A melon farm in Toshka, Egypt.
Much of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and other countries in dry climes are facing this dilemma. They have too little water to farm intensively and be food-sufficient, and yet are getting hammered by rising food prices, which have caused the prices of imported staple grains to as much as triple. Add in rising unrest and food riots and the political volatility of many of these countries, and it is a very tense situation indeed.
To recap, there are basically two radically different choices:
Option 1: Stop growing what entirely, or cut way back to preserve your water. Rely on your foreign income to purchase as much wheat as you need. This is the path that Saudia Arabia is taking. While this seems pretty safe for the Saudis, due to their large reserves of cash and oil, this is a lot more problematic for poorer countries.
Option 2: Grow your own wheat. Don’t rely on a global supply chain or risk astronomical prices; ensure that you will have your staple grain by growing it yourself. Worry about water later.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, it looks like Egypt and several other middle Eastern countries are pursuing this latter choice. Smug though I am to have beaten the NYT to this issue, I’m glad they’re writing about it. This is a big, big deal, particularly when you factor in the politics at play in the region.
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.
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.
The problem with importing such a huge percentage of your food is that you become incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in supply and price increases. The governments who, like Egypt, subsidize wheat imports are spending a lot more on those subsidies. Fears of supply disruptions and rising prices have sparked food riots in dozens of countries worldwide. In some cases, such as Egypt and Pakistan, the army has been mobilized to maintain control of the grains and prevent looting.
“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.”
Several countries are starting or reviving huge irrigation and agriculture projects, while others are looking at developing agriculture. “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 development expert and former banker with a Ph.D. in Islamic history and political economy from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Dr. Elhadj actually commented on this topic back in June, posting an excerpt from his article Saudi Arabia’s Agricultural Project: Dust to Dust, published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs [MERIA], Vol. 12, No. 2 June 2008.
The New York Times article continues:
Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater 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 two 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.
Egypt is intensifying efforts to ramp up agricultural production with the Toshka Project, also known as the New Valley Project. Started in 1997, the project involves diverting water from Lake Nasser (created by the construction of the Aswan dam) to create 558,000 new acres of arable land in the Western Desert, part of the Sahara.
From the New York Times article:
When the Toshka farm was started in 1997, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, compared its ambitions to building the pyramids, involving roughly 500,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands of residents. But no one has moved there, and only 30,000 acres or so have been planted.
The farm’s manager, Mohamed Nagi Mohamed, says the Sahara is perfect for farming, as long as there is plenty of fertilizer and water. For one thing, the bugs cannot handle the summer heat, so pesticides are not needed. “You can grow anything on this land,” he said, showing off fields of alfalfa and rows of tomatoes and grapes, shielded from the sun by gauzy white netting. “It’s a very nice project, but it needs a lot of money.”
Egypt’s increasing population is also cited as one of the motivations behind the need to expand domestic food production:
Mr. Mubarak calls his country’s growing population an “urgent” problem that has exacerbated the food crisis. The population grows about 1.7 percent annually, considerably slower than a generation ago but still fast enough that it is on pace to double by 2050. Adding 1.3 million Egyptians each year to the 77 million squeezed into an inhabited area roughly the size of Taiwan is a daunting prospect for a country in which 20 percent of citizens already live in poverty.
The Toshka Project is not the only effort to increase agricultural production in Egypt. According to this website from Egypt’s State Information Service, Egypt will increase its arable land by 3.274 million acres in 2017 from 8.159 million acres in 2006, a 40% increase in arable land.
The website, which emphasized the technological marvels at hand and details how important agricultural exports are to Egypt’s economy, also lists several other massive projects. The Toshka project and the Al-Salam Canal are listed as adding over half a million acres each to Egypt’s agricultural land. Both are to be fed with water from the Nile. East Uwaiynat and Darb al-Araba’in, both smaller projects irrigated from underground aquifers, would add 45,000 and 11,000 acres, respectively.
Essentially, Egypt is trying very hard to increase its amount of arable land, relying on the mighty Nile and underground aquifers to do so. But rivers can be overused, as the Colorado River is, and aquifers, once depleted, can take thousands of years to recharge naturally.
In this situation, there aren’t really any good options. You can import food at ever-higher prices, and risk supply disruptions and food riots. If the food is subsidized, you also risk depleting currency reserves and draining the government treasury. And yet attempting to become more nationally food self-sufficient and rely on domestic production, you risk totally depleting your non-renewable water resources.
Naturally, the Times suggests a free-market, capital-intensive solution: abandoning subsistence agriculture to focus exclusively on low-water cash crops for export, exploiting the law of comparative advantage, and then using the proceeds to buy staple foods.
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 with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, 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; Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
The Israeli government strictly regulates how much water farmers can use and requires many of them to irrigate with treated sewer water, pumped to farms in purple pipes. It has also begun using a desalination plant to cleanse brackish water for irrigation.
“In the future, another 200 million cubic meters of marginal water are to be recycled, in addition to promoting the establishment of desalination plants,” Shalom Simhon, Israel’s agriculture minister, wrote via e-mail. Still, four years of drought have created what Mr. Simhon calls “a deep water crisis,” forcing the country to cut farmers’ quotas.
I don’t love this option; I’m skeptical of any solution that puts so much risk (of price collapses, dips in demand, crop failures) on the people who are relying on this to buy staple foods. Moreover, technology required to move to computerized drip irrigation and greenhouses represents a huge capital investment, an enormous barrier to poor farmers and an incentive to centralize and scale up farming operations.
But is a greenhouse running on recycled wastewater more sustainable than relying on the aquifers? Certainly. There’s no easy answers to this one.