Halting desertification

Desertification, with its manifold environmental, social and economic impacts, has been a source of mounting international concern over the past two decades, especially in countries with arid and semi-arid climates.

In Egypt, encroachment on state land, the infringements that can be seen along such major roads as the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Highway and the Cairo-Ismailiya Highway, and the privatisation of extensive tracts of land have all aggravated the problem.

The alarm was recently sounded by Ahmed Hisham, director of the National Planning Centre for State Land Use. “The danger of desertification has increased greatly with the unprecedented spread of encroachment on agricultural land since the 25 January Revolution,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Opportunists began to exploit the situation generated by the deterioration in security and government control, as they waged a fierce assault on agricultural land on which thousands of buildings were illegally constructed.”

He urged all government agencies to work together to put an end to this phenomenon, which is gnawing away at Egypt’s cultivable land and imperilling its agricultural economy.

“Converting agricultural land to other uses without permission means the death of agricultural activities and causes land reclamation and cultivation projects to stray from their intended purposes, such as the need to fill the food gap, in order to serve other ends such as resorts and amusement parks. The repercussions of this process can be very harmful indeed,” he said.

According to Hisham, the encroachments on agricultural land have been totally unlawful and have been carried out without obtaining the required approvals or licences for demolition, construction and other steps involved in the establishment of non-agricultural projects. Alternatively, they have occurred in breach of the provisions of contracts with government agencies.

Either way, the phenomenon is the product of an attitude that sees state-owned desert land in particular as open to the highest bidder. More generally, there has been a lack of public awareness of the importance of how state-owned land is used and the need to prohibit encroachment on it.

Two approaches should be brought to bear to counter the loss of such land. The government should take appropriate measures to enforce legally stipulated prohibitions against encroachment on the land or activities contrary to its designated use. Acting on instructions from the president, the government has begun to take effective steps in this direction, beginning with a survey of all encroachments onto state-owned agricultural and desert land and a survey of all land that had been designated for agricultural projects but that has been illegally converted for use for non-agricultural activities, whether residential or industrial.

In exacting the legally stipulated fines and penalties for these violations, the government has effectively declared that the days of the abuse of “squatter rights” are now over.

The second approach is one that involves every citizen of the country. It is to uphold the principle that condemns all forms of abuse of state-owned property, which by law is the property of the Egyptian people and which is an asset to be invested in national economic development plans and other projects that advance the prosperity and well-being of the public.

All citizens should take the responsibility of refusing to deal with the “real-estate mafias” that, in many cases, now trade in such property. They should not let themselves be duped by sleek advertisements into purchasing property or investing money in real estate of dubious provenance, since this only encourages fraud and the thirst for illicit profit that ultimately comes at the expense of the public, particularly those who are poor or have a limited income.

Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy recently noted that more than a billion people in the world today suffer from the consequences of desertification, and that 25 per cent of the land in Africa suffers from the impacts of the desertification of cultivable land. The UN and regional and Egyptian agencies are urgently trying to prevent more than 85 per cent of the fertile land in Africa from falling victim to desertification.

Fahmy emphasised the role of young people in the fight against desertification and for land reclamation. They are a “resource to power sustainable development and a key to safeguarding the rights of future generations,” he said.

Echoing this outlook, Gamal Gaballah, the Arab League’s director of the environment, has called for training programmes for young people that will promote the modern concepts and practices of sustainable agriculture. Such programmes should be incorporated in the framework of agricultural agencies that promote these values and principles in the development of new rural communities in the desert and that work to meet the economic and social aspirations of young people, he said.

They should furnish them and their families with appropriate health and educational services and ensure the installation of environmentally suitable systems of wastewater disposal and other infrastructure.

 Green belts: Magdi Allam is the secretary-general of the Arab Union of Environmental Experts, an NGO. He said that the interests of young people should be borne in mind in today’s “green belt” project, one of the aims of which is to counter desertification.

The project envisions putting 20,000 acres of land under cultivation using treated wastewater. Four such belts are currently being developed in the Red Sea governorate, near the border with Sudan and along the Mediterranean.

Allam stressed the need for rapid progress in the project due to the additional impact of climate change on desertification in Egypt. The country has lost some 25,000 acres of agricultural land to desertification, he said, and the development of green belts could be the key to solving this problem.

He noted that the Sudanese government has launched a pioneering project in this regard, entailing the development of a 285-km-long and 25-km-wide green belt around the Sudanese capital Khartoum. He urged Arab ministers of youth, environment and agriculture to work together to employ two million young people in agricultural projects entailed in the development of such green belts.

Hussein Al-Atfi, chairman of the Arab Water Council, has also stressed the urgency of such projects and agricultural development projects in general due to the mounting food supply gap in the Arab region. The population of the Arab world currently stands at 340 million, or the equivalent of five per cent of the world’s population, but suffers from a water scarcity problem that has been aggravated by climate change to cause a six-fold increase in the levels of drought.

Al-Atfi appealed for intensive efforts to halt desertification and put desert land under cultivation to combat the effects of what he called “environmental and human terrorism”, and to meet the food needs of a population that will increase to 600 million by 2050.

Naim Moselhi, the director of the Centre for Desert Research in Egypt, also believes that young people must be included in agricultural development projects. This includes a plan to put 85,000 acres of land under cultivation with medicinal and aromatic plants in the area of Al-Sirr and Al-Qawarir in Sinai, once the Salam Irrigation Canal Project is completed.

Moselhi added that the government plans to reclaim four million acres of land in the coming years and that 90 per cent of the projects involved will rely on subterranean water resources in the framework of a plan to ensure the sustainability of these resources for more than 100 years.

The first phase of the project has set a target of 1.5 million acres, including the Maghara Oasis (150,000 acres), Farafra (400,000), west of West Minia (200,000), as well as West Minia itself, west of Al-Marashda, the Toshka Wells, Eastern Siwa and Eastern Al-Owaynat.

The representatives of young people have raised numerous questions and offered a number of suggestions for these projects. Mohamed Nigm of the Ubour Academy has complained of the rising costs of digging wells, for example, and of the lack of government assistance in marketing products.

The solution is for the young people involved to form companies or to enter into partnerships with larger companies so that they do not have to sustain the heavy costs of land reclamation and initial cultivation alone, according to environmental expert Magdi Allam. The government should contribute, at the very least, by assuming the debt burden on the loans, he said. “The government shouldn’t just toss young people into the desert away from their families,” he added.

Hayam Hashem, of the Social Services Institute in Aswan, called for training and awareness-raising programmes for young people on desertification and land reclamation. “Contrary to what some people claim, many young people today are eager to engage in this field as long as there are real opportunities with the necessary facilities,” he said.

Questions raised by a number of other young people shed light on the true dimensions of this issue. Mutazz Tharwat, of the Ubour Institute, asked what qualifications the government was looking for as it encourages young people to embark on the reclamation of the desert. Mustafa Mahmoud, of Benha University, wondered how it will be possible to develop the desert at a time when urban expansion is eating away at agricultural land.

Salah Rasmi, another student at the Ubour Institute, asked what government measures are being put into effect with regard to the use of desert land and who is responsible for agricultural planning.

Crisis and hope: Mamdouh Rashwan, secretary-general of the Arab Federation for Youth and the Environment, said there is a “crisis and a source of hope at the same time” in today’s Arab world.

“God chose the desert for us. This appears poor on the surface, but most of it does not require extraordinary resources to make use of. In winter it produces sufficient food and water to last throughout the year. Rivers flow beneath it, and the Holy Qur’an makes numerous references to its springs. The desert ecosystem has unique properties in terms of its formation, sources of water and the animals and human beings that live there,” he said.

He cautioned against activities that could upset the desert’s environmental balance, but stressed that modern technologies could help turn the desert into a source of prosperity through the production of solar energy, for example.

Salah Abdel-Razeq, an environmental expert, has warned of the demographic and economic impacts of desertification in the Arab world, especially in view of the onset of global warming which has occurred much sooner than anticipated, he said.

The challenges this poses requires “unconventional responses and the use of technical education to produce alternatives,” he added, and called for the development of a unified agricultural strategy in the Arab region. “Many of us have come to distrust collective action and to prefer to work independently, meaning that we have lost the advantages of the spirit of cooperation and integration.”

Abdel-Razeq added that this phenomenon is at least in part due to “the failure of agricultural cooperatives system in Egypt as a result of the bureaucratic red tape that kills the spirit of initiative and innovation”.

In order to encourage innovation, Egypt recently hosted 250 young men and women from 12 Arab and African states at a five-day environmental conference at Sharm El-Sheikh. It was a unique experience that reaffirmed the principles of Arab unity as a key to collective survival and the proper use of the region’s natural resources, especially the treasures of its deserts.

The Arab Federation for Youth and Environment also espoused this outlook in its 15th conference, inaugurated at the Arab League in Cairo under the title, “The Role of Youth in the Development of Arab Deserts: Challenges and Opportunities.” Held under the patronage of Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi, the event paid tribute to pioneering Arab environmental experts such as Mustafa Kamal Talba and the late Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud. Other activities were carried out at the Sharm El-Sheikh event between 4 and 8 April, where Sudan was the guest of honour in tribute to the green-belt initiative around Khartoum.

The participants expressed their gratitude to the Egyptian people and government for their support and lauded the cooperation between Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz, South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) headed by Abdel-Aziz Al-Tawijri, the organisation’s representative in Egypt, Salah Al-Jaafarawi, and Judge Nabil Sari from Lebanon.

Referring to the fact that deserts accounted for 95 per cent of the land in the Arab world, Al-Jaafarawi said that this underscores “how important it is to take the political decisions needed to change our reality and overcome all obstacles to our development and progress.” Nabil Sari linked environmental desertification in the Arab world to what he termed “mental desertification,” a phenomenon that also demands urgent remedies if the Arab nation is to bloom again.

Participants at the event also praised the initiative of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia in founding the King Salman University in Tor in South Sinai. “The development of Sinai is a matter of Egyptian and Saudi national security,” they noted, adding calls to universities and research centres in the Arab world to offer grants to students interested in desert development.

They also called for the setting up of an Arab Youth Programme to support tourism in Sharm El-Sheikh, suggesting an agreement between Arab tourist companies to promote packages such as tours that would include Beirut, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dubai, for example. As part of an awareness-raising drive, they suggested keeping photographs of the five-day event on their Facebook pages.

They commended the initiative of the South Sinai governor to support agricultural development, and described it as a model for desert development more generally. To drive home the need to include young people in this process, they said that the youth are ready to contribute to the establishment of a model farm run in an area in South Sinai to be designated by the governor.

Egypt’s pioneering experiences in agricultural and urban development in desert environments could be emulated by other Arab countries, they said, which also sought to meet the needs of young people by opening investment opportunities to them in the deserts and enabling them to carry out initiatives that achieved their own aspirations and the aspirations of the Arab people as a whole.

In the event’s closing statement, the participants proposed the creation of a trilateral committee consisting of the Arab Federation for Youth and Environment, ISESCO, and the Al-Maktoom Charity Foundation that would meet every three months to formulate proposals for actions that would take advantage of the contributions of its supporters.

The statement called for the creation of larger entities and holding companies to oversee the small enterprises owned by young people, stressing that these emergent enterprises should be able to take possession of agricultural land already equipped for use and that the young people engaged in these projects should be able to sustain production and contribute to the marketing process.

The statement concluded with an appeal for integrated desert development that promotes agricultural, urban and touristic development simultaneously. Towards this end, it said, all relevant authorities in each Arab country needs to unify and coordinate their efforts, setting into motion a drive to educate and train Arab young people in the field of desert development.

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