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Conflicting claims increase pressure on Egypt's land

Although many regions of the world can offer dramatic evidence that interference with the ecosystem frequently brings disastrous consequences, some Third World nations seem addicted to such practices. Egypt is a case in point: a country with a limited area of habitable and arable land, hemmed in on east and west by the desert.

As the habitable area does not exceed 3 per cent of Egypt's territory, large chunks of arable land are being sacrificed to urban development. On the other hand, land reclamation, which provides the only means of compensating for the loss, is costly and sometimes uneconomic. The conflicting pressures created by the food and housing requirements of a fast-growing population (2.8 per cent per annum) have tended, therefore, in conjunction with deterioration of the soil in recent years caused by salinity, water logging, and alkalinity, to bring about a sharp drop from the self-sufficiency of over a decade ago to a $4 billion food import bill in 1983.

The bill is rising and in all probability will continue to rise. Egypt is the second most populous nation in Africa, and its population, now in excess of 48 million with a density of about 1800 people per km2, is expected to reach a peak of 70-75 million by the year 2000. It follows that if the country is to have any hope of successful food management, it should not delay in heading for the optimum utilization and development of its resources, namely agriculture and fisheries.

But that does not seem to be the case. An important example is provided by Lake Nasser, the freshwater artificial reservoir of some 5 000 km2 crested by the construction of the High Dam, the largest structure of its kind in the world. Even though it was meant to provide a huge alternative fish resource, the damming of the Nile at Asswan had the effect of disrupting the important fishery of the Delta, without developing the infrastructure necessary for using it. Moreover, the benefits of the new resource came to be seen, in the total picture of food production, against the fact that a great part of the decline in agricultural production has been attributed to the loss of the traditional process of land fertilization, the Nile inundation of the Delta, and, even worse, the loss of all the arable land north of the High Dam.... Inundation had been a regular feature of Egypt's agricultural cycle since time immemorial - until the High Dam was built.

But what compounds the problems of a country deprived of its only fertilizing effort has been the seemingly uncontrollable encroachment on food production by urbanization, under the increasing demographic pressures experienced by a country where 44 per cent of its people live in urban concentrations.

Now a new threat is looming on the horizon. The chain effect has manifested itself in a further encroachment on the natural fishery resources for the purpose of land reclamation. It has been estimated that this reclamation process for crops will, by the end of the century, deplete nearly 140 000 hectares of the littoral lake region, a prime food resource in the northern Delta comprising a number of brackish lakes (Manzala, Burullus, Edko and Maryut, with a total area of 2 300 km2), and lagoons (Bardawil, Port Fouad, and Qarun, with a total area of 940 km2). With yields varying from a high of 1 400 kg/ha per annum, from Maryut, to 250 kg/ ha, from Manzala, to a low of 37-45 kg/ha from the lagoons, the whole littoral resource adds up to a potential of 143 000 tons a year of fish.

Such potential should be viewed against the fact that if the present level of fish consumption of 5.4 kg per caput annually is to be maintained, a population projected to reach the 70-75 million mark will require at least 350 000 tons a year. If we add the potential yields of other fishery resources (i.e., the marine fisheries of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, not to mention the Nile and the aquaculture ponds), it will emerge that Egypt is on its way to facing an annual deficit of approximately 100 000 tons. But if nutrition is to be improved in a country where malnutrition is rampant among the poorer classes, then annual demand may be as high as 450 000 tons, raising the supply deficit to 200 000 tons annually. It is indicative of things to come that in 1983, fish imports made up 37.4 per cent of the total consumption. Imports, therefore, represent an unacceptably high national expense, and it is unlikely, given the enormous size of the food import bill, that the country will ever find itself in a position to meet the cost of fish imports.

In the light of such a situation, high priority should be given to easing the burden of the projected increase in demand using local resources. Yet there are now clear indications that the continued existence of at least two of the largest Egyptian lakes (Manzala and Burullus) is threatened by a creeping process of desiccation. The mouths of the Manzala lake have, for some unfathomable reason, been dammed while effluent of city wastes is being poured into the now stagnating waters. The lake faces a slow biological death. Its fish yields have already dropped significantly. Meanwhile, fisherfolk who have made their living from the lakes for centuries are being eased out by wealthy investors who are carving the whole 1 400 km2 lake into veritable fiefdoms, varying in size from one to twenty feddans. They are converting their newly acquired holdings into fish farms and, in some cases, agricultural land to compensate for land converted elsewhere into building sites. In the process, land prices have soared: a feddan of lake land now sells for LE 7 000 to 8 000. (One feddan = approximately 4 200 m².)

A close look at the cost-effectiveness of fish farms suggests that they are not necessarily economically viable substitutes for naturally productive lakes. The Egyptian Government itself has embarked on an ambitious 100 000-hectare fishfarming programme, of which the 2000-hectare Port Said farm was the start. In Khashaa and Zawia, two more farms of 1 000 hectares each now exist. From past experience, the cost of fish farms may be estimated at LE 5 to 6 million per 1 000 hectares, with an expected maximum yield, upon completion of the projected 100 000 hectare project, of 50 000 tons under exemplary conditions and careful management of the resources.

In comparison, the 1 400 km2 feddans of Manzala yield, in their present condition, at least 60 000 and 75 000 tons a year, which could be doubled to 150 000 tons at a fraction of the cost of LE 5-6 million per 1 000 hectares being spent on state fish farms. The situation in Burullus, with about 560 km2, the second largest lake of the northern Delta, is even worse: 7700 feddans have already been desiccated and sold as agricultural land. In Balteem, 8 400 feddans have been desiccated and sold as agricultural land. In other lakes, the process of desiccation is gaining momentum and putting the existence of that vital resource in jeopardy.

It is highly doubtful that the loss of lake land means a gain of farm land. For one thing, the fertility of the areas under attack is questionable. For another, land by itself is not all that is needed for successful agriculture; irrigation and drainage are also essential. The absence of drainage on other agricultural land along the Nile has resulted in salinization, or the threat of salinization, of up to a third of Egypt's arable land. In 1982, almost all irrigated areas in the country were found to be potentially salt affected, and at least half the irrigated land (12 000^2) is already affected.... When all this is taken into account the economic feasibility of the whole process would look improbable.

More seriously still, there remains the vexed question of ecological balance. FAO and other international agencies have repeatedly pointed out that tampering with the environment is likely to entail dangerous imbalances in the ecosystem of the areas concerned. This is certainly a danger meriting investigation in Egypt, where only 25 000 km2 are cultivable out of a total of one million.

Medhat Makar