Good, Clean and Pharaoh

In the light of the current global food shortages, Egypt and other countries in the Middle-East and North Africa—including Djibouti, Tunisia and Israel—are confronted with the decision of whether to increase crop production to feed a growing population or conserve scarce water supplies.

For years now, various nations in this region have drained water from aquifers, extracted salt from seawater and diverted the Nile to grow plants in the desert. However, these methods incurred great costs and required such large amounts of water that importing food is much more practical today. Now some of these countries import over 90 per cent of staple foodstuffs.

The population of this region, now 364 million, has increased over fourfold since 1950, and the figure is estimated to climb to 600 million by 2050. This rapid population increase will greatly strain the region’s resources and individual water supplies may have to be cut by half.

Today in Egypt, the farms and population are tightly packed into just 4 per cent of the total land surface area and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has stated that the ‘urgent’ problem of increasing population has contributed to the current food crisis.

In Israel, according to Shalom Simhon, the country’s agriculture minister, the previous four years have created ‘a deep water crisis’ in the Middle East. As a result, the Israeli government has strict control over water used by farmers on agricultural land. In many cases, because of scarce supplies, this water is often treated as sewer water and pumped to farms in purple pipes.

In compliance with a 1959 treaty, Egypt is allowed to extract a disproportionate share of the Nile’s water, for use on agricultural land and more besides. Canals have also been constructed to direct water to the Sinai Desert, to land between Alexandria and Cairo and Toshka, where an ambitious project was set up in 1997 to allocate 500,000 acres of land to crops. So far 30,000 acres have been planted.

Today, economists place great importance on the need for the population of the region to become self-sufficient in food production, cultivating crops for which they have a competitive advantage, which do not require much water and which are exportable.

International Herald Tribune

Victoria Blackshaw

[email protected]

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