By Franscesca De Chatel

17/11/2002

Lost in the vast emptiness of Egypt’s Western Desert near Lake Nasser, 7,000 men worked around the clock for six months to complete the first phase of the grand “South Valley Development Project” by October 2002. Trucks and tractors lay scattered amongst piles of building materials and heaps of sand: the place looked like a playground for giants, abandoned in mid-play by a colossal child who carelessly left his toys in the sandpit.

This is Egypt’s largest and most ambitious project since the High Aswan Dam; what the government promises will be “a second Egypt”, the “New Valley” that will soon thrive alongside the old one. In a period of 20 years and at a cost of 304.9 billion Egyptian Pounds (66 billion US$) the South Valley Development Project will reclaim and irrigate 1.5 million feddans (1.4 million acres) of desert land using water from three sources: Lake Nasser, the wadis close to the Nile and subterranean wells. This “mega national project” will double the surface of arable land in the region, creating 2.8 million new jobs and attracting a population of 16.2 million people to the new desert towns that will arise here.

With its giant pumping station, the 50-kilometer Sheikh Zayed Canal and its numerous branches that will take water from Lake Nasser to new agricultural lands, the Toshka Project is undoubtedly the most impressive component of the project. Financed by the government (which assumes 25 per cent of costs) and large international investors, including the Saudi Prince Al Waleed ibn Talal and several international agro-industrial companies, this hi-tech agricultural project plans to exploit the local conditions by growing seasonal crops like strawberries, asparagus and grapes during the winter months and exporting them to cold Northern climates with large profit margins.

Creating Vibrancy in the Barren Emptiness

The project’s primary aim however, is to draw populations from the overcrowded Nile Valley to these new lands. Dr. Dia El Din El Qosy, a senior advisor to the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, says the project will bring new life and livelihood to an area that was until now barren and uninhabited. “The Toshka Project is motivated by social reasons: we want to relieve Egypt’s overcrowded and overpopulated towns, cities and urban centers by creating this new space, and by creating new employment opportunities.  This part of the country has been neglected both from a social and a political point of view. We now want to bring development to the region,” he says. El Qosy explains that this development will take place in several stages: “First we will focus on agriculture, then on the agro-industry, then on industry, tourism, and so on, until we create a vibrant, full community.”

Standing in the vast emptiness of the Western Desert amidst trucks and piles of construction debris, it is hard to picture the vibrant, full communities that El Qosy talks about. And as the midday sun beats down on the toiling workers, it is also hard to imagine Egyptians will prefer the heat-stricken wasteland of Toshka to the green familiarity of the Nile Valley. As one official in Cairo explained, “People in Egypt have a very strong link with the Nile Valley. In our minds the desert is associated with death and cemeteries. It is not easy to convince people to move to the desert.”

But higher salaries reflect the tough conditions here and authorities are confident this will form an incentive for people to move to Toshka. El Qosy explains there will be other advantages too like tax breaks and subsidies, and high quality services, schools, and hospitals.   

Hussein El Gibaaly from the ministry of housing sees many factors that will draw people from the overcrowded Nile Valley to this new Egypt: cheaper housing and land, higher salaries and, most importantly, thousands of new jobs. “And then of course there is an airport near Abu Simbel,” he says. “This is very important. It will make people feel connected to the rest of the country; they will feel they are not totally isolated in a remote area, knowing that there are direct connections to Cairo and Aswan every day.” Paradoxically, Gibaaly thinks that the psychological reassurance that one can get away from the place, the feeling that one is not completely cut off in the desert, will form an incentive to move there. 

A Playground for Engineers

Both internationally and within Egypt, Toshka is regarded with much scepticism. Egyptians are generally wary of the project and many see it merely as an expression of the president’s power, just as the High Aswan Dam was seen as a monument to Nasser’s power in the 60s. One shopkeeper in Aswan said, “Toshka is bad. It is bad for Egypt, it bad for the Egyptians. The only person it is good for is Mubarak. It is his pyramid.”

Others question the project’s economic and strategic viability. With a population of 68 million and a water quota of 55.5 billion cubic meters per year, Egyptians have about 700 cubic metres of water per person per year, bringing Egypt below the internationally acknowledged water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters. Given Egypt’s high birth rates this situation is only going to get worse.

And despite government initiatives to rationalize water use and limit wastage of the precious resource, the hard fact remains that Egypt doesn’t have an awful lot of water. This is also why many question whether reclaiming more land in the hottest part of the country – temperatures rise over 50 °C in summer months at Toshka – is wise.

Critics also say most of the income from the project will return to the international investors instead of being reinvested in the Egyptian economy. Dr. Mohamed Nasr Allam, a professor of irrigation engineering at Cairo University, comments: “Economically this project is not wise.  We are giving the income from our water and land to foreigners who are developing large, mechanized farms that require limited labor force.”

As an engineer, Jan Bron, the head of the Dutch team that co-ordinates the Water Boards Project in Egypt, recognises the Toshka Project as a great engineering feat, but he predicts the project will fail from a social point of view. “From an engineering point of view it is a great project: the largest pumping station in the world, the irrigation of millions of hectares of land… basically it is a playground for engineers. For now it is still justifiable and when it does finally go wrong, others will be in power. But the idea of sending the overflow of people from the Delta and the Valley to Toshka is delusional. I think the project will fail disastrously.”

Bron and many other observers say the real problem lies not in specific projects like Toshka but in overall government policy that still encourages the development of agriculture. Nasr Allam agrees. “In my view it would be better to develop industry, and shift away from agriculture that consumes so much water. We have to expand into other sectors. We still export agricultural produce, even though we know we must conserve water; we grow rice, even though it consumes great quantities of water. The government still resists developing other sectors because many are stuck in a traditional view of Egypt as an agricultural producer. We have to get past this image and evolve into the reality of 21st century.” 

But some believe Egypt is making the best of a bad situation:  “I don’t think you can blankly state that the government is making a mistake in its water policies. The truth is there is no easy solution. There is no easy way to solve this. There are so many problems. It is a huge challenge,” comments Fatemah Farag, features editor of Al Ahram Weekly.

Dr Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation explains the challenge facing Egypt in the coming century; asked what the priority is for Egyptian water policy, he says, “There are too many priorities. You look at the situation and you see only priorities. It is a big challenge: we have to maximise the benefit from the water we have, use it more efficiently. Then we have to prevent pollution and also work with our neighbors. In parallel we have to look to modernise the irrigation system, encourage drainage water reuse and limit the birth rate. It is a great challenge; it is hard to know where to begin.”

Meanwhile, down at Toshka, engineers working at the site admit life there is tough. Abdel Fateh, the general site manager, and Abdel Hafez, a design engineer, say heat, long hours and homesickness take their toll off the men. Fateh explains: “The difficulties of the life here are many: there are no women, no children, there is no entertainment, work is our only entertainment. When we go back to Aswan we are so happy to see people that we want to shake hands with everyone in the street. Life here is hard.” One has to hope that the women, the children and the entertainment will all come to Toshka in good time, bringing with them the community life that is now sorely lacking. The question is whether high salaries and high-standard facilities can make the heat and the homesickness bearable and whether the Egyptians will abandon the banks of their beloved Nile for this brave new world in the desert.