Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Lieberman, Netanyahu and Dr Strangelove

 
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The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister is like the plot of a nihlistic black comedy.

Image design: Khaled Diab

Image design: Khaled Diab

Thursday 9 June 2016

To Arabs, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s defence minister sounds like it could be the plotline of a 21st-century Israeli adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s classic, Dr Strangelove, but without the laughs.

After all, this is a politician who has casually suggested, on a number of occasions, that Israel should bomb the Aswan High Dam, reportedly for what he perceived as Egypt’s  support of Yasser Arafat and the, at the time, hypothetical redeployment of Egyptian troops to the demilitarized Sinai.

If I were someone who took the statements of politicians at face value, then this threat would terrify me. If by bombing, Lieberman meant the destruction of the dam, then that would likely lead to the certain death of millions of my compatriots, including family and friends, who would be swept away in a huge tsunami-like tidal wave.

Even though such destruction is impossible short of multiple nuclear strikes, engineers say, this has become Lieberman’s most famous and infamous outburst in Egypt, given its genocidal implications, with most articles in the Egyptian media about his new position mentioning it.

Another Egyptian media fixation is on Lieberman’s brief “career” as a nightclub bouncer, suggesting that Moldovan immigrant is some kind of brainless thug. While certainly thuggish, he is highly intelligent and shrewd. After all, his stint as a bouncer was while he was a student at the Hebrew University and he guarded the doors of a student club.

Lieberman, whose writer father imbued him with a love of Russian literature, once reportedly dreamed of becoming a poet. And like numerous frustrated artists before him who turned to extremist politics, one can only wonder how much better things would have been for Lieberman and the world had he made it as a writer.

Of course, few Egyptians have taken seriously Lieberman’s threat to undam the forces of annihilation on their country. However, the fact that Lieberman’s past statements are coming back to haunt him reflect that words are not just empty sounds that travel no further than the echo chamber of Yisrael Beiteinu supporters.

His bomb-laden bombast is, nevertheless, more than simple bluster, it reflects a deeper malaise: Lieberman’s ideological and instinctive hatred of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. This is reflected in his consistently hawkish stance, which seems, for instance, to have tipped the balance towards outright war in Gaza in 2014, through Lieberman’s rivalry with Netanyahu and his constant mockery of the prime minister as a weakling unwilling to use sufficient force.

And it is this radical streak which troubles Egyptian and Arab commentators the most. Lieberman has, over the years, demanded that Israel go to war not only with Gaza, but also to exercise extreme violence against the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Palestinian prisoners. He has also advocated the transfer of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their towns to a future Palestinian state, demanded professions of “loyalty” from Arabs in Israel and suggested that those who are “disloyal” should be beheaded.

This has raised fears among many Arab observers that Lieberman will exploit his defence portfolio to advance a belligerent, militaristic approach that will pull Netanyahu’s already extremist government to the outermost reaches of the far-right.

Some analysts are convinced that by handing over Israel’s army to Lieberman, Binyamin Netanyahu is deftly torpedoing the latest Arab peace overtures, this time coming from Egypt, not to mention international efforts, namely from France, without putting himself directly in the firing line.

Just days before the announcement was first made, Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi extended a hand to Israel, promising a “warmer peace” if Israel would only “resolve the issue of our Palestinian brothers”.

This led some commentators to view the apparently unhinged choice of Lieberman for the defence portfolio as a move intended to humiliate Sisi and the Arab League. “[Israel] is sticking its tongue out to all the Arabs,” Hassan Nafie, an Egyptian professor of political science, was quoted as saying. “Israel sees peace initiatives as coming from a position of weakness and surrender.”

However, for many Arabs, and especially Palestinians, Lieberman is simply a case of “business as usual”. “They are all Lieberman,” wrote Palestinian journalist Awni Sadiq in reference to Netanyahu and his far-right coalition.

Some see any change of personnel as irrelevant because Netanyahu, the nearest Israel has come to a dictator and whose endless tenure reflects the wisdom of term limits imposed elsewhere in the world, ultimately calls the shots. “At the end of the day, it is Netanyahu who decides more than anyone what is Israel’s policy in war and in peace,” wrote Ashraf al-Arjami in the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam.

While I comprehend the depths of Palestinian disillusionment at settlement expansion, movement restrictions and the long series of extremist governments from which this attitude emanates, I can’t help feeling that it is misguided. Although it is possible that it will be business as usual and, charged with actual security authority, Lieberman will learn to temper his ultra-extremism, but we must not underestimate his potential to cause enormous damage.

With the defence ministry at his mercy, Lieberman may well exert every effort to neutralise the Israeli army’s newfound role as pragmatic moderator and conscience to a civilian leadership that has lost its grasp of reality and now occupies a (self-)destructive bubble.

This is reflected in Lieberman’s bill to reintroduce the death penalty for Palestinians convicted on terrorism charges, while his open support of a soldier caught on film murdering in cold blood an incapacitated stabber in Hebron suggests that the practice of extra-judicial execution of Palestinian attackers is likely to escalate under his watch.

As we approach the second anniversary of the last Gaza war, and as tensions between Israel and Hamas rise, another war could be in the making. And, sadly, with Lieberman at the helm, the devastation and bloodletting of the next bout could potentially make the 2014 war seem like a minor skirmish.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 2 June 2016.

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Dispelling the curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Conflict between Nile basin countries has been averted. But unless effective action is taken, a water war remains a distinct future possibility.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

War has been avoided. As Yemen becomes the latest battleground in what future historians might call the Middle East’s “World War”, news like this is welcome indeed.

The averted casus belli was the Grand Renaissance Dam – slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – which Ethiopia began constructing in 2011 at the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies some 60% of the great river’s water.

This move made Egypt very nervous and angered decision-makers in Cairo. This was owing to fears that the new barrier would adversely affect the flow of water downstream, bringing potential drought and turning Egypt from the “gift of the Nile” into its curse.

Once completed, the dam will actually have a negligible impact on river flow to Sudan and Egypt, unless Ethiopia decides to divert its waters to irrigation projects elsewhere. Ethiopia even claims it will increase water to Egypt because of the lower evaporation levels in its temperate highlands.

However, the 65.5 billion cubic meters –the equivalent of about one year’s flow to Egypt – required to fill the Great Renaissance’s reservoir troubled Cairo because it could potentially affect millions of farmers and harm the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

These fears – both real and exaggerated – prompted Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, to engage in some poetic sabre-rattling. “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” he threatened in 2013.

And his government considered moving beyond semantics. A closed cabinet meeting which was accidentally and embarrassingly broadcast live on air showed ministers brainstorming ideas for spreading disinformation, dispatching special forces and backing rebels in Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed defence minister who ousted his patron following mass protests, began by pursuing a similarly inflexible position, with Egypt lobbying the international community to halt the project.

Despite al-Sisi’s reckless willingness to go to war in Yemen and his brutal and violent repression of opposition, he wisely decided that diplomacy was more effective than force with Ethiopia. “We have chosen co-operation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” al-Sisi said on the occasion of the inking of a declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reassured.

But despite this landmark deal, we are not out of the woods yet. The three countries still need to agree on the pace at which the new dam’s reservoir will be filled – which could prove to be a difficult barrier to cross.

More fundamentally, the longstanding dispute over the allocation of the Nile’s water resources is the greatest potential flashpoint. This could escalate the proxy conflicts between Cairo and Addis Ababa into the kind of full-fledged “water war” which experts have been warning about for decades.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan, leaving Ethiopia high and dry. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic meters, the country is struggling against water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

In such circumstances, it is understandable that Egyptians regard any reduction in flow as an “existential threat” and a national security issue of the first degree.

But Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are also completely justified in being vexed at this unfair distribution. When they were not in a position to make use of the Nile’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue.

However, this situation has changed radically. Ethiopia is developing rapidly and its population is exploding, reaching over 96 million in 2014, which is larger than Egypt’s. Addis Ababa understandably wishes to exploit more of the rains which fall on its territory.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism regarding quotas, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in 2010 seeking to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan.

But the reality is that redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt, as it can actually get by on considerably less water.

For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

Above all, Egypt needs to save its arable land, perhaps the most fertile in the world, which is under threat from rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. Rising sea levels and the Aswan High Dam’s retention of the silt which used to regenerate the Nile Delta have placed Egypt’s bread basket under severe threat of collapse. This environmental-catastrophe-in-the-making must be addressed urgently.

With the right investment, innovation and planning, the curse of the Nile can be averted and it can continue to be a gift, not just to Egypt, but all the countries through which it flows.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 April 2015.

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Save the Nile Delta, President al-Sisi

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt would be much better off saving the sinking ship of the Nile Delta instead of building a white elephant Suez Canal II.

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Thursday 18 September 2014

Egyptian presidents have long been fond of symbolic mega-projects. In addition to the practical benefits they were expected to perform, these show-pieces had the dual purpose of demonstrating how apparently visionary the dictator of the moment was, his patriotism and benign influence, as well as a tool for cobbling together a semblance of national unity and purpose.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser had the Aswan High Dam, which was intended to electrify the public towards his ambitious Arab socialist development programme. However, disagreement over financing prompted him, in 1956, to nationalise the Suez Canal to pay for the dam, leading to war with Britain, France and Israel. Anwar al-Sadat’s mega-project was to cross the Suez Canal militarily to regain the Sinai territory Egypt lost to Israel in 1967, and defeat not only Egypt’s neighbouring enemy but also to silence his domestic ones.

Hosni Mubarak had his Toshka project which was meant to create a new Nile Valley to absorb some of the country’s runaway population growth and the alarming loss of arable land to urban development. Toskha would achieve this by diverting water from Lake Nasser into the desert with the aim of expanding Egypt’s agricultural acerage by 10%. Despite its noble ambitions, “Mubarak’s pyramid”, as this largely aborted super mega-project was described, has only delivered a molehill due to mismanagement and poor planning.

Only a few months into his presidency, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has already broken ground on his own mega-project, billed not as the new Nile Valley but as the new Suez Canal. While Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Sadat’s army crossed it, Sisi’s ambition is to expand the waterway by building a second, 72km-long channel that is expected to boost the traffic passing through Suez. The project also fits into the government’s ambition to transform the Suez region into an industrial, technological and international trading hub.

But this poorly conceived project is already smashing against the rocks of unexpected problems. On a fundamental level, some experts wonder whether the extension will actually boost the Canal’s capacity, since more than 90km of the waterway will remain single-carriage. In addition, there may simply not been enough additional demand from shipping to justify the new investment.

On top of that, the project has already run into expensive technical complications. Ignoring warnings by irrigation experts, the digging began too close to the original Canal which has caused the site to fill with groundwater. Pumping the excess water out carries a price tag of $1 million per day.

It is my view that, rather than yet another white elephant mega-project, Egypt would be much better off diverting the estimated $8.4 billion it will cost to build Suez Canal II to another, far more pressing mega-project: Nile Delta I.

Since ancient times, the Nile Delta, which covers 25,000 square kilometres and houses nearly half of Egypt’s population, has been the national breadbasket but also that of various empires. Yet this extremely fertile fan of land in the middle of the desert is under serious threat from a two-pronged attack: rising sea levels caused by global warming and sinking sediment due to the silt being blocked upstream by the Aswan High Dam.

The Delta is quite literally sinking into the sea, but few officials seem unduly alarmed by this impending shipwreck. Despite the economic, social and national security implications of this catastrophe-in-the-making, no Egyptian government has taken any substantial action to beat back this erosion, aside from constructing a few measly dykes and barriers to protect important urban areas on the coast.

This is doubly surprising in light of the decades of forewarnings provided by both local and international experts. For example, more than a quarter of a century ago, researchers at the Smithsonian Institute delivered dire warnings about future disaster.

Today, the alarm amongst experts has reached fever pitch. “The total [area of the Delta] expected to be impacted by a rising of the sea level by one metre during this century will be 8,033 square kilometres, which is nearly 33% of the total area of the Nile Delta,” predicted Khaled Ouda, a geologist at Egypt’s Assiut University, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year.

In addition to the loss of precious agricultural land, this would turn millions of people in one of the most densely populated places on Earth climate refugees.

Given that rising sea levels and a sinking delta would redraw Egypt’s natural map more radically than ISIS has redrawn Iraq and Syria’s political one, the price of averting this disaster is surprisingly low – less than half al-Sisi’s Suez Canal project.

A plan proposed by Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza involves the construction of a concrete wall along the Delta’s entire coastline and skirting it with a plastic diaphragm to prevent saltwater seepage. Total estimated cost: just $3 billion. The remaining billions can be invested in building impenetrable barriers several metres below sea level to hold the crumbling Delta in place and avoid sea water salinating the Delta’s aquifer.

Beyond these emergency measures, Egypt needs innovative solutions to replenish the Nile Delta through restoring the flow of natural silt, which not only protects against sea erosion but also acts as a powerful natural fertiliser. But this is more easily said than done, since the silt is sitting at the bottom of Lake Nasser a thousand kilometres downstream.

Inaction on these fronts will make the fallout from the revolutions and counterrevolutions that have gripped Egypt since 2011 seem like a minor distraction. Failing to protect the gift that is the Delta will turn the Nile into a curse for Egypt.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 September 2014.

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Egypt’s Nubians: damned by the dam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Half a century after the inundation, Nubians may finally gain recognition and redress for the loss of their homeland.

Monday 23 April 2012

Lower Nubia is modern Egypt’s very own lost Atlantis. This ancient land today lies mostly under the waters of Lake Nasser, a massive reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam.

Now, half a century after the inundation, Egyptian Nubians are finally being offered the prospect of decent compensation for the loss of their homeland in the 1960s. Following years of concerted campaigning by Nubian campaigners, and their active role in the revolution, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister for planning and international co-operation, announced that Nubians would soon be compensated with new farmland and villages.

Ever since Egypt’s controversial decision, taken soon after the 1952 revolution, to construct the High Dam, questions have persisted as to why Cairo was so cavalier with both the Nubian people and the priceless archaeology in which the region abounded.

Defenders and apologists insist that Nubia had to be dammed so that Egypt, one of the driest places on the planet and almost wholly dependent on the Nile for its water, would not be damned.

And despite its severe environmental impacts, which were foreseen long before its construction, the dam saved Egypt, in the 1980s, from the severe drought upstream in Ethiopia, where most of Egypt’s water originates. It has also played a major role in the modernisation, electrification and industrialisation of the country.

It has also been suggested that racism played a role too. However, I am not convinced that racial discrimination was a conscious factor in the decision to flood Nubia. As far as I understand it, the Nile had only one cataract in Egypt and this happened to lie near the ancestral lands of the Nubians.

Then, there is the question of regionalism and class. Egypt has long been run centrally from Cairo and the urban centres of the north, while the south, in general, has had little say in its own or the country’s future. That would explain why Upper Egyptian peasants were also uprooted by the dam. The sacredness of “national unity” has also played a role, with Nubia’s distinct culture and language often seen as a threat by the Cairo elites.

In addition, as elsewhere in the developing world at the time, development and modernity were a far more pressing imperative in the minds of Egypt’s central planners of the time than cultural preservation and tradition. That helps explain why the Egyptian government had not given much thought to the preservation of the unique archaeological heritage of the region, home to the ‘Black Pharaohs‘, until an international furor erupted.

The international community managed, under the auspices of UNESCO, to pull off perhaps the largest and most impressive archaeological rescue operation in human history which rehoused Nubia’s most significant monuments, such as the temple of Abu Simbel.

The Nubians themselves were not as fortunate, and no massive international aid was forthcoming to help them relocate. Some 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were forced to move from 45 villages and relocated to Aswan, which has become a Little Nubia renowned for its hospitality and the warmth of its people, and to the ill-thought out  New Nubia, near Kom Ombo.

Though New Nubia was supposed to mirror old Nubia, preserving its culture while introducing modern utilities, it was in reality a charmless development of small concrete housing which, unlike the lush Nubia they left behind, lay in the desert.

Dissatisfied with their new homes, a large proportion the inhabitants of New Nubia migrated to other parts of Egypt, though many dreamed of returning as near as possible to their ancestral homeland.

The reality of discrimination is reflected in the marginalisation that Nubians still endure. For instance, a disproportionate number of Nubians are employed in menial work, such as bawabs (janitors). In fact, in some parts of downtown Cairo, a cluster of poor Nubian communities exist on the rooftops.

Despite that, a few Nubians have made it to the very top of Egyptian society. Culturally, the Nubian singer Ahmed Mounib was the first to introduce mainstream Egypt to the mellow sounds of Nubia. His protege, Mohamed Mounir – himself a refugee from the Aswan dam – has managed not only to put Nubian music on the map, with his funky fusion of traditional Nubian with jazzy western sounds, but was also one of the very few mainstream artists to sing socially conscious lyrics before the revolution.

Interestingly, in spite of their general underrepresentation, Nubians have fared markedly better in the highest echelons of Egyptian political life, perhaps due to the fact that the army has been one of the few routes open for the advancement of the marginalised.

The country’s third president Anwar Sadat, although he grew up in the north of Egypt, was the son of Nubian parents, while the country’s current de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is also of Nubian origin.

In recent years, attitudes towards Nubians have been changing, and there is a growing recognition that the Nubian people were wronged. This process has gathered pace since the revolution erupted, and one can only hope that Nubians will be allowed to resettle in what’s left of their homeland and be treated as full equals elsewhere in the country.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 21 April 2012.

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