This recent article from Reuters Canada details Egypt’s continued interest in expanding agriculture further into the Sahara Desert. Will Rasmussen, author of the article, calls it “greening of the sand.” There are many economic and societal reasons that Egypt is moving forward with widespread conversion of the desert ecosystem called “desert reclamation.”
With only five percent of the country habitable, almost all of Egypt’s 74 million people live along the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. Already crowded living conditions — Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities on earth — will likely get worse as Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050. So the government is keen to encourage people to move to the desert by pressing ahead with an estimated $70 billion plan to reclaim 3.4 million acres of desert over the next 10 years.
Concerns about Egypt’s desert reclamation plan for the Sahara Desert are many. Other Nile Basin countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia could become worried this expansion of agriculture will mean less equitable allocation of Nile River waters, according to Rasmussen.
Egypt’s project to reclaim deserts in the south, called “Toshka”, would expand Egypt’s farmland by about 40 percent by 2017, using about five billion cubic meters of water a year. That worries neighbors to the south who are already unhappy about Nile water sharing arrangements. Under a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt won rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters per year, more than half of the Nile’s total flow.
Environmentalists worry such transformations of the desert could erase fragile ecosystems supporting endemic plants and wildlife. And with the advent of increased climate fluctuations, it is questionable whether flow will be available to sustain Egypt’s plans for expanded agriculture into the future. Is agriculture a sustainable economy in a desert ecosystem? This is one of many questions that arise as countries with arid terrain utilize technology to divert, withdraw, and manipulate natural supplies of water such as aquifers and surface water sources.