Despite the historic failures of Egypt’s state-planned agricultural megaprojects, a new and ambitious plan for the reclamation of 1.5 million feddans of desert land was formally initiated on Wednesday, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announcing the commencement of the first phase of this latest megaproject.
Due to be completed in just two years, the plan reportedly seeks to expand Egypt’s total agricultural land by approximately 20 percent.
Initially, in September 2014, Sisi had announced the intention to reclaim four million feddans of desert lands for agricultural use. However, in recent months, Sisi’s administration backtracked from its overly ambitious plans, settling for 1.5 million feddans instead.
The starting point for this reclamation reportedly commenced (as of late November) with the reclaiming of desert land in the area of Sahl Baraka, near the town of Farafra. In his televised address from Farafra, Sisi confirmed that the state has planned three phases for this megaproject, with each phase involving the reclamation of 500,000 feddans.
The president announced that “realistically speaking, over the past 60 years an average of only about 50,000 feddans has been reclaimed annually.” Nonetheless, the military leader announced that “with the will of the Egyptian populace,” this project is realizable.
Sisi added that small farmers and big investors alike are to be sold plots of land throughout this project – in which owners may purchase expansive tracts of lands, although he did not specify if there was a cap on land ownership in this project. The president then claimed that all aspects of this massive reclamation project were “well-planned,” with all necessary feasibility studies being prepared prior to this inauguration.
Sisi pointed at his audience of ministers, military and police generals, commenting that “the responsibility of the 1.5 million feddans is yours, in terms of houses, and roads and these things.”
The president claimed that this company would provide lands to farmers and investors, with some degree of subsidization from the state, along with credit from banks with less than a 6 percent interest rate.
The state-administered Egyptian Rural Development Company would oversee the sale and distribution of desert lands earmarked for reclamation throughout, he added.
Citing an unnamed official involved in the project, state-owned Al-Ahram news portal reported that the Egyptian Rural Development Company has capital amounting to LE8 billion, which are to be divided among the Ministries of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Housing.
The official added that, with some of this capital, the state aims to dig a total of 13,225 wells in order to tap into ground water and aquifers for use in this mammoth project.
The arid and barren lands around the Farafra Oasis, located deep within Egypt’s Western Desert, were chosen earlier this year to be this site of this agricultural megaproject. Located well over 200 kilometers west of the nearest city, Assiut, this agricultural project is due to rely exclusively on groundwater.
According to the minister of irrigation, upon completion, this project would consume a quarter of Egypt’s available ground water. “Egypt has eight billion cubic meters of well water, of which the project will require around 2 billion cubic meters,” said Irrigation Minister, Hossam al-Moghazi, according to Al-Ahram’s coverage.
Quoting Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that the Egyptian Rural Development Company is responsible for: drilling wells, infrastructure, and the creation of residential communities necessary for “the creation of a new Egyptian countryside.”
Sherif concluded: “What has been achieved today, in terms of the efforts and the well-studied planning for a brighter tomorrow, carries with it the hope for a promising future through which to realize the aspirations of the Egyptian people, dignity, and a better life.”
Despite all this optimistic and patriotic rhetoric, history has repeatedly proven that state-sponsored land reclamation projects have been dismal failures.
In the 1960s, the regime of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser proposed a massive land reclamation and housing project in the Muduriyet al-Tahrir area of Beheira. Initially promoted to be a “dream project,” complete with subsidized infrastructure, this massive project ground to a halt by the end of that decade, ran out of funding, and was largely abandoned.
Nearly three decades later, in 1997 the regime of Hosni Mubarak announced, amid a great deal of fanfare, that a new agricultural valley would be established in the south of the Western Desert, and would reclaim over 500,000 feddans of desert land around the sparsely populated town of Toshka.
However, irrigation problems, shortcomings in marketing and transportation, poor infrastructure, together with the great geographic distances between Toshka and the nearest urban centers meant that this project also amounted to little.
One of the few large investors who was initially reported to have been generating profits from the large tracts of desert land he purchased in this area was multi-billionaire Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.
In August 2014, Sisi announced that he would revive the abandoned Toshka project. Mainstream media outlets trumpeted his bold announcements, and the Youm7 news portal even declared that Sisi was going to resuscitate the Toshka project with “his kiss of life.”
However, since last year, nothing has yet come of this alleged resuscitation of the Mubarak-era project.