Only about 3 percent of Egypt’s land area is cultivated but desertification, and construction work fuelled by economic activity and a rapidly growing population, are eating into this resource, posing a significant threat to domestic food production, according to experts.
“Desertification is the real danger everybody should pay attention to,” Abdel Rahman Attia, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University, told IRIN. “This problem is manifesting itself in a huge food gap [which] will widen even more in the future as we lose more agricultural land to desertification.”
Egypt loses an estimated 11,736 hectares of agricultural land every year, making the nation’s 3.1 million hectares of agricultural land prone "to total destruction in the foreseeable future", he said.
The country imports more than 60 percent of its food, and about 768,903 hectares of agricultural land in the north Delta region has been lost to rising ground water, poor drainage practices and encroaching sand dunes over the decades, he added.
Rising sea levels also pose a threat to agricultural land, causing intrusion of seawater into groundwater, and reducing agricultural productivity.
Thousands of acres of agricultural land have also been lost to construction. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 165,000 cases of building on agricultural land were recorded between February and June 2011.
“This is disastrous,” said Salah Youssef, head of agricultural services at the ministry.
Ismail Abdel Galil, the former chairman of Egypt’s Desert Research Centre, said studies showed that just over a hectare of fertile land in the Nile Valley is lost every hour because of construction on agricultural land.
In a paper he warned that this trend would continue as long as there was a “business as usual” attitude.
Egypt signed the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1994, subsequently banning the use of top soil as a raw material for red bricks, taking measures to restrict urban development on arable land, and regulating irrigation systems.
But despite this, the combination of dwindling farmland and a rapidly increasing population - expected to reach 123 million in 2029, from 85 million at present - will make it harder for Egypt to meet its food needs, Attia said.
Increasing desertification has also affected water availability. Egypt’s 55.5 billion cubic metre share of Nile water is already insufficient to satisfy the country’s growing needs, according to Egyptian officials.
For example, to irrigate all its 3.1 million hectares of agricultural land, Egypt needs 10-15 billion cubic metres more Nile water, said Maghawri Shehata, a leading water expert.
“Water has already stopped reaching some fields in the northern and middle parts of the Nile Delta. This makes our country lose even more land to desertification.”
Agriculture is responsible for 85 percent of water consumption in Egypt, according to the country’s state of the environment report. Egypt’s water problems are expected to get worse as upstream countries like Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have rapidly growing populations, push for a greater share of the water to satisfy their own needs.
In 2010, six upstream Nile countries met in Uganda and signed a new water-sharing agreement. Egypt and Sudan did not sign, and have called instead for fresh talks involving all riparian states.
Environmentalists warn that climate change will further complicate the situation.
“It is difficult to assess the full destruction [that] climate changes cause to agriculture in this country,” said Emad Farid, a leading environmentalist. “Increased temperatures and the severity of heat and cold waves cause rainfall fluctuations. These fluctuations lead to desertification at the end of the day…
“Some action must be taken to compensate for the loss of agricultural space by reclaiming the desert hinterland of villages in the Delta and the other areas. We should not stand passively by and watch our agricultural land destroyed acre by acre.”
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions