Saturday, February 18, 2006

Egypt’s Toshka makes desert bloom

by Jonathan Wright
Reuters

The organic tomatoes are red and juicy, the potatoes massive and flawless. But they are sitting by the roadside in Egypt’s Western Desert, 250km from the nearest large town and thousands of km from the European supermarkets where in mid-winter they could fetch premium prices. They are some of the first fruits from Egypt’s Toshka project, the largest irrigation scheme undertaken in the country since the Aswan High Dam revolutionised an ancient water management system in the 1960s.

The Egyptian government has invested over five billion pounds in Toshka over the past eight years, including $300m on what it says is the world’s largest pumping station, all to turn the desert green. But with the water flowing and much of the infrastructure in place, the government and agri-businesses at Toshka are finding that logistics and marketing may be key to making the most of the 540,000 acres available.

Egypt, where 72 million people live off 8.3 million acres of arable land in the Nile Valley and Delta, badly needs to expand agriculture into new areas. In the absence of significant rainfall, almost all the water must come from the Nile along irrigation canals. Costs rise sharply the further from the valley the water must travel.

Toshka, a project that President Hosni Mubarak has strongly backed, is the largest single element in a master plan to add 3.4 million new acres of farmland by 2017, a 40 per cent increase.

But so far it is making only the tiniest dent in the balance of trade, mainly through grapes exported to Europe by air from a project run by Saudi businessman Prince Al Waleed bin Talal. As in other parts of the country, the government faces a choice between growing grain to reduce the cost of wheat imports and concentrating on crops that can earn high prices abroad.
For the moment, officials and businessmen say exporting is the way to go for Toshka, once they have a packing plant ready, contracts with buyers and regular cargo flights to nearby Abu Simbel airport on the western shores of Lake Nasser.

“The aim is to export 70 per cent of the crops. Because it’s a remote area, the product is expensive,” said Hussein El Atfy, undersecretary at the Ministry of Irrigation. “The climate is fantastic, the soil and the water are clean, and we can have fruit and vegetables ripe a month or two before anyone else in the region,” said Hady Fahmy, chief executive of South Valley Company, a state-owned firm that has developed 6,000 of the 120,000 acres in its Toshka concession.

Ibrahim Kamel, a prominent businessman with agricultural interests, said he had been sceptical about the Toshka project at the start, on the grounds that Egypt had higher priorities than reclaiming desert land in such a remote area.

“But having seen the water flow, I now withdraw all that and say that I am convinced. Anyway, now that we have invested all this money, there’s no going back,” he told reporters. Kamel said the land might be perfect for the kind of organic fragrances in which his company, Kati Aromatics, specialises.

“If you want to do organics, this is the best way to start, on virgin land,” he said.
Critics of the Toshka project have said they doubt it can do much to alleviate the population pressure in the Nile valley, one of the world’s most densely populated agricultural areas. But Atfy said the plan was to settle 2 million people in the Toshka area by 2017, sustained by 700,000 new jobs.

Few people moved to Egypt’s new desert cities when they started in the 1970s but now some are booming industrial and residential areas, with the same facilities as anywhere else. Toshka, which was entirely uninhabited 10 years ago, already has 15,000 people and the project has drawn more people to nearby Abu Simbel, a settlement which has grown up around pharaonic temples which were moved to higher ground in the 1960s to save them from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.

Ibrahim Ismail, a 25-year-old technician from Sharkia province in the Nile Delta, said he had spent the 18 months at Toshka, maintaining irrigation equipment on a salary of 500 pounds a month, more than he would earn at home.

For the moment he lives in bachelor quarters, working 30 straight days and then taking 10 days off. But if the company builds accommodation for married people and a school, he would consider a complete move to the frontier settlement. “Life is good in Toshka,” he said.

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