministry of Agriculture report says that 1.8 million feddans were reclaimed between 1982 and 2000. Tellingly, it does not mention the land’s quality. Some experts say it takes 100 reclaimed feddans to equal the output of one feddan of existing Nile soil. But the latter is itself depleted, due to artificial fertilizers, intensive cultivation and the fact that the silt deposits that once enriched Egypt’s soil, now lie behind the Aswan Dam.

Nor does the report estimate annual losses of arable land due to urban and village encroachment, coastal erosion, sand movement, and the continual removal of topsoil for brick making. Overall, it’s fair to assume that land reclamation is surpassed by land loss. One expert estimates 66,000 arable feddans lost each year, but the figure is likely higher.

A United States Country Report says that of 2.8 million feddans reclaimed between 1952 and 2002, less than 3 percent is first class. It suggests that between 1964 and 1985 there was an estimated 8 percent annual loss of cropland. The report concludes that of Egypt’s total reclaimed areas, by 2002 40 percent had probably reverted to desert conditions.

Parliament recently raised the issue in a debate regarding the government’s Toushka mega project, initiated a decade ago to divert Lake Nasser water to Egypt’s southwestern desert via a massive pumping station (completed at a cost of LE1.5 billion). The plan was to turn Egypt into major agricultural exporter, while providing jobs and easing urban congestion.

Ten years and LE9 billion later, the project has created 750 jobs and housing and infrastructure are still lacking. Although 540, 000 feddans of reclaimed land were promised in the first ten years (and a total of 3.4 million by 2017) Minister of Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid reports that only 41,000 feddans are so far under cultivation, less than a tenth of the stated goal.

Perhaps Abu Zeid should have a word with the Agricultural Ministry, which said in a 2003 strategy report, that it is reclaiming 150,000 feddans annually. Given the experience of the last half century and the returns so far from Toushka, this is fantasy. Reclaiming land is a difficult, expensive enterprise requiring sustained attention, not to mention quantities of water. According to Abu Zeid and others, with a population expected to double by 2017, ‘Egypt will be in desperate need of more agricultural land’.

Egypt’s Minister of Housing, Ahmed al-Maghrabi, disagrees. He told Akher Sa’a magazine that ‘reducing …. agricultural land will not pose any problem in the future,' Mr. al-Maghrabi believes that crop yields from reclaimed desert will triple the amount produced in traditional agricultural areas. He is perhaps uninformed, but certainly wrong. Regarding Egypt’s massive tracts of informal dwellings, mostly built on agricultural land, al-Maghrabi says that ‘tough legislation has done nothing to prevent’ this unplanned expansion’.

Rather than acknowledging that Egypt has been tragically remiss in protecting an irreplaceable resource, al-Maghrabi focuses on the ‘corrupt collaboration between citizens, housing officials and local council officials [that] has deprived the government of billions of pounds in license fees and tax, which should pay for water and electricity supplies to these illegal constructions.’

In response, director of the Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR), Karam Saber notes that ‘this justification does not defend the remaining agrarian land’. Nor does it recognize that ‘the value of agrarian lands exceeds the costs of the [water and electricity] services mentioned. I don't think that the government is very concerned with the future and rights of upcoming generations.’ But, Saber suggests, ‘if reclaimed lands were provided with necessary services, people would be attracted to new areas and the remaining agrarian lands would be saved.’

Unfortunately, governmental plans along these lines have failed for lack of commitment. In 1989 college graduates were offered five feddans of reclaimable land north of Cairo along with a small home. Some 4800 graduates agreed to repay LE11,000 from the expected profits from cultivation for what appeared then as a ‘dream offer’. But in 2003, the Al Ahram Weekly reported that residents found the land’s salinity prohibitively high. Settlers lacked adequate water, health and educational facilities and mobile phone signals. ‘They left us stranded in the desert’ said one of the graduates, ‘like an army expected to fight a war without weapons’.

The ultimate betrayal came in the form of fish farms, a pursuit suitable to high salinity lands that eventually helps render them farmable. Private sector fish farms proliferated with government assistance, taking irrigation water from the graduates’ lands. The graduates however, were not allowed to raise fish, and faced fines and imprisonment for doing so. ‘Our land is thirsty’, said one graduate, ‘[but] the only way to get water is through bribes’.

This scenario is familiar in Egypt’s agricultural provinces. A 2005 LHCR report on water problems underlines a persistent lack of irrigation water, contamination of potable water and lack of sewage in hundreds of Egyptian villages. The causes are ‘governmental negligence, lack of planning, and the corruption of municipal councils who maintain water resources for certain areas at the expense of others.’

Considering unanswered water demands in the provinces, alongside those of Cairo’s shanty towns, and setting distribution problems aside, there may simply not be enough water to go around. So long as powerless segments of society suffer the shortages, they are tolerated. And so long as high officialdom ignores the ramifications of water and land shortages, Egypt edges closer to catastrophe.

Egyptian geologist Farouk el Baz recently tabled an ameliorating proposal calling for a superhighway running west of the Nile to provide access and incentive for western expansion while conserving arable lands. Housing expert Abou Zeid Rageh, has outlined another somewhat similar solution. Translating these ideas into action, however, would require the efforts of a fractious and deteriorating administration that apparently bears the land no great love.

Thanks to denial and abuse, Egypt’s plight mirror’s that of the planet - but writ large - because life or death choices are etched in its topography. Unless the reality of Egypt’s situation is embraced, civilization’s birthplace could end up a burial ground in the near –not distant - future.

See: Al-Ahram Weekly quarterly supplement ‘Beyond’ for in depth discussion of land reclamation proposals.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,