21 August 2011
While Egypt is in dire need of every ounce of agricultural produce it can grow in order to feed an ever-increasing population, thousands of feddans (a feddan is 4,200 square metres of land) of agricultural land are scorching in the summer heat, due to a shortage of irrigation water. And, in what constitutes a health threat to both peasant and consumer; drainage, sewage, or industrial waste water has been used to substitute the clean but scarce irrigation water in not-a-few areas. In some regions, farmers have been having gunfire fights over clean irrigation water.
According to the Central Agency for Mobilisation and Statistics’ July 2010 report, 10 governorates in Egypt suffer from severe shortage of irrigation water. These governorates are Ismailiya, and Sharqiya in the east Delta; Daqahliya, Kafr al-Sheikh, and Damietta in the north Delta, Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria on the North Coast; and Fayoum, Beni-Sweif, and Minya in Lower and Upper Egypt. In Ismailiya, some 1985 feddans of agricultural land lay waste because of the water problem.
Mahmoud al-Rafei, Head of the Egyptian International Agricultural Centre, believes that violations by farmers are to a large extent behind the current crisis. Dr Rafei explained to Watani that the ministries of irrigation and agriculture had banned the cultivation of rice in certain regions, on grounds that rice is a water-thirsty cultivation and the huge quantities of water allocated to it are better used to cultivate other, less thirsty crops. Yet some farmers, he says, insist on growing rice where it was banned. These farmers are the ones who now cry for help and complain of the irrigation water shortage.
“I personally believe that the ministries of irrigation and agriculture did not spare an effort to avoid the crisis. The farmers are now paying the price for their violations,” he said.
Abdel-Alim Metwalli who heads the Agricultural Crops Department of Cairo University, agrees that the illegal cultivation of rice has contributed to the severe water shortage but, he says, it is not alone the root of the crisis. There is a problem with the irrigation canals and the water discharge in them, he insists.
It is self-evident, according to Dr Metwalli, that a deficiency in irrigation water produces lower yields. Scarcity of water during the budding phase of the corn reduces its yield by some 40 per cent. In case of rice, it reduces the productivity by some 50 per cent.
New policy; new technology
“Both the farmers and the authorities are to blame,” according to Ibrahim Gad, water expert with the World Bank and the Desert Research Centre.
Dr Gad told Watani that the water and agriculture policy in Egypt should have changed years ago to accommodate expected water shortages. Modern irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, should have replaced the flood irrigation which has from centuries immemorial been used in Egypt.
As to violations, Dr Gad says, before blaming the farmers we might as well note that the authorities themselves commit inexplicable violations. And large, powerful landowners or investors use up huge allotments of water to the detriment of the smaller farmers. Water is not fairly divided. In fact, he reminds, agricultural expansion through reclamation of desert lands has seriously implicated the irrigation water supply.
Yet, according to Dr Gad, dealing with the water shortage and scorched arable land is not a problem beyond tackling. We just need a new vision for a future agriculture and water policy, as well as new technology.
Watani’s Soliman Shafiq fears that, amid the revolutionary winds sweeping Egypt, the current water crisis may lead to a peasant revolt.
“Have we ever given thought to what can happen if peasants go on strike and stop cultivating the land? Last July witnessed 22 peasant strikes. In Daqahliya, peasants conducted a sit-in in front of the governorate headquarters, protesting the fact that irrigation water has not reached their cotton and rice fields for more than a month. In Beni-Sweif, farmers threatened to file a proceeding against the Minister of Irrigation, since they hold him responsible for wasting 4000 feddans for lack of water.
“The new Minister of Irrigation lately declared that achieving justice in irrigation water allotment among farmers, comes on top of his priorities in the coming period. What is he talking about, at a time when the summer cultivation season is already drawing to an end? Why was he doing nothing about the problem till now?” Mr Shafiq asks.
Shafiq pointed out that, apart from the water shortage and cultivation-related problems concerning fertilisers and pesticides, Egyptian peasants have other demands which are today being voiced by the Peasants Union, still under foundation. The union is planning for its fourth plenary session on the 9 September, which coincides with Peasant Day, to take place in Tahrir Square. They call for their right to form independent democratic organisations similar to the workers organisations; purge cooperatives of corruption; and reassess the agricultural plan in favour of the peasants. “Watch out,” Mr Shafiq says, “the peasants are coming.”
For its part, the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources has said it was not standing by idly all that time. At the cost of some EGP250 million, the ministry has been conducting the necessary cleansing and maintenance of canals all over the country, and has also renewed the water input in canals and production wells for some EGP23 million.
To meet all larger water needs, a ministry official said the discharge from Lake Nasser, the Aswan High Dam reservoir, has been raised to 225 million cubic metres daily to help plentiful water up to the tips of the irrigation canals.
A number of operation rooms have been set up in all the governorates to follow up on irrigation affairs round the clock, and a hotline was established to report complaints.