Water calculus steers farming in Arab nations

The New York Times


CAIRO, Egypt -- Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water.

"The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita. There is no simple solution."

For decades, nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples.

Now, the worldwide food crisis is making many countries in this politically volatile region rethink that math.

The population of the region has more than quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million, and is expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2050. By that time, the amount of fresh water available for each person, already scarce, will be cut in half, and declining resources could inflame political tensions further.

"The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita," Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said via e-mail. "There is no simple solution."

Losing confidence in world markets, these nations are turning anew to expensive schemes to maintain their food supply.

Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by ground water and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls "probably the most expensive rice on earth."

Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.

"These countries have the land and the water," said Hassan S. Sharaf al-Hussaini, an official in Bahrain's agriculture ministry. "We have the money."

In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on 2 million acres straddling the border with Sudan.

Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water.

"You can bring in money and water and you can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money," said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born author who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the topic.

Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar.

For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation.

A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer.

"With drip irrigation, you save money. It's more precise," he said. "You can't run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like a businessman."

Israel is as obsessed with water as Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant's roots. Since then, Israel has become the world's leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Already, Tunisia has reinvigorated its agriculture sector by adopting some of the desert farming advances pioneered in Israel, and Egypt's new desert farms now grow mostly water-sipping plants with drip irrigation.

As Cairo's population has grown -- to an estimated 12 million today -- hastily constructed apartment buildings have sprouted among the fields. "They sow apartment buildings instead of wheat," said Gideon Kruseman, a Dutch agriculture economist working with the government to improve farming there. For more than 5,000 years, farmers have worked the land along the Nile and in the Nile Delta, the lotus-shaped plain north of Cairo where centuries of accumulated silt have produced a deep, rich layer of topsoil. They have endured drought, flood, locusts and pestilence.

Now the scourge is development. For farmers like Magdy Abdel-Rahman, the new buildings not only ruin the rural tranquillity of his ancient fields, with the constant hammering and commotion, but they also reduce his yields.

"The shade is not good for the plants," said Abdel-Rahman, who farms corn and clover on a half-acre lot 20 miles from downtown Cairo.

Five miles farther out, Talaat Mohamed's three acres of sweet potatoes are squeezed between four-, five- and seven-story apartment buildings like a jigsaw puzzle. A building recently went up a dozen feet from his field, with steel bars jutting from the foundation and piles of gravel alongside.

Mohamed, 60, routinely turns down eager land speculators because, he says, he loves working outdoors. But he complains about all the time spent removing urban detritus from his field, which on this day included a maroon brassiere, soda cans, food wrappers, wads of indistinguishable plastic, a Signal toothpaste box and a black flip-flop.

"The Egyptians invented farming," he said, peering despairingly at a landscape of electric wires and buildings, traffic and trash. "And this is what it has become."

Original source: New York Times

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