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Egypt's land question
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 12 - 2013

“Denial ain't just a river in Egypt” — Mark Twain
It is exceedingly difficult to write about the land question in contemporary Egypt. A farewell to Egypt as the breadbasket of the ancient world, the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean Basin, is a forgone conclusion. The country is destined to be a net importer of food for years to come. To begin with, there was the exceptionally wide range of crops the country used to grow, both food crops and cash crops. There was flax, fruit and grains galore. Then, under British colonial rule, cotton became another abiding enthusiasm.
But one shrinks from cataloguing the disasters that followed. As a child, I used to spend July and August with my family in Alexandria. In those days, the Delta was verdant and green. We used to take the Agricultural Road crisscrossing the Delta, with a stopover for refreshments in the provincial hub of Tanta in the heart of the Delta halfway between Cairo and Alexandria.
A road trip across the Delta today is a grim reminder that there is now more mud-brick russet red than greenery. Farmers and the fellahin, or peasants, are hoping to do more with their money than just grow crops, and as a result the Egyptian poet Sayed Mekkawi's famous ballad al-ard betet kallem arabi, al-ard al-ard (the land speaks Arabic, the land, the land) has lost much of its meaning.
Instead, the Anglo-Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land springs to mind. This perceptive novel about Egypt contains two distinct and not necessarily inextricably intertwined narratives. The first is an anthropological narrative that revolves around two visits made by Ghosh to two villages in the Nile Delta, once when he was writing his doctoral dissertation (1980-81) and then again a few years later (1988). This is the narrative that concerns the land question in Egypt, as it zooms in on a time when the peasants preferred to invest in constructing ever-larger houses for themselves at the expense of the agricultural land.
In the second narrative, presented in parallel to the first, Ghosh constructs a fictionalised biography of a 12th-century Jewish merchant, Abraham Ben Yiju, and his slaves Ashu and Bomma, utilising documents from the famous Jewish Geniza archive in Cairo. The irony is that Egypt's agricultural land, especially the once-fertile Delta, is in danger of being forgotten, like the country's once-thriving Jewish community.
Does this matter? For some seven millennia the population of Egypt, this narrow strip of land made up of the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta in Lower Egypt, did not exceed five million people. Indeed, at times of drought, the population was reduced to three and even on rare occasions to two million. The population of Egypt today hovers around 90 million people, and if current population growth rates continue the country might easily reach 150 million by 2050, if not more. Such population levels are unsustainable, and they make the country dangerously dependent on food imports.
All this argues for a change in thinking. What should be done? Or is it too late to do anything about the encroachment of construction on Egypt's agricultural land? Ominously, the rich silt that once fertilised the agricultural land is now confined behind the Aswan High Dam, submerged in Lake Nasser, Africa's largest artificial lake.
FROM ANCIENT EGYPT: The ancient Egyptians depicted Pharaohs and noblemen hunting in the lush marshes of the Delta. Cattle were fattened in their rich pastures, and papyrus, the symbolic plant of Lower Egypt, grew in the Nile's waters. Several large ancient Egyptian cities, among them Buto, Sais and Tanis, were located in the Delta.
Ancient Egyptian cities, not unlike some contemporary Egyptian peasant houses, were built of unbaked mud bricks, and this mud was rich in nitrogen, an excellent fertiliser of the fields. Ancient Egypt was a prototype of a hydraulic civilisation because its river, the Nile, was a consummate waterway. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the country in 460 BCE, famously described Egypt as the “gift of the Nile”, and “Egypt's history was, and still is, almost entirely determined by what happened on and around the natural phenomena of its great river,” says Steven Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilisation.
Surprisingly, many Egyptian peasants today have shown little interest in farming the land. Many have left it for the large metropolises of Cairo and Alexandria, others have gone to the provincial capitals, and even more have travelled to the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, and in happier times to Libya and Iraq. The process is carefully documented in Ghosh's In an Antique Land.
“The Nile's propitious characteristics and the simple, irrigated basin agriculture it supported visibly shaped all aspects of Egyptian culture, society and daily life. People have lived in the Delta region for thousands of years, and it has been intensively farmed for at least the last five thousand years. The Delta River used to flood on an annual basis, but this ended with the construction of the Aswan High Dam. At the apex of the hierarchical Egyptian state was the Pharaoh, the absolute sovereign who in the Old Kingdom was viewed as a living god who owned all the land and controlled the river,” Solomon comments.
But “global environmental change is the sum of a range of local, national or regional environmental challenges. The issue of water is particularly relevant in this discussion. The dependence of cities on a guaranteed supply of water makes significant demands on global fresh water supplies. Cities already compete with the much larger demands of agriculture for scarce water resources in some regions,” he adds, drawing attention to a problem that will increasingly face Egypt in the years to come.
“Men are we,” lamented the English poet William Wordsworth. He had Venice in mind, but I suppose the same can be said about Egypt's fast-dwindling agricultural land. “And must grieve when even the shade/Of that which was great is passed away.” There are still those in Egypt who grieve for the loss of the agricultural land.
THE LOSS OF THE LAND: The land was once the primary concern of peasants and wealthy landowners alike. Land was the source of wealth and it produced food. Torrential rains fell regularly in the Ethiopian Highlands, but Egypt, where hardly a drop of rain falls, was the main beneficiary of the Ethiopian monsoons. Family feuds over land erupted, and they still do. Egypt is one of the few countries in the world where conjugal unions were once encouraged to keep land in the family.
But in contemporary Egypt, the main function of the land is no longer agricultural, even in rural areas. Rather, it is now valued as an investment or a potential construction site, in spite of the laws prohibiting encroachment on agricultural land.
“In response to the pressures on arable land for production and for housing, some one million feddans of desert had been reclaimed by 1995, bringing the surface area of cultivable desert land to about three million feddans. Another 3.4 million feddans are to be secured by 2007. However, the area under cultivation has been more or less constant as agricultural land is lost to urban and industrial expansion at about 30,000 feddans per year,” writes Lowell Lewis, an agricultural scientist.
“An estimated 3.5 million farmers cultivate holdings of an average size of two feddans, or 0.84 hectares. Production is therefore intensive and yields are among the highest in the world despite the irregular and insufficient supply of water for irrigation. Only three per cent of the total land area is arable, of which about a third is serviced by main and secondary drains, and many are in dire need of repair. Drainage has proved to be insufficient to counter water-logging and high soil salinity, which are the unforeseen consequence of a rise in the water table following the construction of the Aswan Dam. In addition, only two per cent of the eight million feddans of cultivated land are irrigated by modern methods. Egypt's cropped area is 14.5 million feddans.”
High water salinity is especially problematic in the Nile Delta, and particularly so in the northernmost Mediterranean coastal areas. “The Nile is considered to be an ‘arcuate' delta, arc-shaped, as it resembles a triangle or lotus flower when seen from above. The outer edges of the Delta are eroding, and some coastal lagoons have seen increasing salinity levels as their connection to the Mediterranean Sea increases, since the Delta no longer receives an annual supply of nutrients and sediments from upstream due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam,” warns a recently released report.
Egypt's Mediterranean coastline is being devoured by the sea because of global warming. “The Nile Delta is turning into a salty wasteland by rising sea waters, forcing some farmers off their lands and others to import sand in a desperate bid to turn back the tide. Experts warn that global warming will have a major impact in the Delta on agriculture resources, tourism and human migration, besides shaking the region's fragile ecosystems,” the report ominously reveals.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Egypt does not produce enough food to feed its 90 million population. A 30cm rise in sea level is expected to occur by 2025, flooding approximately 200 square km of agricultural land. This will trigger a disastrous cycle of food insecurity, a mounting food import bill, and the impoverishment, malnutrition and hunger of the population.
“From a demographic standpoint, urbanisation accelerates the decline of fertility by facilitating the exercise of reproductive health rights. In urban areas, new social aspirations, the empowerment of women, changes in gender relations, the improvement of social conditions, higher-quality reproductive health services and better access to them, all favour rapid fertility reduction. The projected expansion of the urban population in Asia and Africa, from 1.7 to 3.4 billion over a period of only 30 years, and the reduced level of available resources, stress the need for a more imaginative but pragmatic response,” the report advises.
NOT ENOUGH FOOD: Experts warn that if the current situation continues to deteriorate, it will result in massive food shortages that could turn seven million Egyptians into “climate refugees” by the end of the century. Egyptians, traditionally have had an innate aversion to the desert. However, they have now been forced to try to turn to the dreaded desert for help, the abode of the ancient Egyptian god Seth.
The statistics are terrifying. “During the 1970s, despite substantial investment in land reclamation, agriculture lost its position as the dominant economic sector. Agricultural exports, which accounted for 87 per cent of all merchandise export value in 1960, fell to 35 per cent in 1974 and 11 per cent by 2001. In 2000, agriculture accounted for 17 per cent of GDP and 34 per cent of employment. Cotton has been the staple crop, but it is no longer important as an export. Production in 1999 was 243,000 tons,” the report's authors write.
“Egypt is also a substantial producer of wheat, corn, sugarcane, fruit and vegetables, fodder, and rice; substantial quantities of wheat are also imported despite increases in yields since 1970, and significant quantities of rice are exported,” the report notes.
“Egypt's arable area totals about 3.3 million hectares, or 8.1 million acres, about one-quarter of which is land reclaimed from the desert. However, the reclaimed lands only add seven per cent to the total value of agricultural production. Even though only three per cent of the land is arable, it is extremely productive and can be cropped two or even three times per year. Most land is cropped at least twice a year, but agricultural productivity is limited by salinity, which afflicts an estimated 35 per cent of cultivated land, and drainage problems,” the report says.
“Irrigation plays a major role in a country, the very livelihood of which depends upon a single river. Most ambitious of all the irrigation projects is that of the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1971.” Egypt has no shortage of agricultural experts. But the complexities of the current political situation in the country have taken their toll, relegating the land question to an issue of secondary concern.
“A report published in March 1975 by the National Council for Production and Economic Affairs indicated that the [Aswan High] Dam had proved successful in controlling floodwaters and ensuring continuous water supplies, but that water consumption had been excessive and would have to be controlled. Some valuable land was lost below the dam because the flow of Nile silt was stopped, and increased salinity remains a problem.”
“Further, five years of drought in the Ethiopian highlands, the source of the Nile River's water, caused the water level of Lake Nasser, the Aswan High Dam's reservoir, to drop to the lowest level ever in 1987. In 1996, however, the level of water behind the High Dam and in Lake Nasser reached the highest level since the completion of the dam. Despite this unusual abundance of water supply, Egypt can only utilise 55.5 billion cubic metres (1.96 trillion cubic feet) annually, according to the Nile Basin Agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan.”
PROBLEMS AHEAD: One of the most pressing of Egypt's current challenges is how to stop the loss of agricultural land. A second is the rapid rise in population. Can Egypt, for instance, afford the twin ambitions of reducing unemployment and achieving higher growth rates by relying essentially on Suez Canal revenues, the main source of foreign exchange earnings, and tourism? Can the agricultural sector be ignored at the expense of export manufacturing?
Upping the tempo of political change in Egypt means that it is time for the politicians to pay more attention to the agricultural sector, and for the experts to take another look at how best to exploit the remaining agricultural land.
“The agrarian reform law of 1952 provided that no one might hold more than 190 feddans for farming and that each landholder must either farm the land himself or rent it under specified conditions. Up to 95 additional feddans might be held if the owner had children, and additional land had to be sold to the government. In 1961, the upper limit of landholding was reduced to 100 feddans, and no person was allowed to lease more than 50 feddans (one feddan = 0.42 hectares).”
“Compensation to the former owners was in bonds bearing a low rate of interest, redeemable within 40 years. A law enacted in 1969 reduced landholdings by one person to 50 feddans. By the mid-1980s, 90 per cent of all land titles were for holdings of less than five feddans, and about 300,000 families, or eight per cent of the rural population, had received land under the agrarian reform programme.”
“According to a 1990 agricultural census, there were some three million small land holdings, almost 96 per cent of which were under five feddans (2.1 hectares/5.2 acres). Since the late 1980s, many reforms attempting to deregulate agriculture by liberalising input and output prices and by eliminating crop area controls have been initiated. As a result, the gap between world and domestic prices for Egyptian agricultural commodities has been closed.”
Such is the recent history of agricultural reform in Egypt. As we look further into the new millennium, new and even more imaginative solutions will be needed.

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