In the West Delta…

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Mervat Ayoub


WATANI International 

18 April 2010 
 A landmark project to improve irrigation methods in the West Delta is underway. The intention is to provide a secure source of irrigation for hundreds of thousands of feddans in a desert region which has been, throughout the last two decades, converted into agricultural land.
Nile water will be transported to regions west of the Delta from the Rashid (Rosetta) Branch of the Nile via a 170-kilometre canal and a network of water pumping stations, pipelines and aqueducts.
Besides its contribution in terms of boosting agricultural development, the West Delta project is expected to create 250,000 jobs. Five multinationals will undertake the project using investments worth EGP5 billion. Representatives will meet Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam in the near future to discuss the details. Allam indicated that the first phase would involve irrigating some 190,000 feddans on both sides of the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road.

Insufficient water
Former Irrigation Minister Mahmoud Abu-Zeid says that the idea came up as a result of incessant complaints from farmers and investors about the shortage of groundwater, which is the major water source in this area but which, by its very nature, raises the levels of salinity of the soil. The investors expressed their readiness to cover whatever it cost to protect their investments. “They have been growing their crops for 20 years,” Mr Abu-Zeid says. “Although a large part of their product is exported, a portion of it goes to the local market. The Cabinet approved the project in light of its expected contribution to sustainable development and the creation of jobs.”
Dr Hussein al-Atfi, deputy minister of irrigation, told Watani that the ministry had drafted a legal amendment allowing for a partnership between the government and the private sector to run the project as well as its irrigation and drainage facilities. This was a three-party contract between the government, the private sector and foreign investors. A consortium of private companies will carry out construction and industrial work in return for charging the beneficiaries fees accurately calculated to provide the service with the lowest possible cost,” Dr Atfi says. “The World Bank will provide an easy loan worth USD175 million while the private sector will shoulder the remaining required investments. As for small farmers, Dr Atfi said the French government had agreed to provide them with technical assistance including modern methods of cultivation and marketing. Water users would form a union to defend their rights and provide a link between both the beneficiaries and the consortium.”

Warning
Mohamed Safwat Abdel-Dayyem, the project manager, says the project would be executed in three phases. “The first involves improving irrigation methods for 255,000 feddans in the southern arena,” Dr Abdel-Dayyem says. “Second, 170,000 feddans north-west of Sadat City and 100,000 west of Wadi Natrun will be reclaimed. The third phase will involve providing sustainable irrigation water to 500,000 feddans surrounding the Nubariya and Nasr canals.”
Informed sources in the Ministry of Irrigation say that a large number of investors and land-owners in the project area filed appeals to become among the projects’ private sector partners.
A recent study by the Land Centre for Human Rights, however, warned that the West Delta project might result in grave environmental repercussions. It said that the water expected to be transferred from the Rashid branch of the Nile might subtract from the quantity available for original Delta land. According to the study, the establishment of a pipeline would require the expropriation of thousands of feddans originally possessed by small farmers who had laid their hands on lands at a time when investors had not been interested in the land. This, the study declared, would cause the displacement of some 100,000 families.

Biased towards investors
In the same context, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) MP Mohamed al-Halwagi said the project was designed to serve the interests of a group of business tycoons and top officials who bought the land through extraordinarily low prices to use for agricultural projects and achieve food security. “Although contracts between the government and the investors stipulated that the land would be used for cultivation, many of them established resorts and golf courses once their sites acquired the reputation of clean air and beautiful surroundings,” Mr Halwagi says. “Instead of taking those investors to account and terminating their contracts, the government took no measure whatsoever. I see this as further proof of government bias towards investors.”
“Shifting the water to the project would jeopardise the livelihood of poorer peasants in the Delta, who were already suffering from water shortage,” Mr Halwagi says. He dismissed as groundless claims that the project would operate according to drip rather than flood irrigation. Agriculture in the Nile valley and Delta depends mainly on flood irrigation, wasting huge amounts of water, he says, and shifting to drip irrigation is both difficult and costly.

Enemies of success
Mohamed Sarhan, a member of the Shura Council, parliament’s consultative upper house, agrees with Mr Halwagi that the entire issue is about serving a group of powerful and self-interested businessmen. He goes further to stress that all the talk about enhancing agricultural development and achieving food security is pure hot air.
For his part, professor of water resources at Al-Azhar University Usama Harb advocates that the government impose tighter restrictions on channelling Nile water to spas on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road. Dr Harb views the West Delta as a gigantic national project that would result in cultivating about a million feddans, a large part of which is now irrigated by non-renewable groundwater. The main issue, he adds, hinges on upholding the law, without which the project would end up benefiting a small group of powerful businessmen and top government officials. Finally, Dr Harb warns that projects carried out in West Delta should in no way be to the detriment of Sinai, where development is a sink or swim question if national security is to be protected.
Lashing out at sceptics, former deputy minister of irrigation Mohamed Qabali says the West Delta project will give Egypt a second Delta, and drip irrigation could help maximise the benefit from the available water resources. “Come what may,” Dr Qabali says, “the government should press ahead with the project without paying attention to “enemies of success.”

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