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.
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.”