by Zeinab Abul Gheit
The Desert Development Corridor Project (DCP) is the brainchild of Dr. Farouk El Baz, Director of Remote Sensing Center at Boston University; the project, initially proposed during the Mubarak era, was not picked up until after the 2011 revolution, when the interim government adopted the project.
Known in Arabic as “Mashrou’ Mammar El Tanmiyya” – it promises to help decentralize Egypt and create new urban and rural centers to the west of Cairo. It also aims to make expansions in industry, agriculture as well as commercial tourism in the Western Desert to alleviate overpopulation in the Nile Valley and the Delta.
At a conference held by the European–Egyptian Council, El Baz explained the project in detail; according to him, the DCP involves the construction of an 1,200 km longitudinal corridor that starts from South Alexandria in Alamain, and extends to the frontiers of South Egypt to reach Lake Nasser, at a distance of 20–30 km at the edge of the Western Desert Plateau.
The project will also include the construction of 12 latitude axes, perpendicular to the main corridor, to link it with the main cities in the Valley and the Delta. The project also includes a water pump that extends from Lake Nasser to the end of the corridor, besides an electricity line and a railway.
According to El Baz, Egypt loses 30,000 feddans or 126 million square kilometers of agricultural land yearly; the loss of arable land is compounded by rapid population growth, which may have dire consequences for Egyptian food security in the years to come. “This means that we will not find our food in the future,” said El Baz at the European-Egyptian Council conference.
If it succeeds, the DCP will be a key axis for development; through its networks, it will encourage inhabitants of the Delta and Nile Valley to move further west, partially alleviating the suffocation caused by overpopulation in the delta region.
Finding a Place in the Sun
According to El Baz, the proposed location for the project is one of the largest sun-exposed regions in the world – which he considers one of the project’s main advantages. He proposes that the DCP include a huge solar power complex to produce electricity for local needs, with a plan to export the surplus.
El Baz regrets that countries like the Emirates and Spain have solar power centers that house some of the world’s most prominent researchers, whereas Egypt, which has the largest potential for solar power generation, has resources that are not exploited.
But why did El Baz choose this particular region for the DCP? According to him, this region does not intercept with any valleys that could be threatened by moving sand dunes. In addition, it includes vast areas of land that can be reclaimed for food production, and may contain underground water resources, making the area self-sufficient.
“Dr. El Baz did not do the scientific studies for the Development Corridor Project, and he is not specialized in underground water”
He asserts that millions of feddans can be cultivated west of Kom Ombo – an area that includes renewable underground water at a very low depth (less than 50 meters). He also proposes constructing three tourism cities near Luxor.
The Scientific Community Lashes Out
Specialists and scientists in Egypt have raised a hubbub over the Development Corridor Project, with many claiming that the project is overambitious, and that the region proposed for the project is problematic.
One critic of the project is a prominent professor of hydrology at a US-based university who preferred to remain unnamed. According to him, many questions remain unanswered about the DCP, including: What is the aim of the project? What are the criteria for measuring whether the project’s goals are achieved? And what is the best project that can achieve these goals at the lowest cost? He says that El Baz and his team have not answered these questions.
“They have chosen the worst and most inconvenient region for the project, even though there are better alternatives,” he says. According to him, the DCP threatens to make the same mistakes as the Toshka project.
Initiated in 1997, the Toshka project (also known as the New Valley Project) intended to reclaim land through the construction of a network of canals that would branch off from the Sheikh Zayed Canal in the Western Desert, fed by water from Lake Nasser. Through land reclamation, the project promised to relocate up to 20% of the Egyptian population. The Toshka Project cost over EGP 6 billion and encountered many obstacles along the way – including environmental sustainability issues – and is widely regarded as a failed national project, although efforts to complete it have been recently initiated.
The US-based hydrologist and critic claims that the most important factors in a national project like the DCP, are the availability of freshwater sources above ground, and the low cost of transporting underground water to the region. He also claims that the project should be near an export region to minimize transport costs, and that the climate should be moderate to allow people to settle easily.
But none of these factors exist in the Western Desert Plateau, where the project is planned. In fact, he says that the cost of transferring water to the Plateau in the Western Desert is very high, and that generating electricity from underground water at a depth will incur huge costs.
“A comprehensive study of the Egyptian Western Desert shows that 750,000 feddans can be cultivated in the Western Desert in East Oweinat, El Kharga, El Farafra and Siwa, where underground water is available”
According to him, the project should be planned in an area that is adjacent to underground water resources, allowing easy transfer of water to the area. He says that water resources are more readily available on the North Coast and that renewable underground water can be accessed easily in that region; he also notes that, unlike the Plateau, the land on the North Coast is level.
“If the aim is to relocate inhabitants from overcrowded regions in the Valley to the Western Desert, this will not be fulfilled by the DCP due to climate restraints,” he says. The hydrologist compares the climate conditions in the western desert to the North Coast and Sinai regions – to the disadvantage of the former. He notes that either the North Coast or the Sinai would be better suited to the project because of their proximity to the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea and temperate climates.
Another criticism leveled against the choice of location for the project includes problems that may arise from building on the limestone plateau, which cannot support long-term construction.
“Huge national projects like this should be based on accurate studies,” says the critic. According to him, local and foreign experts should audit projects of this scale to ensure that the projects can fulfill their objectives.
Another critic of the project, Dr. Maghawri Shihata, an expert in underground water and former President of Menoufiya University, insists that Dr. El Baz attributes the work of others to himself. According to Shihata, the DCP is not El Baz’s original idea; he claims that the development corridor project was first proposed in a study conducted by the Scientific Research Academy.
“This was published in an article in 1989 titled ‘The Role of Scientific Research in the Development of the Western Desert,’” he says.
According to him, El Baz’s only contribution to the Development Corridor Project is the inclusion of the Tanta axis. Shihata notes that the underground water west of the valley and the Delta is insufficient for cultivating a million feddans, adding that some of the latitude axes of the project, such as that linking to Tanta, suffer from underground water salinity and problems of agricultural drainage. He also notes that the Fayoum region has no underground water.
“Dr. El Baz did not do the scientific studies for the Development Corridor Project, and he is not specialized in underground water,” says Shihata. “Dr. El Baz also claims that he discovered water in East Owainat, which is not true.”
Shihata stresses that the East Owainat region pumps its water from the Nubian sandstone aquifer, which underlies 60% of the Egyptian desert. He notes that water resources in this region are very scarce, and that it is impossible to cultivate a million feddans on both sides of the Corridor.
Instead of starting a new project that is destined to fail, Shihata suggests that projects like Toshka, East Oueinat, and El Salam Canal be completed. “A comprehensive study of the Egyptian Western Desert shows that 750,000 feddans can be cultivated in the Western Desert in East Oweinat, El Kharga, El Farafra and Siwa, where underground water is available,” says Shihata.
Contradicting Shihata’s views is Engineer Hesham Nessim, Executive Director of Field Studies of the DCP. “The Development Corridor represents the spiritual father of Egypt’s renaissance,” says Nessim.
“The advantage of this project is that Dr. El Baz and Dr. Mohamed El Bahay Issawi, the former President of the Geological Survey Authority, discovered renewable underground water in West Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, and this can solve the problem of wheat cultivation.” Nessim adds that the main aim behind the Development Corridor Project is not the cultivation of land, but rather the redistribution of Egypt’s population who currently live in only 7% of Egypt’s area.
Besides land cultivation, other activities may include the construction of solar power stations in the Fayoum region, where huge industrial projects based on mining can be implemented. He also notes that the region may be suited to breeding poultry and sheep.
“We should take from the desert what it can provide us with, and not what we want to get from it”
Between critics and endorsers, some specialists have suggested solutions to overcome the obstacles facing the implementation of the DCP. To overcome the problem of water scarcity, Geology Professor at Cairo University, Dr. Sayed Abdel Aziz, proposes more efficient management of water resources. According to him, annual consumption of water in Egypt surpasses the recommended 1,000 cubic meters per person. He notes that in the valley and the Delta region, the average person consumes 5,000-6,000 cubic meters of water due to practices like flood irrigation – a quantity that can be reduced to 1/5 or 1/8 if farmers use drip irrigation or sprinklers.
Another solution includes desalination plants that draw water from the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Although this technology will be highly expensive at the beginning, Abdel Aziz emphasizes the importance of these plants partially to counter the problem of water scarcity; he also notes that these plants may be powered using solar energy, the excess of which can be used to generate electricity. “We should start desalination immediately, because if we do not start now, it will be very expensive later.”
Financing the DCP represents a huge hurdle to realizing the project, but Abdel Aziz suggests that the inhabitants themselves finance the project. He proposes that those who buy land in the region be charged an additional sum to cover infrastructure, telephone, water, and electricity costs.
Another proponent of the project is Dr. Mohamed El Bahiy Issawi, former President of the Geological Survey Authority. Issawi defends the project, saying that: ”The Nile Valley cannot absorb the rise in population, which has already reached 90 million.”
He explains that agricultural lands have shrunk rapidly, even after the construction of the High Dam, adding that much of the land on the Cairo–Alexandria Agricultural Highway is no longer arable, and that the road is now dotted with cement buildings. In the Delta, cement buildings have become more common as well; meanwhile, the price of crops had risen sharply.
In response to the criticism that the area of the project is not suitable for land cultivation, Issawi cites informal land reclamation experiments by residents in South Sohag,
West Isna and Edfo. According to him, inhabitants in this region have reclaimed land and planted sugar cane using small pumps to lift water from the Nile without waiting for government approvals, proving that the region has agricultural potential.
“Dr. El Baz’s aim is to organize these random acts and make the Development Corridor Project,” says Issawi. He adds that there are huge lands that can be cultivated west of the Nile, particularly in the West Kom Ombo region, and that this fertile land should not be neglected.
Although Issawi believes in the potential of the Western Desert, he also believes that investing in low-maintenance crops may prove more sustainable on the long run.
“We should take from the desert what it can provide us with, and not what we want to get from it,” he says. He recommends growing drought-hardy crops like dates and olives and breeding livestock in the New Valley.
Another opponent of the project is Dr. Samer El Mofti, Former General Secretary of Desert and Environment Affairs. According to him, the corridor is located on the Plateau, which is far from the development resources located in the depressions.
El Mofti adds that the Western Desert is the driest desert region in the world, and that underground water in the region is non-renewable. He also warns that, if the project is financed through a BOT (build-operate-transfer) system, which allows foreign investors to participate, it will not be directly subjected to Egyptian control.
El Mofti inquires if it isn’t more reasonable to complete national projects like Toshka or the New Valley rather than starting a new project that will cost billions of pounds at a time when Egypt is suffering from an economic crisis.
Dr. Ismail Abdel Gelil, former Chairman of the Desert Research Center, also voices his opposition to the DCP. According to him, irrespective of the technical and economic feasibility of the DCP, it should not be considered a priority project that can achieve actual development. He adds that it is important to ensure that the DCP does not face the same destiny of land reclamation national projects in Sinai, Toshka and the Western North Coast.
Abdel Gelil notes that these projects are sarcastically referred to as the “Minus 5 projects,” because, although 95% of the public utilities have been completed, costing a total of EGP 20 billion, only 5% of the projects have been completed. Why the projects have not been completed remains unknown. He adds that EGP 7 billion were spent in land reclamation projects in Sinai, EGP 7 billion in Toshka and EGP 6 billion in the North Coast. “The ‘Minus 5 Projects’ represent the catastrophes of Egypt,” says Abdel Gelil.
Abdel Gelil adds that the DCP is still being studied, but that it is not likely that it will be implemented any time soon due to the high cost of the project, which was estimated to be USD 24 million in 2005.
Whether the DCP succeeds or not remains to be seen, but based on the feedback of experts, it appears that officials in charge of projects of this scale may want to heed the warnings of specialists before committing large funds to yet another national project. Allowing external auditors and specialists to verify studies and conduct tests may help avoid the loss of billions of pounds.