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Volume 29, Number 3May/June 1978

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Farming by the Nile

Egypt , The Sudan

Written by Elias Antar

Early in his presidency Anwar Sadat of Egypt announced the start of an important battle. "I will start this invasion," he said, "God willing. I want this invasion...to be based on the strength, the capability and the ambition of the Egyptian individual."

President Sadat, however, was not discussing a military campaign. He was talking about Egypt's part in the world's battle against hunger and Egypt's own struggle to feed itself.

In a sense, it is a battle that is both tragic and ironic. For Egypt is one of the most agriculturally prolific places in the world and is by far the leading producer of food among Arab nations. Each year the valley of the Nile brings forth a cornucopia of cereals, fruit and vegetables, as well as cash crops such as cotton, perhaps the finest in the world. But despite 20 years of intensive effort to boost the total food supply an increasing population is rapidly outpacing the country's ability to feed itself. Briefly put, there is too little green land, too many people and too much waste of the river's abundant water.

Hence Sadat's invasion: a leap out of the narrow, unchanged confines of the verdant Nile Valley into the surrounding desert in a concerted effort to establish new farms, produce more food and, by diverting people from the cities, relieve overcrowding.

This effort - which agronomists drily call "horizontal expansion" - is both bold and costly. It calls for young Egyptian pioneers to migrate from the banks of the Nile to a challenging environment in which they will wrest a living from the sand and make the desert bloom. It will cost billions of dollars and take at least 20 years to make an impact.

It is, moreover, only one part of Egypt's effort. In tandem with the conquest of the desert, the country is also launching a program that the technicians call "vertical expansion," the no less daunting task of making the existing green land produce even more. This will require more mechanization, a reduction of the farm animal population, the shifting of vast areas now given to fodder into more useful products, and proper drainage of large swatches of farmland now threatened with waterlogging. The investment needed for all this may well exceed a billion dollars, and the effort will take time. But Egypt, officials believe, must proceed simultaneously on both fronts - and quickly - if the country is ever to have a chance of providing enough food for itself, or at least reducing the cost of food imports to a more acceptable level than the present $1 billion a year.

The vital element in both programs, of course, will be the Nile, that tranquil flow of life without which Egypt would not be possible. It is still Egypt's only sizeable source of fresh water, just as it was millennia ago when it gave rise to one of the first organized civilizations in history.

In ancient times, the Nile, a great brown river of potable water pouring through the desert, naturally drew people to its banks. But in addition the Nile, gorged with floodwaters from Central Africa, brought an annual bounty of rich black silt before subsiding to its natural size. At first, historians theorize, the scattered tribes living near the Nile withdrew to the desert highlands when the flood came and returned to gather food when the water receded. But then, as populations grew, it became important to make maximum use of the Nile and from this grew the need for organization, which in turn led to the establishment of a centrally-directed state. It is not an oversimplification to say that the Nile created ancient Egypt.

This, specifically applies to food. In taking control of irrigation and storage of the flood waters - by devising a network of ditches and catch basins - the central government in effect guaranteed abundant supplies of food. In a good year, there was so much grain in Egypt that it could be exported and the lush verdure could support livestock-goats, sheep, pigs and cattle - which in turn gave the Egyptians a constant source of protein and animal power to utilize farm implements. In addition they were able to grow flax, sesame, castor-oil, plants emmer and grapes, harvest the plentiful date palm groves and, from the papyrus plant, make an early form of paper, which expanded trade because of easier record-keeping.

There were, moreover, cultural offshoots from the Nile as well. Once the government stepped into farming and irrigation it also began to impose taxes; they were levied on land which was flooded every year, which was flooded only occasionally or which was permanently out of reach of the water. The Nile also encouraged the development of geometry since the boundaries of the land had to be redrawn after every flood, and even determined Egyptian seasons: from about June to September was "inundation," October to February was "emergence of the fields from the water," followed by "drought," March to June.

In many ways the Nile Valley today is still unchanged since those ancient times. It is still the same daub of green in the desolation of the surrounding sand, a daub extending some 750 miles from the town of Aswan, near the Sudanese border, to the Mediterranean. From Aswan to Cairo, the valley cuts through rocky highlands and is only nine miles across at its widest point. North of Cairo, the Nile branches into a V, forming a flat, green and crowded delta. Altogether, there are six million acres of cultivated land, an area virtually unchanged since the turn of this century, making up only 3.5 percent of Egypt's total area of 385,200 square miles. The rest is sand.

There are now about 25,000 tractors in use in Egypt, but the bulk of agricultural work is still done by hand, using implements virtually identical to those exhibited behind glass cases in the Egyptian Museum. Mechanical water pumps now assist irrigation, but farmers turning water screws by hand and - draft animals powering water wheels are still a common sight in Egypt.

There have been changes, however. The most noticeable is the disappearance of the annual flood - controlled by the Aswan High Dam since 1965 - and the old system of collecting flood-waters in basins for irrigation; replacing the basins is a network of ditches and canals that provide perennial irrigation and three consecutive cropping seasons per year. Planting and harvesting still take place, however, in the same periods observed by the ancients.

But perhaps the most telling change is simply people. In 1907 Egypt's population was 11 million, and arable land was six million acres. The same six million green acres must now support a population that, despite government efforts at control, is now almost 40 million. As a result, the farmland-to-man ratio has shrunk from half an acre per man at the turn of the century to only one sixth of an acre today. By comparison, there are five acres per capita in the United States. "We cannot cope with the increasing population here in Egypt. We have to go into the deserts," says Dr. Rifky Anwar, Vice-Chairman of the Agriculture Development Organization in the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture. "This is something that we have to do because of the impact of the population. We have to grow crops for the future generations." The urgency of the problem can be seen in studies which predict a population of 60 to 70 million people by the year 2000 - when, if everything goes on schedule, the reclaimed desert areas may just be starting to produce fully.

The record of land reclamation in Egypt is, at best, spotty. Starting in 1954, the government began reclaiming marginal desert land at the western edge of the delta. With the availability of year-round water from the High Dam, the pace of development picked up in the 1960s, but new reclamation starts came to a dead stop in 1967 because of the war with Israel. "Since 1954, about one million acres have been reclaimed," says Dr. Anwar. "Most are now under cultivation, except some areas with problems." Egyptian officials admit many mistakes were made in the reclamation projects to date, such as insufficient provision of drainage, but insist the effort was worth it. Others say only about 50 percent of this land is under full cultivation, with the rest ranging from still-barren to almost fully productive. Hassan Aly el Tobgy the Ford Foundation's regional agricultural adviser in the Middle East, says in his book Contemporary Egyptian Agriculture that the reclamation schemes to date have had "an almost negligible share in total agricultural production or gross domestic product."

At any rate, Dr. Anwar says, the government has spent a total of $923 million since 1954 on land reclamation outside the Nile valley on formerly sandy soil which now produces sugar cane, cotton, rice, corn, alfalfa, vegetables and citrus fruit. Estimates of the people attracted out of the valley to the new land range as high as 500,000.

One highly-visible example of reclamation exists just southwest of Alexandria. Bisected by the desert highway from Cairo, that area, in 1962, was desert on both sides of the road all the way to the coast. Now, for the last 30 miles, it is rich with crops of sugar cane, and stands of tall pine trees-planted as windbreaks. There are also irrigation canals and tidy villages with names like "Palestine" and "Algeria." Where once there were only nomads with camels, thousands of Egyptian peasants now have extended the imprint of civilization westward out of the valley if only for a relatively short distance.

Some of the reclaimed land is managed by a number of state-owned organizations, especially where yields are low and the land still has not reached the break-even point. "There has been no complete failure whatsoever," says Dr. Anwar. "The Egyptians are very persistent; but there are different kinds of success. Some lands are only 50 or 20 per cent successful in terms of cultivation and yield. But we never abandon a project."

Despite all this effort, however, it is dear that the old six million acres are still basic to Egyptian farming. They produce an amazing variety of crops - cotton, rice, corn, wheat, sugarcane, tomatoes, sesame, onions, potatoes, clover, grapes, cucumbers, oranges, watermelons and such lesser-known products as fenugreek, chickpeas and lentils. In addition, this land sustains some nine million cows, gamoosas (buffalo), sheep, goats, camels, horses, mules and donkeys.

Perennial irrigation, furthermore, now permits three crops a year, and sometimes more where certain crops can be interspersed. Experts say there have been impressive developments in the use of high-yield seeds and fertilizer, in pest control and in marketing. As a result of these changes, productivity - the amount produced per acre - is among the world's highest, according to available statistics. Production of wheat in the 1970-74 period, for instance, averaged 1.26 tons per acre in Egypt, compared to 0.78 tons in North America and a worldwide average of 0.64 tons. Rice, the other major food crop grown here, averaged 2.11 tons per acre compared to 2.03 tons in North America and 0.93 tons worldwide.

Cotton, Egypt's main cash crop, also showed high productivity - 0.3 tons per acre in Egypt, compared to 0.24 tons per acre in North America and 0.14 tons worldwide. The comparison is about the same for most of the other products grown in Egypt, according to figures from the Food and Agricultural Organization and the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.

"Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy here," says Dr. Mohammed Kamel Hindy Director of the Agricultural Economic Research Institute in Cairo. Net agricultural production - gross production minus the value of imports - was $1988 billion in 1977 "This represents about 32 percent of Egypt's national income, compared to 20 percent for industry." Dr. Hindy says. But nevertheless, because there are so many mouths to feed, it is not enough.

Egypt now imports about $1 billion worth of food a year, including about 3.5 million tons of wheat in 1977 plus various kinds of edible oils. "Egypt is short of fats in general," says Dr. Hindy, adding that two thirds of the 300,000 tons of cottonseed oil consumed in Egypt comes from abroad. Exports, also, are affected by growing home consumption. "Last year Egypt exported about 230,000 tons of white rice, but this year I doubt that it will be more than 170,000 to 180,000 tons, because production levels remain the same but consumption is higher." Dr. Hindy says.

Cotton, for which Egypt has long been famous, generates income with which to pay for some of the imports. "It provides cash for the farmer and is the base for the major types of industry we have," says Dr. Hindy. About 1.2 million acres are planted with cotton, with a total production of about 450,000 tons last year. About 75 percent - the coarser varieties - is consumed domestically and the "extra long staple" is exported for cash. It is estimated here that cotton exports in 1977 brought in some $200 million, but the income is expected to go down about 20 percent in 1978 because of a depression in world prices.

Sadat has said Egypt will be "self-sufficient" by 1980, except for the import of wheat, which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. At face value, this was taken to mean that Egypt will grow everything it needs except for wheat, but the experts say this is not so. "The President meant to put it simply for the public, but what he really means is that we are trying to maximize our resources," Dr. Hindy says. "The aim is to produce the maximum for local consumption and at the same time to export as well. Real self-sufficiency, for instance, would probably require that most of the cotton acreage be turned over to wheat or other edibles. This would cost more than importing wheat, when the loss of cash from cotton exports is taken into account. Self-sufficiency was a principle developed many many years ago when there were barriers in trade."

"Besides," says Agriculture Ministry Undersecretary Hassan Abdullah, "we are dealing with plants, animals and human beings, and they don't always stick to official timetables."

For "vertical expansion" to give all it can, some present problems will have to be tackled forthwith. One is water logging - in some areas of Egypt if you stick your finger into the ground water seeps out - which is bad for most crops except rice. Because the Nile is so big and seemingly everlasting, water is often wasted in the Egyptian countryside. "The efficiency of the irrigation system in Egypt is not more than 55 percent, which means that there is 45 percent wastage through evaporation and leakage," says Irrigation Minister Abdul Azim Abul Atta.

Farmers tend to water their fields by opening irrigation sluices and letting the water flow in, some 8,000 tons per acre yearly. This produces the waste mentioned by the Minister, and also the waterlogging which is cutting back production. Almost 20 percent of the areas presently under cultivation have been virtually ruined by waterlogging and the attendant increase in the salt level of the soil, el Tobgy estimates. This proportion may reach 60 percent unless measures are taken. A vast program is now underway to install underground drain pipes to lead off the surplus water. A $96 million project has begun to install drainage systems in 892,000 acres of existing farmland, and Egyptian officials hope to obtain another $350 million loan to drain an additional million acres. Agronomists estimate that efficient drainage of these areas could raise their yields by as much as 40 percent. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $31 million to build factories producing 10,000 miles of plastic drainage pipes a year, but the needs are three times as high.

Mechanization, of course, would also increase production, but it has its limits in Egypt. To start with, land reform instituted in the 1950s reduced many farms to plots of only five acres, an inefficient size. In addition, families live on or near their land and efficient mechanization would require a more rational distribution of people. Perhaps more importantly experts say, increased mechanization could result in high unemployment in the labor-intensive agricultural sector here. On the other hand, mechanization would reduce the need for draft animals, and a portion of the 2.8 million acres planted with fodder at various times of the year could be turned over to producing food for humans, or cotton, full time, Each decision, therefore, has to en-compass a wide variety of factors.

Farm experts say that horizontal and vertical expansion should proceed together, but it is clear that the current focus of government action is on the "invasion" of the desert - primarily because migration would ease the high population density in the Nile Valley. But as the government is short of money, it is trying to achieve this by inviting foreign businesses, mostly American, to enter joint ventures with Egypt. Vast areas of semi-desert land between the delta and the Suez Canal are capable of reclamation, officials say, and planners envision vast agribusiness concerns producing citrus for export, poultry for home consumption, and even fish, Some foreign concerns have already responded. East of the delta, for example, Egypt has set aside 15,000 acres for one American company which plans to establish what is expected to be the largest citrus plantation in the world - with some of the output allocated for canned fruit juice and virtually all of it for export in one form or another. Other American firms said to be looking into investment possibilities are American Maize, Continental Grain and Conagra. The projects in various stages of discussion are cornstarch and sweeteners production, broiler production, soybean processing and vegetable oil refining. A number of European firms are already operating pilot projects for cattle breeding and mass production of broilers.

Still, the actual reclamation of land from the desert remains a formidable undertaking. About 2.8 million acres have been identified as being worth reclamation and settling. It will be a lengthy and expensive process, requiring, from the pioneers, patience and perseverance, and from the government, money.

Reclamation takes from two to ten years, depending on the kind of soil involved, and even at the end of that period the output of the land may not have reached its maximum. "It would take about 10 years for the land to reach break-even point," says Dr. Anwar. "The current cost per acre averages $2,120, depending on the kind of soil, including site selection, water drains, levelling, roads, electricity, buildings, livestock and so on." Reclaiming the total 2.8 million acres, even at today's prices, thus would require about $6 billion over the next 20 years - not an impossible sum to raise if the initial results are encouraging.

"We feel that if the population continues growing like this, all our people will be hungry," says Mohammed Maisara, an engineer involved in land reclamation. "We have to go as far as possible." Sadat sees the reclamation program as starting with land and water, with the government establishing community centers to provide medical care, fertilizers, equipment and financial credit. This would attract the pioneers, mostly agricultural engineers and assistant engineers, to get the projects started. Eventually, it is hoped, people in sizeable numbers will move away from the Nile Valley, but no information is available on the size of the hoped-for migration, or what crops will be grown in the desert.

The government this year will launch the first reclamation projects since 1967. This will entail starting work on 321,000 acres, at a cost in 1978 alone of $178.65 million. Maisara says full production could be reached in two to eight years, depending on local conditions. Significantly, the five government- owned land reclamation companies that did most of the work in the past will handle only 44,500 acres. This is deliberately meant to lessen the government's outlay and get people to put a financial stake in the projects, thus increasing the likelihood of faster completion. Almost 90 percent of the total outlay expected in 1978 will come from the private sector, Maisara said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has produced recommendations for the AID program in Egypt that, among other things, urge that U.S. funds be committed to the Egyptian land reclamation efforts. None of the present AID projects involve actual investments, and there is understood to be a preference for vertical expansion among AID officials. But as Egypt "will charge into the desert anyway," says a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, "we should not hesitate to help them with what expertise we can offer."

Over the long run, the various programs to improve agriculrural output will be connected with several large-scale schemes. One involves piping fresh water under the Suez Canal into the Sinai desert for the first time in history. Another entails building a 14-mile canal from the side of Lake Nasser - the largest man-made body of water in the world, located behind the High Dam - to a depression in the western desert where some reclamation schemes are already underway. The canal would siphon off surplus water from Lake Nasser and at the same time provide irrigation for lands to be reclaimed. In addition geologists, using satellite surveys and other methods, have located a vast layer of water-bearing sandstone beneath the western desert which, an official report says, could provide 181 billion gallons of water a year if efficiently tapped. This could produce the on-the-spot irrigation needed to turn certain areas of suitable lowland desert into model farms.

"Why should we not emerge from this narrow valley to new horizons in the lands where there is space and water?" asked Sadat. "We would be serving two goals: creating new communities to avert the population explosion in the narrow valley and, since these communities would be based on production, in fact realizing prosperity for this country".

Farming by the Nile The Sudan
Written by Elias Antar

The Sudan, Africa's largest country is classified by the United Nations as among the 15 least developed countries in the world and in the mid 1970's was on the verge of bankruptcy more than once. But in terms of potential it has always been one of the most promising regions on earth. As C. L. Sulzberger wrote recently, the chemical balance of the Sudan's soil is so rich that "nourished by sufficient water, it could become the greatest agricultural region known." And soon that promise may be realized. With financing from Arab states, plus I agricultural planning and expertise from western sources, the Sudan in the 1980s could be the breadbasket of the Arab world.

At present, a meager 15 million acres in the Sudan are under cultivation - a fraction of the country's estimated 80 million-acre potential. Furthermore, because of inadequate road and rail transport, most agriculture is fragmented and the isolated farmers resist the mechanized approach necessary to modern agricultural production. Recently, however, the Arab oil countries have begun to invest what eventually will total billions of dollars, and western companies have begun to supply farming know-how and management in hopes of raising agricultural production by 80 percent in 10 years. If those moves bear fruit, the Sudan, by 1985, will be providing 42 percent of the Arab world's total vegetable oil consumption, 58 percent of its meat and 20 percent of its sugar needs - altogether a 300 percent boost in agricultural exports. In 1980, in fact, production of sugar will probably reach 1.2 million tons, of which the Sudan could export 775,000 tons. By comparison, current production is about 200,000 tons and domestic consumption about 350,000 tons.

The Sudan measures about one million square miles, nearly one third the size of the United States. It has a small population - some 17 million inhabitants - a fine climate and adequate rainfall. More importantly the Sudan is watered by not one but two Niles: the Blue Nile, bringing floodwaters from Ethiopia, and the White Nile rising in Lake Victoria. North of where the two rivers meet at Khartoum, the country is mostly flat desert, but south of the capital stretch hundreds of miles of open savanna and, further south, areas of lush semi-tropical jungle and forest; altogether, studies show, these areas offer some 80 million acres of potential cultivable land plus another 120 million acres suitable for pasture.

To tap these potential riches the Arab countries have begun to funnel money into two programs, one a massive long range program, the other a 10-year program that will require an investment of $6.5 billion. Drawn up by the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, the programs will be carried out by the new Arab Authority for Development and Agricultural Investment with further funding coming directly from other Arab funds and private investors. Saudi Arabia's Saudi Development Fund, for example, has already participated in important projects affecting cotton and cereals and private Saudi capital has been invested in efforts to produce cotton, sorghum and groundnuts. Recently one private investment group, led by a prominent Saudi investor, was reported to be putting $50 million into a huge farm complex south of Khartoum on which, it is said, a British management firm will plant 6,000 acres in sorghum, sesame and cotton and allocate 28,000 acres of pasture-land to sheep and cattle, all for export. Other funds will be invested in the all-important infra-structure - roads, ports, power and storage - without which the farm programs would undoubtedly falter.

Some projects have already started or are about to be launched. One is establishment of a $93 million 12 million-acre cattle ranch on which ranchers would raise 68,000 head of cattle and 18,000 sheep. The value of the project would not be only to increase the available livestock; the Sudan already has 40 million head of cattle, goats, sheep and camels. Rather, it would permit their breeding in an organized way to provide animals suitable for export. Another is the $240 million irrigation project at Rahad which will boost the output of cotton and peanuts, two important cash crops. With 50,000 acres under cultivation already, 150,000 acres scheduled for cultivation this year and settlement of new families moving rapidly the project is already considered a success.

Although water is plentiful in the Sudan, still more will be needed in the years ahead, and one source may be the "Sudd," a great swamp covering an area the size of Florida. Historically mysterious, plague-ridden and almost impenetrable, the Sudd has hampered navigation, diverted water and ruined cultivated land from the beginning of time. Because the swamp is lower than the river, the White Nile spreads out as it flows through the Sudd, and the overflow, each year, floods potentially usable land - and about half the total overflow is lost to evaporation, seepage and stagnation. Sudanese officials estimate that about $3.6 billion worth of water is lost every year in the Sudd.

One key to the project of tapping the Sudd is known as the Jonglei Canal. By deepening some existing channels through the Sudd and opening a new 173-mile canal, planners hope to rechannel the overflow back into the Nile for use on farms in both the Sudan and Egypt. According to one estimate, some 14 billion cubic feet of water a year could be recovered when the Jonglei Canal is finished in 1981. Whether planners can meet that deadline is still uncertain, but digging was scheduled to start in May when an enormous excavation scoop was to be sent into action; under construction for a year, that scoop, eight storeys high will reportedly move 9,000 tons of earth per hour.

Bold in scope, the canal, 170 feet wide and 12 feet deep, will cost $250 million. But it will also permit development of about 700,000 acres of land and in addition have a significant impact on all farming by the Nile.

This article appeared on pages 33-40 of the May/June 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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