Deserted: Can Sisi develop a region 17 years in the making?

The Cairo Post : CAIRO: Seventeen years after its launch, the Toshka project in southern Egypt’s desert has been revived, amid a number of reclamation projects by the Sisi administration.

In its lifetime, the project has stalled due to struggles to find investors, lack of trained workers, as well as the problems of the arid desert climate.

“There is a huge rate of evaporation of water due to the high temperature in the area, as well as the presence of layers of rocks in the lands that make it difficult and it would cost much to be reclaimed,” former Minister of Agriculture Salah Youssef told The Cairo Post.

The first phase of the project is set to be implemented within a year; some experts, however, question whether the 2014 Toshka will repeat the mistakes of the past.

Reclaiming the desert

The Toshka or New Valley Project was first conceived under former President Hosni Mubarak in 1997; he sought to create a developmental package in the vast desert areas; including: housing, tourism, industry and agriculture.

He announced he wanted to cultivate 540,000 feddans (approximately 560,520 acres) and persuade 20 percent of Egyptians to move to Toshka to alleviate pressure on crowded cities.

The reincarnation of the project aims to reclaim 108,000 feddans in the first phase of a national reclamation project of 4 million feddans, and aims to expand green areas and help Egypt achieve food self-efficiency for its swelling population.

As of 2014, only 55,000 feddans were cultivated of the total targeted area, said Youm7 reporter Ezz e-Nouby, who covers the ministry’s affairs, to The Cairo Post.

Most of Egypt’s 87 million-strong population lives on only 5.3 percent of the nation’s land, in arable areas of the delta, according to the State Information Service, leaving vast swathes of desert areas uninhabited.

Pouring money into the sand

“I feel bad for the billions of pounds spent on the project so far [without progress], even though there is infrastructure and investors there,” said Minister of Irrigation Hossam Moghazy to Mehwar on Aug. 14.

According to a statement by the Agricultural Ministry, the money spent on the project since its launch in 1997 has reached 7 billion EGP.

Under Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri in 1997, the project was designed to carry water from Lake Nasser in front of the Aswan High Dam through a canal to expand agricultural lands in Toshka.

The water is pumped by the Mubarak Pumping Station; the largest pumping station in the world, to feed the targeted area through three branches of the established Sheikh Zayed Canal, Moghazy told Mehwar.

“This project is not about irrigation and agriculture; it is a developmental project to get out of the narrow valley to the vast desert, which covers about 60 percent of Egypt,” Moghazy said.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, the former Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources under Ganzouri’s cabinet that initiated the Toshka Project, said that reviving this national project is “a great step, as we have already spent a lot of money on the agricultural infrastructure.”

“Agricultural expansion is the most important part of the project, and it has stalled for a while though its infrastructure, like the Sheikh Zayed canal, has been prepared,” he added.

“Any money spent on the Toshka Project is a waste of public funds, especially since the project has failed in achieving any economic revenues,” said the head of the Syndicate of Engineering Tarek el-Nabarawy to Youm7 Aug. 26.

Nabarawy also demanded both the ministries of agriculture and irrigation to select other areas for agricultural reform separate from Toshka.

In his memoir published in Al-Shorouq in January 2014, Ganzouri defended the 1997 project saying, “it did not start coincidentally, but it is the outcome of extensive studies over the past several decades.”

A harsh climate

“The agricultural expansion in Toshka will depend on modern irrigation [spray and drip] instead of flood irrigation [which consumes a lot of water],” professor of geology and water resources in Cairo University Abbas Sharaky told Al-Nahar TV Channel Aug. 15, adding that the high temperature of the place causes great loss of water due to evaporation.

Sharakay said, however, the project is already revived and “it is not the right time now to say who is with or against the project; we are all with the project as money was already spent. We need now to best utilize the land and water resources in Toshka lands.”

“The temperature in Toshka in summer reaches 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit),” Adel Hagag, a Toshka resident, told Mehwar.

Former advisor to the minister of irrigation, Diaa el-Qousy referred to difficult climate conditions as one of the obstacles to development, where many investors might find it hard to work in a “too-hot summer and a too-cold winter.”

((Picture of Mubarak visiting the project))

Although the stated goal of the project was to serve those in need, “the project was in fact targeting investors rather than poor people,” said capital market and legal expert Abdel Rahman Taha, adding that “this explains the absence of economic services and infrastructure in Toshka.”

This goal shift resulted in “no societal acceptance” of the project, said economic and agricultural expert Sherif Fayad.

Fayad also mentioned that political parties and civil society, at that time, did not promote or encourage the Toshka project, which in return had contributed to the decline of public interest in the project.

“The lands were distributed among big investors who were not serious in reclamation expansion. Besides, they cultivated low-yielding crops that consumed too much water,” continued Fayad.

Furthermore, some public lands in Toshka were allegedly illegally awarded to investors during the Mubarak regime at below market rates; a post-January 25 Revolution probe was opened into a number of investing companies and individuals over delays in completing cultivation of acquired lands.

KADCO, owned by Saudi business magnate and investor El-Waleed bin Talal is one of three main companies which each received 100,000 feddans to be cultivated.

Egyptian authorities withdrew 75,000 feddans from the KADCO in April 2011 after it only reclaimed 17,000 feddans and cultivated 3,000 feddans.

Investors find it hard to start their businesses in remote areas, far from the urban areas in Aswan about 450 kilometers away, said Qousy.

“The absence of legislation to fine or withdraw lands from investors who do not cultivate their lands was one of the previous problems in Toshka project,” he added.

Sisi’s government has decided to give the investors a window of three years to finish cultivating their allocated lands in Toshka, and investors are now obliged to submit a schedule identifying stages of reclamation and cultivation.

Need for community

“We saw only desert for hours and hours, and then suddenly we found people and a canal,” TV Anchor Moataz Abdel Fatah, presenter of “B’khtesar” (In Brief) on Mehwar TV said during his trip to Toshka Aug. 14.

“When people come to work, they only find [Toshka] a desert place with no services and no infrastructure,” said Toshka resident Hagag to Abdel Fatah. He noted that there was a proposed project of a new Toshka City that has not been established yet.

The absence of an established community in Toshka makes it harder to get laborers to work in the fields, added Hagag “as the nearest place to recruit workers is 200 kilometers away, and it costs too much, let alone the fact they are not trained.”

“If we built an urban community [in Toshka], it will help residents who are searching for job opportunities to come as they will find all services they will need, like schools, houses, hospitals and others,” explained Hagag.

To create real communities in Toshka, the State should encourage settlers by providing other infrastructure like “water, electricity, roads, airports and sanitation,” according to Fayed.

“The state should view the revived project with a new economical philosophy and vision to best utilizes resources there in Toshka,” said Fayed.

He continued “the agricultural sector of the project should adopt the approach of cultivating high-yield crops that do not waste a lot of water,” suggesting palm trees, dates and grapes, which do not require much water for irrigation.

But in order to achieve sustainable development, Fayad noted that the State has to help investors by adopting legislative facilities, as well as provide banks and farmers unions that can help youth with needed tools, fertilizers and pesticides.

“The State should open a societal dialogue to inform the public with what has been done in the past, on-ground challenges and planned strategy to choose suitable solutions,” said Taha, adding that this would “help to change the public vision of Toshka from a failed project to an ambitious one.”

The Ministry of Agriculture now has a plan to distribute 50 percent of the total lands among graduated youth, with priority to the nearby areas’ youth, by giving five feddans to each.

The Long Live Egypt Fund, established in July by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, is set to finance the lands allocated to the youth.

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