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Cutting back on rice
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 05 - 2018

Parliament last week passed amendments to Agriculture Law 53/1966, giving the ministers of irrigation and agriculture the right to coordinate and ban the cultivation of certain water-intensive crops in particular areas.
The changes also include tightening up the penalties on violators to six months in prison and penalties of up to LE20,000 in fines.
The amendments did not name particular crops, but the parliamentary debates highlighted rice, bananas and sugarcane, all known to consume large amounts of water during cultivation.
The move came only weeks after the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources said that only 724,000 feddans of rice could be planted this season, which started in April. While the government last year allotted 1.1 million feddans for cultivating rice, the actual area reached 1.8 million feddans, more than double this year's decreed area.
Minister of Agriculture Abdel-Moneim Al-Banna told the Masrawy news website on Monday that the move would save 3.5 billion cubic metres of water throughout the year. “We conducted a survey to find out which crops consume the largest amounts of water and decided to replace them with less water-consuming alternatives,” he said.
In the case of rice, for example, it has been decided to restrict rice cultivation to types which remain in the soil for 125 days rather than those which need 180 days. “This way we will save two months of water consumption,” Al-Banna said.
“The new measures have been well studied and are not haphazard,” he added. The cultivation of rice requires more water than many other crops, at an average of 9,500 to 11,000 cubic metres of water per hectare.
Egypt's annual water supply of 55.5 billion cubic metres a year is currently not sufficient to cover demand for drinking water as well as from industry, agriculture and electricity plants.
Hussein Abdel-Rahman, head of the Farmers Syndicate, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision was “not clear and not well studied”, however. “It does not define what is water-intensive and how much water a crop has to consume before it is considered water-intensive and is thus banned, for example. Clover consumes a lot of water. Are we supposed to stop cultivating it,” he asked.
Abdel-Rahman said that with the areas allotted to rice cultivation being almost halved, farmers were left in the doldrums.
“Rice farmers start the planting season in April. Now that the decree is out, they don't have enough time to switch to other crops like cotton and corn,” he said. He explained that it was now too late to find the necessary cotton seeds as these should have been bought two months ago. As for corn, Egypt has a huge surplus in the crop, which means that prices will decrease significantly, not encouraging farmers to plant it.
“The government also wants to apply penalties to violators. But how can these be applied to the sugarcane fields in Upper Egypt in the light of the fact that the crop needs five years in the soil before it is harvested,” he asked.
Abdel-Rahman expressed the farmers' shock at the threat of imprisonment. A recent Reuters report has noted that raids have taken place in some Nile Delta governorates, with farmers being jailed until they pay outstanding fines.
Rather than putting farmers in jail, the government should have adopted the contractual cultivation system proposed in 2015, Abdel-Rahman said. Under this system, farmers agree with the government beforehand to sell a crop at a certain price even before cultivating it.
“This way, those who opt to grow corn instead of rice do not have to shoulder huge losses because they still have channels to which they can direct their produce,” he said.
The parliament's move should not lead to a jump in the prices of rice, at least until the end of 2018, according to Ragab Shehata, head of the Rice Division at the Egyptian Federation of Industries.
“We have enough stock from previous years to cover our needs until the end of 2018,” he said. Rice can be safely stored for a couple of years before being milled.
However, Shehata underscored the speculation in the media about the possibility of a deficit in rice supplies due to the move encouraging farmers who still had previous years' harvests to hoard them. Consumers could also start stockpiling rice, pushing prices up, he said.
Shehata also expected harm to the rice-milling industry. There are 856 registered rice mills, in addition to around 1,000 unregistered, in Egypt. With state-owned rice mills representing only three or four per cent of the overall capacity, the majority are privately owned. Total production capacity is 15 million tons of rice annually.
“Before the decision, we were working with half our capacity. Now we will not even utilise 25 per cent of it,” he said.
Rice traders believe the decision could make Egypt into a rice importer in 2019 after decades of being a major exporter. They put the amount of rice Egypt would need to export next year at one million tons.
Local production of rice comes in at around five million tons annually, 3.6 to 3.9 million of which is consumed locally, while the rest used to be exported before the introduction of recurrent export bans.
Egypt has intermittently banned the export of rice since 2008 in order to preserve stocks for the local market and to discourage the growing of the crop to save water.
Head of the Agricultural Committee in parliament Abdel-Hamid Al-Demerdash told reporters earlier this week that he would make an urgent request to the government to start readying itself beforehand for any possible drop in rice supply.
“As the water problem is here to stay, the government must move to secure rice imports that suit Egyptian taste,” Shehata said. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently said that Egypt required an “urgent and massive” response to maintaining its food security in the near future, citing water scarcity, urbanisation and the effects of climate change as particular problems.
The water scarcity problem has been in the limelight since Ethiopia started building its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile in order to become a regional electricity exporter. Egypt fears the filling of the dam's reservoir will affect its quota of Nile water, but Ethiopia says the dam will not affect the Nile's flow once its 79 billion cubic metre reservoir is filled.
The time the reservoir takes to be filled makes all the difference, however, as the longer it takes the less is the effect on Egypt.
According to Reuters, the loss of one billion cubic metres of water could affect one million people and lead to the loss of 200,000 acres of farmland in Egypt. Irrigation Ministry sources told the news agency that “on that basis, if the dam is filled in three years it might destroy 51 per cent of Egypt's farmland, but in six years it will destroy only 17 per cent.”


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