The River Nile – A Salty Affair

Facing a growing population and the Nile showing signs of over-exploitation, Egypt ought to ask how much burden can be placed on the „holy river“.
Text by Thomas Obersteiner

„I have worked in Egypt for the past 13 years, as a consultant and as a mangager of my own flower farm“, says Dr. Kelly Harrison, a US agricultural economist. Needless to say that he has quite a few stories to tell, both interesting and alarming at the same time.

What concerns him most these days is the absence of a sustainable strategy for agriculture in Egypt. For thousands of years, the people along the Nile have been depended on and benefited from the water that comes down the vital river. Over the years, the Egyptians have created a fabulous system of irrigation canals to make the desert land outside the Nile valley available for cultivation. These so-called „New Lands“ provide for the food supply that is needed to feed a population growing at almost 2% a year.

The salinization issue

However, contrary to what most Egyptians like to believe, the expansion of arable land and the increasing consumption of water is not without consequences. „The biggest threat to farm production in Egypt is the growing salinity of the soil“, reckons Mr Harrison. This means that the proportion of minerals and salts in the soil has reached a level where certain crops cannot be grown anymore. Salinization is a result of wrongful irrigation methods and inefficient use of water.

In Egypt, the water from the Nile flows into canals, is then put on the soil, leeches through the soil, goes into drainage stations, flows back into the canal and finally back into the Nile. Later on, it is picked up again downstream. This recycling of the water might appear efficient but it has a harmful drawback. On its way to the Mediterranean, the water collects all types of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides that are applied to the crops.

In the northern parts of the Nile the soil has already become so saline and polluted that only very salt-tolerant crops can be grown, e.g. rice. Hence, Egypt has turned from a net importer of rice to a net exporter in recent years. A crisis point has not yet been reached, but with advancing salinization, eventually nothing will grow in the salty soil any more.

This development is by far not a unique one. The accumulation of salts in combination with a lack of fresh water to leech the salt out is the biggest threat to arable land on earth and similar problems in the Jordan valley should constitute a cautionary tale to Egypt. Nevertheless, Mr Harrison thinks that Egyptian policy makers are sweeping the issue under the table and that the general population does not register the creeping pollution. „There are some local projects but no national strategy to prevent fertile land from eventually becoming abandoned“, he adds.

Potential counter strategies

Fortunately, salinization is not unstoppable. The natural way to remove it would be to put fresh water on the soil and wash the salt out of the root zone. In case fresh water is limited, other options available are filtration processes or triple irrigation systems, both of which could slow down salinization.

Mr Harrison argues for organic farming as a counter measure, since reducing the amount of chemicals put on the soil would get down to the root of the problem. „Egypt has seen a movement of organic farming recently and a new private company dealing exclusively with organic products has so far been very successful“, he reports.

The bottom line, however, is that a national strategy will be needed to prepare for potential water shortages and to curb salinization before more vital land is lost.

This article is written by Thomas Obersteiner and will be published in the magazine GLOBAL VIEW 03/2009 (end of Septemer 2009).

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