Land Reclamation and Loss

Land Reclamation and Loss

The quest to bring new land under cultivation has been a cornerstone of Egyptian agricultural policy since the 1950s. Systematic land reclamation efforts, mostly by foreigners, had begun in 1902 with the completion of the Aswan Dam. The government joined in reclamation in the 1930s, but did not entirely take over the activity until the First Five-Year Plan (1960-65). According to official figures, the total area reclaimed amounted to nearly 1.92 million feddans between 1952 and 1987, of which 0.82 million feddans were reclaimed between 1952 and 1968. Reclamation activity slowed from 1966 to 1976, then picked up again. The Second Five-Year Plan (FY 1987-91) projected agricultural land to be expanded by 627,000 feddans, mostly in the Delta and to the east and west of it, and in Sinai. Total reclaimable land by the year 2002 was estimated at 2.8 million feddans; less than 3 percent of this was first-class land, 20 percent was second class, an insignificant percent was third class, and more than 33 percent was fourth and fifth class. Public-sector companies were expected to reclaim about 427,000 feddans, and private companies the rest. Two major schemes were under way in early 1990: one west of the Delta that was expected to yield 434,000 feddans by 1993, and the second in northern Sinai that would draw water from the Nile through a tunnel under the Suez Canal.

Bringing new land under cultivation required heavy investment. Reclamation outlays in most years represented the second largest agricultural investment after irrigation. In the first half of the mid-1980s, reclamation cost about ŁE600 million, or about 30 percent of public investments in agriculture, and the figure was expected to rise to 35 percent in the Second Five-Year Plan (FY 1987-91). The cost per feddan rose continually because reclamation began with better quality soil and because of the rising costs of labor and energy required for pumping the water. The cost was estimated to reach ŁE2,500 to ŁE5,000 per feddan for projects in the 1990s.

Land reclamation was time-consuming and involved planning, irrigation, planting, building new settlements, and establishing agro-industries. The process often encountered natural, financial, technical, and managerial difficulties. For example, because the soil was poor, fertilizers leached; building an adequate soil structure would require planting a crop such as alfalfa that fixed nitrogen. This process was unduly time-consuming for many farmers, who opted instead to truck soil from the old lands, which often was infested with pests. As a result of these problems, only one-third of the land reclaimed by 1980 was making a profit.

The difficulties led foreign donors in the 1970s to question the wisdom of the undertaking, and most of them refrained from participating. Egyptians, however, were not deterred and challenged the economic criteria and calculation methods by which donors judged the results. They also argued that land reclamation had external benefits, such as generating employment (the share of labor costs exceeded one-half of the total), relief of crowded areas, and defense (a presence in the Sinai Peninsula) that simple economic cost-benefit analysis did not reflect.

The main beneficiaries of land reclamation in the 1960s were small peasants; in the 1970s principal beneficiaries were army personnel, families of soldiers killed in the October 1973 War, and graduates of technical schools. Of more than 1.2 million feddans reclaimed between 1952 and 1982, small peasants probably obtained more than 400,000 feddans, graduates received more than 300,000 feddans, and the remainder was unaccounted for. Reclaimed areas at first were run as state farms; the experiment failed, however, and the areas were given into private hands. Public companies acted as the management, providing credit and inputs, determining crop patterns, and obtaining the government's crop quotas.

While land was being added to cultivation, other land was being lost to desertification and urban and infrastructural expansion. Desertification was caused by lack of drainage and the concomitant soil salinization and water clogging. Other causes were sand movement, intensive cultivation, removal of topsoil in the Delta for brick making, and lack of effective conservation measures. Information on soil degradation and desertification was sketchy. One estimate put the decrease of cropland at 6.6 percent annually between 1964 and 1985; another estimated the annual decrease at 8 percent. Of the reclaimed areas, about 40 percent probably reverted to desert conditions. In addition, other areas were probably losing soil nutrients because of the decreased use of organic fertilizers, the lack of annual alluvial deposits following the construction of the Aswan High Dam, and inadequate compensation for nutrients removed from the soil by intensive cultivation.

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