During the previous two years I have written several posts regarding the global weather changes. The Middle East and North African region have been hit by an extensive drought and an increase in temperature. Such global weather changes began to increase desertification, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, negatively impacting the agriculture sector in the region.
Even before the recent global weather changes, less than one third of the land was suitable for agricultural cultivation and the rest was barren desert. Water resources in the region have been decreasing rapidly. Nearly 18 Arab states have been classified as water poverty stricken. The majority of Arab states depend on rainfall for their cultivation. The two major rivers that flow in a few Arab states (the Nile and the Euphrates) start beyond the boundaries of Arab states. The water flow in both major rivers has begun to decrease, which has already impacted Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
The U.N. declared June 17th, 2011 the International Day to Combat Desertification and Droughts. The U.N. report revealed a grim picture of Egypt and ranked the country as number one in desertification. The report further revealed that Egypt loses 3.5 acres per hour of fertile agricultural lands in the Delta region and along the Nile River as a result of urban expansion. This loss of lands equals more than 30,000 acres per year and at this rate, Egypt’s agricultural lands will totally disappear during the next 160 years if desertification continues.
It should be noted that Egypt’s agricultural lands have already decreased from eight million to six million feddan (acres). Furthermore, nearly 85 million Egyptians are living on only 6% of the total land of Egypt and the rest is barren desert.
The desertification of Egypt’s agricultural lands due to urban expansion should be viewed with keen and serious interest, because Egypt’s future is in danger. First, Egypt is not self sufficient in food production and it relies on imports for its food needs. Egypt imports 42% of food and 60% of its wheat. Secondly, population growth has been a problem for Egypt, despite government efforts to encourage family planning and birth control. Family planning and birth control programs date back to the mid 1930s. Since the 1952 revolution, the Egyptian government has officially declared and supported a family planning and birth control policy. The impact of such an official government policy has not been successful. Third, Egypt adds 1.2 million people to its population per year. This means 1.2 million new mouths to feed. For example, Egypt’s population in January 2000 was around 70 million. By January 2010, the population increased by nearly 14.5 million to reach nearly 84.5 million people. At this rate, Egypt’s projected population size will be 160 million by the year 2050. It should be noted that nearly half the Egyptian population is below the age of 29 years and the median age is 24.3 years. As of 2011, 2.97 children per woman were born in Egypt.
From a demographic point of view, even if each married couple limits themselves to two children, it will take Egypt around 50 years to reach a zero population grown (ZPG), which means that the birth rate will be equal to the death rate which translates into ZPG.
Fourth, according to the U.N. report, nearly 43 % of Egypt’s population lives below the poverty index level, which is $2 per person per day. Fifth, the Egyptian government heavily subsidized basic food needs such as bread, cooking oil and sugar to enable the poor to survive. According to the Census Department the Egyptian government spends 109 Egyptian pounds per year on subsidies (ahram.org 11/18/2011)
Therefore, and in light of the population growth and its impact on the Egyptian economy, the government should wake up and take a serious look at the problem of desertification as a result of urban expansion. Egypt already has a law that prohibits urban expansion on agricultural lands. The tragedy is the fact that, as usual, the public officials are not enforcing the law and no public official is held accountable for such violations. Corruption is the name of the game at all governmental levels.
Furthermore, the fragmentation of agricultural lands, which has been taking place since the 1952 revolution, has contributed directly and indirectly to the desertification. When a person inherits a fraction of a feddan (kerat or two), he can’t use it for cultivation because of its small size. As a result, he sells it or builds on it.
There ought to be a new law pertinent to urban expansion. People should be encouraged to expand their homes vertically and not horizontally. This will provide an alternative to curb urban desertification.