Controversy over greening of Egyptian desert

image: Siwa oasis


While climate change and land over-use help many deserts across the world advance, Egypt is slowly greening the sand that covers almost all of its territory as it seeks to create more space for its growing population.

At the Desert Development Centre, north of Cairo, scientists experiment with high-tech techniques to make Egypt’s desert bloom. “All of this used to be just sand,” says Tarek el-Kowmey. “Now we can grow anything.”

The government is keen to encourage people to move to the desert by pressing ahead with an estimated $70 billion plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years. Among the incentives are cheap desert land to college graduates.

With only five percent of the country habitable, almost all of Egypt’s 74 million people live along the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. Cairo’s crowded living conditions will likely get worse as Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050.To make these areas habitable and capable of cultivation, the government will need to tap into scarce water resources of the Nile River as rainfall is almost non-existent in Egypt. Anders Jagerskog, director of the Stockholm International Water Institute in Sweden, questions the wisdom of using precious water resources to grow in desert areas unsuited to cultivation and where water will evaporate quickly under the scorching sun.

Local politics

Overcrowding is straining infrastructure in the cities and the government is worried that opposition groups such as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has a fifth of the seats in Parliament, might capitalise on discontent.

“The government feels it needs to reduce the number of people in high density areas, which puts a lot of pressure on resources like fertile land,” said Mostafa Saleh, professor of ecology at Al Azhar University in Cairo. “They are trying to spread the population to other parts of the country.”

Regional water tensions

The scope of the reclamations could also add to regional tension over Nile water sharing arrangements as in order to green its desert Egypt might need to take more than its share of Nile water determined by international treaties.

Egypt’s project to reclaim deserts in the south, called “Toshka”, would expand Egypt’s farmland by about 40 percent by 2017, using about five billion cubic metres of water a year. That worries neighbours to the south who are already unhappy about Nile water sharing arrangements.


“The price tag on these assets is huge, both as natural heritage and as a resource for tourism,” said ecologist Saleh. Saleh is vice president of an Egyptian firm that built an electricity-free ecolodge, consisting of rock salt and mud houses, amid olive and palm groves in the desert oasis of Siwa. [ed’s note: beautiful place – was there in 1992]

“In Egypt, water is the most critical resource and we should be careful to use it to maximise revenue,” Saleh explained. “Agriculture is not the best option for Egypt. Nature-based tourism could bring in much more money.”

Desert Development Centre

At the Desert Development Center, irrigation water comes through a canal connected to the Nile, about 15 km away, where it is used to keep crops flourishing and grass green for hardy hybrid cows to graze. Experts at the centre believe greening the Sahara might be Egypt’s best hope of bringing prosperity to its people.

Workers graft fruit-bearing plants onto the stems of plants that survive well in the desert. Favourite fruits are citrus as they flourish in hot climates and can land on supermarket shelves in Europe hours after harvesting. Proximity to markets in Europe and a lack of pests, which usually thrive in humid environments, make desert farming economically viable, said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo.

Water supply, Tutwiler said, shouldn’t be an issue at least for the next ten years. It makes sense, he says, to expand agriculture onto land that was once useless. “There is no frost and there is sun all the time here,” he said. “Plants just go nuts.”

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5 Responses to Controversy over greening of Egyptian desert

  1. the Grit says:

    Hi Matt,

    Isn’t Egypt at the end of the Nile? If I’m right on that one, and my new globe says I am, then who’s worrying about what they do with the water, since it’s next stop is the Mediterranean?

    Oh, and modern agricultural techniques can be very water efficient, if you can afford them. Just look at the production in California which is about as close to being a desert as you can get. While it isn’t practical with bulk crops like corn or wheat, you can grow most any vegetable crop with drip irrigation under plastic. You can even add liquid fertilizers to the water flow to save the expense of mechanical application and, while the initial bed preparation and planting are labor intensive, and thus expensive, the plastic removes the need to apply herbicides or weeding and does a fair bit to reduce the need for pesticides. So, if they have the financing and a supply of hand labor that doesn’t mind some back breaking work, this could be a winner.

    Besides, I’d rather see members of the Muslim Brotherhood picking tomatoes than trying to figure out a way to destroy Israel πŸ™‚

    the Grit

  2. matt says:

    I think members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be happy to have the work too.

    Yes, the issue over water use confused me too!

    I’ve seen desert horticulture in action out in the middle east. It’s quite bizarre. The sand simply holds the roots whilst the drip feed system supplies water and nutrients. The food lands in our shops here in the UK all the time.

  3. suburbanlife says:

    The Nile originates in Rwanda; the white Nile and the Blue Nile join in the Sudan neat Khartoum. I would wager Egypt has some kind of resource use agreement with Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, and is dependent on these countries good will regarding water sharing.
    As to the Muslim Brotherhood picking tomatoes, that’s fine by me as long as they live decently from their labour and don’t subsidize with their labour cheap agricultural products for Europeans. G

  4. matt says:

    Thanks G. Yes Egypt do have a resource agreement with Sudan. But really I would think its simply a free for all regards extraction from the Nile. It’s a beautiful river. I spent a few days on it floating upon a falouka – where time stood still. πŸ™‚

  5. the Grit says:

    Hi Matt,

    I feel your pain, in that the politics of the Middle East are most confusing! If oil wasn’t a factor, I suspect the rest of the world would have long ago turned a blind eye while they slaughtered each other. On the other hand, considering the push by the “developed” nations toward energy independence, this would seem like a really good time for them to work things out while they still have referees.

    As to the remarkable ability of plants to grow in weird situations, I am fascinated by it! Take squash for example. It grows like mad even in our hard clay soil, but also seems to be quite happy growing in a hydroponic solution supported only by a Styrofoam collar. Simply amazing! And how marvelous is grafting!? I would wish that we could do that, except that I suspect it would cause more troubles than it solves πŸ˜‰

    the Grit

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