Risky Planning in the Desert

Sheikh Zayed canal of Toshka New Valley project, Egypt. Wikipedia, 10/22/2013

Sheikh Zayed canal of Toshka New Valley project, Egypt. Wikipedia, 10/22/2013

What does a government do in a country which has overpopulation in urban areas, growing unemployment, a limited water supply, and 95% of its land mass in desert? Enter Toshka, an ambitious project started during Hasni Mubarak’s reign to create a second Nile Valley in Egypt. This venture was designed to redirect 10% of the country’s allotment of water from the Nile River via irrigation canals to increase agricultural production and create new jobs and cities away from the congested Nile Valley.

A similar plan was proposed in the 1960s as part of the High Dam project that provided electricity, controlled flooding, and created Lake Nasser. Mubarak revived the plan in 1997, which was seen by some as creating a personal legacy as well as using it to calm social tensions during the last twenty years of his rule. Domestically, some questioned the long-term economic benefit to Egypt as compared to the benefit to foreign investors. Internationally, many of the neighboring countries who share the water resources of the Nile basin viewed Toshka with concern.

The massive plan included digging a canal 240 kilometers in length, starting from Lake Nasser and proceed into the Western Desert of Egypt. However, there was no documented environmental impact assessment done on the site before the development was launched. According to the Egypt Independent, “A look at some technical requirements show that not everything was taken into full consideration before the first ploughs started digging, and to this day, the Water Resources and Irrigation Ministry – responsible for the project – does not make public the different studies related to Toshka it may have conducted over the years”.

What were some natural roadblocks to pursuing a project like this? First, the soil of the Western Desert is high in saline. Second, many underground aquifers exist in the area. Together, these conditions cause the salt to leach into the aquifers during irrigation and thereby reduce access to potable water. Additionally, the type of soil causes havoc with the self-propelled irrigation equipment, grounding the sprinklers after sitting in small puddles of wet clay which subsequently dry.

In the first phase of the plan, the canal system was to be completed and roughly 550,000 acres reclaimed. Estimates show that, as of 2010, Toshka has irrigated only approximately 17,000 acres. The second phase was scheduled to be completed in 2017 with a total of two million acres recovered from the Western Desert. The second phase was cancelled in 2005 with the remaining project to be completed in 2022. The total budget has been estimated as high as $87 billion, but the actual numbers have not been publicly available.

The stated goal of Toshka was to ease the country’s serious overpopulation, unemployment, and food security problems by reclaiming land for agriculture and relocating up to three million residents to this new valley. The government also promoted the growth of industrial, agricultural, and tourism investment. So, what’s been accomplished?

The Mubarak Pumping Station was completed in 2005 at the cost of $436 million, and delivers water from Lake Nasser to the small portion of the completed canal. None of the cities, factories, schools, or hospitals have been built. Of the produce grown, most is exported for the benefit of the private companies that bought land because the government doesn’t require that the crops be sold domestically. The farms provide only a few thousand jobs, while the country’s unemployment presents a need for 700,000 new jobs annually.

What can planners learn from Toshka? Using an open and transparent pre-assessment mechanism is critical to building trust. The project did not inspire trust in its stakeholders. According to Conservationist Mindy Bahaa Eddin, stakeholder consultations are also needed when working out details of large-scale ventures like Toshka. If continued, the project would have caused great damage to the many ancient sites found in the impacted region.