The big picture for Egypt's future

Maria Golia's latest al-Masri al-Youm column, on developmental choices Egypt faces, makes a case for prioritizing environmental considerations. It's a sobering reminder that there are so much more important things at stake that the micro-debates over elections or constitution first and how much Sharia law there should be in the constitution:

Egypt’s scientific community has finally jump-started the debate over the country’s post-Mubarak developmental direction. Several high-profile figures have proposed large-scale projects -- Farouk al-Baz’s “Corridor of Development”, Mostafa Amer’s “Map of Hope” and Ahmed Zewail’s “Science City” – each with its features and drawbacks.  The ensuing critique of these projects has raised issues whose importance cannot be overestimated, including land and water use, energy production and education. Significant arguments have been raised; some are reaching the ears of the public and transitional government.  

But the debate still fails to convey the urgency for broad-based action, perhaps because the realities are so daunting. Rhetoric is typically a distant ancestor of change, and we are being drowned in it now, at a time when the lifeboats should long since have been launched. Today’s developmental discourse betrays a degree of the same denial and misreading of the headwinds that has already come at a heavy cost.

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But after decades of mismanagement such fine-tuned planning is a luxury Egypt can scarcely afford. The population will double within the next 30-40 years. Where will these people live, and how, given the country’s limited resources?  In the absence of adequate water, food and energy it’s hard to imagine Egypt surviving another 100 years at all, much less happily engaged in one pursuit or another. Under these circumstances, the priority is land and water usage, balancing food and energy production, and it cannot wait out the rhetoric.  

Egypt’s desertification is proceeding more rapidly than anywhere on earth. With coastal erosion and urban encroachment, arable land is literally disappearing beneath the feet of a burgeoning, hungry population at a mind-boggling rate of 3.5 feddans per hour.  The hardship already suffered by millions due to water shortages, the loss of livelihood owing to land grabs, the impact of land and water misuse on food production – these realities are all but ignored, except for a smattering of disconnected projects and fragmented media coverage. Candidates for parliament or the presidency who fail to outline a plan to remedy this situation should not be taken seriously.  

Despite the dire statistics and visual proofs there is virtually no public discussion of the gravity of Egypt’s environmental condition. Land and water losses in the last two decades alone are staggering, but so is the lack of responsible action by the state or private developers to reverse or at least slow them down. Some years ago Egypt boasted 18 golf courses – notoriously huge water consumers – and less than a thousand golf players. The number of lushly-landscaped residential communities and resorts has since multiplied.  

Just read the whole thing.

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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, www.arabist.net.