Egypt's mammoth plans for mega-projects

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Publication: Middle East
Author: Golia, Maria
Date published: December 1, 2011
Language: English
PMID: 18250
ISSN: 03050734
Journal code: IMDT

Everyone knows that Egyptians built the pyramids, but as Egyptologist Mark Lehner pointed out, 'the pyramids also built Egypt*. These massive undertakings challenged the state's organisational skills, honing its ability to mobilise its work force and resources. Egypt has had a reputation for mega-projects ever since: ambitious, labour-intensive, feats of engineering that somehow changed not just the nation but the world. Now, in the dawn of the post-Mubarak era, Egyptians are looking for a national project that addresses its mega-problems.

Several high-profile figures have proposed schemes to rebuild the nation, jump starting the debate on the country's developmental direction. The scientific community's critique of these projects has sparked public discussion of water and land management, energy production and technical education, issues crucial to Egypt's future and much ignored in its recent past.

Prominent real estate-developer Mansour Amer's 'Map of Hope' calls for introducing drip irrigation on a nationwide scale to reclaim desert land for farming, and for redrawing the map of Egypt's governorates to more equitably distribute resources. Amer, who financed two successful Red Sea resorts (Porto Sokhna and Porto Marina) would also like to increase tourism facilities nationwide, transform Sharm El Sheikh into a free trade zone, and make Egypt the world's largest fish producer.

"This is not a project, this is a collection of ideas, some good and some unrealistic," remarked Fikri Hassan, a respected geologist, "Amer is neither a scientist nor a planner, he is just a businessman." Nonetheless, Amers notion of reconfiguring Egypt's provinces, Hassan noted, would help remedy their long-standing neglect.

Public imagination

Nobel prize-winning chemist Dr Ahmed Zewail's credentials are obviously more appealing to Egypt's scientific community, as is his $2 billion project to build 'Science City' a higher education and research facility. The state has allotted 272 acres of land in Sheikh Zayed City in Cairo's desert outskirts and the project has already attracted major investments. Modelled as "a hybrid of Caltech, the Max Planck Institute and Turkey's Tech Park", Egypt's 'Science City' will serve up to 5,000 students and its objective, Zewail says, is "to revive the production of new knowledge by Arabs and to bring the advances of science and technology to the market and society in this Arab awakening epoch."

Zewail hopes his project will capture the public's imagination and renew its confidence in the future. Recalling how the building of the Aswan High Dam helped rally Egyptians behind the 1952 Free Officers' Revolution, he believes that the appropriate "post-revolution national project for Egypt comparable to the Aswan High Dam is education".

Given the environmental damage stemming from the Dam, some find this an unfortunate analogy for an admirable project. Yet Zewail was right, others say, the public needs to be directly involved in the developmental process, and that process, mega-or otherwise must have a specific aim.

Environmental conservationist Sherif Bahaeddin posed tbe vital questions: How do we want Egypt to look in 100 years? On what will its economy be based? Agriculture? Services? Industry? Deciding a direction now is vital to achieve the agreed-upon vision, to prioritise projects to meet that goal, bearing in mind that Egypt's population will double within the next 50 years. Where will these people live, and how?

Egypt's tiny 4% of arable land is being lost to urban encroachment, coastal erosion and desertification at the staggering rate of 3.6 acres per hour, according to a June 2011 UN report, more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. With the bulk of the population crowded around the Nile, fertile soil deposits now host buildings and roads instead of farms, with dire consequences for Egypt's food sufficiency.

For geologist Farouk EI Baz, founder of Boston University's Centre for Remote Sensing, Egypt's developmental priority is redistributing the population, in order to balance land and water use. His 'Corridor of Development' includes a massive transportation artery (a superhighway for regular and cargo transport and Egypt's first high-speed train) from Alamein, on the Mediterranean coast to the southern border with Sudan. Egypt needs better roads that connect the country, especially to its southern provinces, and existing ones already occupy great tracts of arable land.

Impressive credentials

The proposed north-south corridor, planned to run through the desert west of the Nile, would improve Egypt's internal mobility, while allowing for massive residential expansions.

The project calls for 12 additional east-west highways between the main corridor and the river, nodes of residential, industrial and agricultural developments. These 12 corridors constitute Phase One of the project, to start development moving westwards. Phase Two is the main linking axis, and the entire network would take an estimated 10 years to complete.

El Baz's credentials are no less impressive than Zewail's. He moved to America in the Nasser era and helped NASA map the first lunar landing sites using satellite imagery, cutting-edge technology at that time. The Apollo missions produced sensational photographs of earth: El Baz became the world's leading expert at reading them, and crucially, identifying topographical features of Egypt's deserts, including indications of potential underground water sources.

In the 1970s, El Baz served as scientific advisor to President Anwar Sadat, who was anxious to explore the possibilities of Egypt's western expansion. But despite the creation of several 'satellite cities' in the capital's desert suburbs, few Egyptians were willing to move.

El Baz recalls visiting a family in the western desert oasis of Kharga. A brother had died and although he was born and raised in Kharga, the family insisted on burying him in Qift, their ancestral village near the river many miles away. "Egyptians will always be tied the Nile' El Baz told The Middle East, 'the main purpose of the Corridor of Development is to expand living area, knowing that Egyptians do not like to get too far from their place of origin.'

El Baz first proposed his project in 1985, but it wasn't until 2006 that the state authorised a preliminary economic study. The results, recently published by a team of 40 experts after three-years of research, suggests the 'Corridor of Development will cost $24 billion. The next step is a detailed feasibility study, which El Baz says should to placed up for bid to private agencies.

Egypt's transitional government is enthusiastic about the project, but some members of the scientific community are not. While they agree that population growth must be redirected, El Baz's project came under fire for what some perceived as its emphasis on agriculture, which uses quantities of water that would be impossible to deliver to the desert.

El Baz, who published a book about the project in 2006, and a second edition in 2009 told The Middle East, "They didn't read very well. Never did I suggest agriculture for the north-south desert corridor itself." The developmental nodes however, can partly be used for agriculture, where soil quality allows.

Lake Nasser reserves

But where will the water come from? "This is where all the experts go beserk," El Baz laughs, stressing that the north-south corridor is a transportation artery whose rest-stops, storage facilities, toll stations, etc would be served by a metre-wide pipeline delivering water from the Toshka Lakes (spillover water from Lake Nasser). This would need only be pumped to the top of a 300-metre-high plateau in the southwestern desert.

From there, thanks to Egypt's slight south to north slope, it would flow all the way to Alamein.

The developmental nodes in the grid created by the 12 east-west corridors would instead rely on ground water. El Baz maintains that it is plentiful and available at depths of around three metres, emphasising that this is not to be confused with aquifers, deep-lying (more than a kilometre) fossil water than cannot be replenished. Nile Valley is a low area that has been fractured and is made of porous rock. For a million years it got soaked with water - anywhere you drill you get nearsurface water. As the Nile continues to seep there, the ground water is replenished."

At least one geologist thought El Baz wished to pump water the length of Egypt; another thought he planned on using aquifers, still others claim the project would use too much water, period.

"Let's say in some instances you don't find ground water, but you need to build a town, so the only option is to use a Nile-fed canal. I didn't increase the water use - people will need water wherever they are." The point, El Baz stresses, is to maximise agricultural potential by planning residential and industrial development elsewhere. The goal is to manage land and water resources on a nationwide scale.

Massive undertaking

Except for the pyramids and great temple complexes, Egypt's mega-projects have all involved water. Perhaps the earliest one dates to the Middle Kingdom (2030-1640 Be) when Pharaoh's engineers drained surplus Nile water into the Fayoum depression (southwest of Cairo) to prevent catastrophic flooding and create a reservoir.

The irrigation upgrades launched by Mohammed Ali (1805-1848) positioned Egypt to fill the gap in cotton production arising from America's Civil War, to the nation's great enrichment.

Cotton wealth helped build the Suez Canal (opened in 1869), destined to reconfigure global transport, ironically while transforming Egypt's image from a backward (agricultural) to a forward-thinking industrialising country. Likewise, the Aswan High Dam (built between 1960-70) the greatest such structure of its day, was billed as a modernising mega-project.

The Toshka project, begun in 1997, was a massive endeavour to create a second Nile Valley by redirecting 10% of the country's water allotment from Lake Nasser to the southwestern desert. The goal was to increase Egypt's cultivatable land to 25%. The project is perceived as one of the great failures of the Mubarak era, as it was terrifically costly while failing to achieve its stated objectives. But El Baz believes the corridor of development will help redeem Toshka.

"The problem with Toshka was that it's too remote, nobody wants to live there." With a train and major highway running through the area, he thinks that will change.

Despite his colleague's criticism, El Baz is holding his ground. "The debate is positive in many ways," he says. "Every few months there's some attack on the idea which forces me to respond, pointing out the misunderstandings, and that's good, it builds knowledge."

He takes heart in the fact that his most vigorous supporters are young people, who have created six Facebook pages to promote the project. "They write to me, call meetings, organise NGOs, and are lobbying government to move ahead." El Baz proposes that the project be funded in part by a public bond, with Egyptians investing directly Ln their future.

"This project is for the coming generations," he said, 'and I have no question that it will occur. It is really the only way forward for Egypt/

Author affiliation:

Maria Golia reports from Cairo

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