Just a mirage?

作者:仓邈    发布时间:2019-03-07 02:09:05    

By Emma Young A MILLION years ago, Egypt’s vast Western Desert was lush savannah. This month, the diggers are moving in to start work on an irrigation scheme designed to make part of the desert bloom again. The Egyptian government’s ambitious New Valley Project aims to irrigate thousands of square kilometres around the fringes of the Nile delta, and in the barren desert west of the Nile. “The New Valley will release Egyptians from the narrow strip on the banks of the River Nile,” says Nabil Osman, chairman of the state information service. “This is the land of promise.” But some observers fear hot air rather than cool logic predominates in the plans to reclaim the desert. A team from the US Congress doubts the scheme is viable, while others fear that environmental concerns are being swept aside in the rush to turn the desert green. Of more than 600 000 hectares of desert targeted for immediate reclamation, some 250 000 are in northern Sinai, and the rest lie in the Western Desert: 100 000 hectares around three oases (Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga), a further 80 000 in an area known as East Oweinat, and 200 000 around the southern village of Toshka by the end of 2002 (see Map). Ultimately the government wants to reclaim 4 million hectares across the country. This month, work begins on the first farm in Toshka, President Hosni Mubarak’s “project for the millennium”. This is the most controversial of all the New Valley schemes, as it will depend entirely on water drawn from the Nile, while others will make use of groundwater and agricultural runoff. The government estimates it will soak up 5.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water each year—equivalent to 10 per cent of the quota Egypt has agreed with its neighbours. As detailed below, this level of consumption may itself present a serious problem. But on the shores of Lake Nasser, the Anglo-Norwegian company Kvaerner Construction is already building what will be the biggest pumping station in the world. When complete, in early 2002, the £300 million installation will be able to lift 25 million cubic metres of water from the lake every day. It will travel down a 70-kilometre trunk canal, and into branches that will feed four huge farming areas. Last year, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia bought the first farm, along branch 1. His Kingdom Agricultural Development Company (KADCO) will start planting nurseries this month to grow high-value crops, such as citrus fruit and grapes, mainly for export to other Middle Eastern countries. John Elgin of the consultancy Arthur Andersen Egypt, who is advising KADCO on Toshka, concedes that not all the land is fit for agriculture. “KADCO owns 350 000 feddans [147 000 hectares] of land,” he says. “Over the next five years, we’ll develop 17 000 feddans, hopefully moving to 100 000 in around 20 years. It is going to be a challenge. Our area is remote, the people are unskilled, and there’s little infrastructure.” Finance could be another problem. The government will provide just one-quarter of the £5.5 billion it estimates will be needed to develop the Western Desert projects over the next 20 years. In Toshka, it is building only a basic electricity, canal and road network. “Investors are well aware they will start from scratch,” says Fayek Abdel-Sayed of the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources. The government claims that investors are clamouring for Toshka land. But so far, just 40 000 hectares along the second branch of the canal have been sold, and there is still only “interest” in branches 3 and 4. “There are possibilities in Toshka,” says David Reader, commercial attaché at the British embassy in Cairo. “But an industry group that came over last year concluded there is still some way to go to develop the land as an agricultural prospect.” A team from the US Congress also visited the project early last year. In its unpublished report it concluded that necessary feasibility studies had not been done and advised American companies not to invest. Concerns about Toshka fall into three main areas: the availability of water, possible damage to the environment and problems of population relocation. “Egypt is now using more than its allocation of the Nile water,” says Nabil El-Khodari, a prominent Toshka critic and member of the Illinois-based International Water Resources Association, which aims to promote the sustainable use of water. “From here will it get another 5.5 billion cubic metres of fresh water?” he says. Egypt’s share of Nile water is limited by international agreement. According to Craig Anderson, head of agricultural policy at the Egyptian branch of the US Agency for International Development, the authorities could learn to make existing water supplies go further. He believes Egypt could save enough water for Toshka by improving irrigation methods, reusing water more effectively, and giving up crops such as rice and sugar cane, which need a lot of water. But further concerns arise from the noises Ethiopia is making about diverting more of the Nile’s upstream waters for its own use. And on top of worries about water availability, the US Congress noted a lack of proper environmental impact studies. “The government claims to have conducted studies, but there was and is no environmental impact assessment for Toshka,” says El-Khodari. Elgin says KADCO will fund an EIA when the company has finalised its plan. “I don’t know what flora and fauna is out there—there wouldn’t be much,” Elgin says. “This area has clearly been a desert for millennia. We’ll be disturbing the environment but hopefully not disrupting it.” “This is not good enough,” says a local environmentalist, who has asked not to be named. “There is no real EIA, so the government does not know what could happen. They are turning a blind eye. There is a UN report that says Egypt’s use of fertilisers has increased fourfold in the last twenty years. Add to that the increased fertilisers that we will need to farm these millions of acres under the New Valley Project. The problem is not being taken seriously.” President Mubarak himself has said he hopes to quadruple the habitable area of his desert-dominated country and provide living space for a population that stands at over 60 million and is expected to double within 35 years. But many people doubt whether the high-tech farms will employ anything like as many people as the government would like. Also in question is whether Egypt even needs a grand programme of desert reclamation. The World Bank, for example, has advised Egypt to focus instead on improving agricultural practices in existing farming areas, stopping urban encroachment onto the fertile valley, and making use of land around the fringes of the delta. But the Egyptian government may have other agendas. “One reason is political,” says one World Bank adviser on water in the Middle East. “It’s to make the south feel more wanted and to move a centre of gravity up against Sudan, rather than having nothing down there. North Sinai is even more political than Toshka. They want to be there so they’re never in the position they were in when Israel invaded. Settle an area and you say it’s definitely our territory and not anyone else’s.” The Nile has often been tipped as a potential flashpoint for a water war between the 10 nations of the Nile basin: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda. But, happily, relations between these countries are improving. Last month, ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia met in Khartoum to agree a framework for cooperation on Nile projects. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next month. And in February, nine of the ten Nile basin nations are expected to sign an agreement of principles of cooperation on Nile water. Only Eritrea is staying on the sidelines. “This is very important,” says Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, which promotes research on the sustainable use of water. “Earlier this decade, Egypt and Ethiopia would not even sit at the same table to talk about sharing the Nile.” Whether such harmony is matched by the Egyptians’ ability to overcome logistical hurdles remains to be seen. Despite the Cairo line,


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