Ambitious plans in Egypt to improve food security involve reclaiming desert land

Over the past few decades Egypt’s food security situation has slowly but steadily deteriorated. Today, around half of the food consumed annually in the county has been imported from elsewhere in the world. This represents a major turnaround from the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, when Egypt not only produced enough food to meet most domestic demand, but was also an important food exporter to countries across the MENA region. This shift can be attributed to a range of factors, including rapid population growth; a shortage of arable land and agricultural water resources; steadily increasing rural-urban flight, which has contributed to a shrinking domestic agricultural workforce; a lack of investment, on the part of both the government and the private sector, in agricultural technology and new practices; and, most recently, economic tightening and political instability, both of which have had a major impact on Egypt’s agricultural sector. “We are now bringing in 50% of our food from abroad,” Ayman Abou Hadid, a professor at the Cairo-based Ain Shams University and a former minister of agriculture, told local media in early 2016.

Boosting Supply

In an effort to address such supply concerns, in recent years the government has launched a number of programmes aimed at boosting food supply and better managing production and distribution. At the heart of this effort is an ambitious plan to facilitate expansion of farming into new, previously unfarmed places – namely the nation’s vast arid deserts. Under the state’s 1.5m Feddan project, announced by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the end of 2015, the government plans to expand Egypt’s farmland by at least one-sixth in the coming years. Assuming the initiative goes according to plan, the state will create between 1.5m and 3.5m feddans of newly irrigated land from previously unfarmable, desert, primarily in the nation’s largely uninhabited western and southern reaches. The 1.5m Feddan project involves a range of planned developments, including adding a significant number of new wells; introducing incentives to attract more workers from the Nile delta region, the traditional heartland of Egyptian agriculture; and installing the necessary infrastructure, in large part on the government’s dime. The announcement of the 1.5m Feddan Project follows the El Sisi government’s plan to resurrect a desert farming initiative at Toshka, near the Sudanese border, which was begun by the government of the deposed former president Hosni Mubarak. Together, these two projects have the potential to improve Egypt’s food security situation considerably, boosting domestic supply and reducing the cost of food, which bodes well for the country’s large low-income population. However, implementing land reclamation programmes the size of the 1.5m Feddans and Toskha projects is a challenging prospect for a range of reasons. Indeed, the Mubarak government’s failure to successfully complete the planned Toshka agricultural initiative is still fresh in many Egyptians’ minds. During this previous iteration, the state spent some LE44bn (equivalent to $2.3bn as of December 2016) on Toshka-related development initiatives, with very little to show for it. This effort was hampered by a lack of private investors, its distance from Cairo and other populated areas, and poor environmental planning and management. The current government is working to avoid these pitfalls, though its success in this has yet to be determined.

Rising Demand

Perhaps the chief driver of food insecurity in Egypt over the past half century is the nation’s rapid population growth. Indeed, from the end of the Second World War to the present day the country’s population has quadrupled, from just over 21m in 1950 to upwards of 91m by mid-2016, according to data from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics. Some 95% of this population lives either in the Nile delta region, along the banks of the Nile or along the Suez canal. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, Egypt’s population growth over the past 25 years has taken place in both rural and urban areas. From 1990 through to the end of 2014 the rural population expanded by more than 51%, compared to around 49% in urban areas. As of the end of 2015, rural dwellers made up of around 57% of the country’s total population, though this figure has been dropping in recent years due to rural-urban flight. Indeed, according to Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, in recent years the nation has lost up to 30,000 acres of agricultural land to new urban developments on an annual basis in the Nile delta and valley alone.

Meanwhile, over roughly the same period Egypt’s food deficit has weakened considerably. During the three-year period of 1989-91, the country consumed 26 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day on average; by 2013-15, this figure had fallen by more than half to reach 12 kcal per capita per day, according to data from the FAO. At the same time, the cost of food has jumped considerably over the past decade and a half. Egypt’s domestic food price index, as calculated by the FAO, increased from 5.62 in 2000 to 7.47 by the end of 2014, which represents a rise of more than 32%.

Nonetheless, Egypt has in recent years seen intermittent increases in both the amount of land used for agriculture and the overall of arable land, though the data are not consistent here. According to FAO data, as of the end of 2014 permanent crops covered 1.08m ha, while arable land made up another 2.7m ha. These figures are up from 69,000 ha of permanent cropped land and 2.5m ha of arable land in 1961, and 466,000 ha and 2.6m ha, respectively, in 2007. The most recent figures show some 9.3m acres of total farmland, significantly above the 8.4m acres reported by local media as of early 2016, for instance.

Expansion Plans

Nonetheless, it is clear that the state’s two new desert land reclamation projects have the potential to increase Egypt’s agricultural land by up to 3.5m feddans (a feddan is roughly equal to an acre). President El Sisi initially announced the plan to revive the Toshka agricultural project in August 2014. The project dates back to 1997, when the Mubarak government announced a plan to build a massive irrigation project just a few kilometres from Egypt’s southern border with Sudan. The first iteration of the Toshka project involved the construction of a pumping station capable of moving 25m-30m cubic metres of Nile river water per day over a high ridge adjacent to the Aswan dam and into a specially built canal. From there, the water travels 60 km into a depression in the desert, from whence it is siphoned off in four directions so as to irrigate four separate agricultural plots. In all, as a consequence of the project, some 540,000 feddans of land were projected to be reclaimed, at a total cost of LE6bn ($318m). At first, a significant percentage of this cost had been projected to be covered by private investors. As of 2012, however, only 10% of the agricultural land designed to be included in the Toshka project had been cultivated, according to data collected by the US Geological Survey. Estimates put the total cost borne by the government in excess of LE44bn ($2.3bn).

Other Projects

While details about the government’s plan to revive Toshka have yet to be released, there are reasons to think that the implementation of the project may be more successful this time around. For instance, President El Sisi has already overseen the completion of one massive development project – the extension of the Suez canal in 2016. That effort was finished on time and under-budget, largely due to the assistance of the military.

The roll-out of the 1.5m Feddan project has also progressed relatively quickly. As of December 2015, for instance, Hossam Moghazy, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, told a press conference that the military had completed boring 725 of the 1300 new wells that are to irrigate the first phase of the project, which will cover the first 1m feddan. The wells draw on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which holds a large amount of fossil water beneath the Western desert. This has raised concerns – unanswered by the government as of early 2017 – that once the aquifer is entirely drained the wells will run dry and the project will no longer function. This is perhaps the most pressing issue currently facing project developers, as it is unclear exactly how much water the aquifer contains.

Further south at Toshka, work is also progressing apace. According to local news reports, as of early 2016 the state was nearing completion of New Toshka City, a community built to house over 20,000 farmworkers and their families. In addition to infrastructure, including roads and utilities, the government has reportedly built mosques, a school and stores. The financing scheme for the project remains unclear, though it is expected to involve private developers at a later stage. Additionally, a variety of water management facilities and other agriculture-related infrastructure have been completed near Toshka. Taken together, these projects have the potential to eventually result in an influx of new farming activity throughout the region. This could motivate new workers to move from the Nile Delta area, thus releasing some pressure on that already very crowded region.


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The Report: Egypt 2017

Agriculture & Agro-industry chapter from The Report: Egypt 2017

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