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The View from Here: In the land of the pyramids

Mike Gangwer Published on 28 June 2013

Reporting to you from Cairo, Egypt …

I am once again working overseas on a food security mission, this time in Egypt. Here is my first of three installments about this country.

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Egypt is a desert, with the exception of the Nile River. The Nile River is life itself here. The vast majority of the 86 million Egyptians live within a few kilometers of the Nile River or the vast delta in lower Egypt (the northern part).

The historical flooding of the Nile brought new soil and fertility to the delta; the stratification of these deposits is clearly evident in the hand-dug wells in the delta. However, the Aswan Dam in upper Egypt (upstream) changed the centuries-old deposition of these soils.

The huge dam (High Dam), built during the years of 1964 to 1970, provided hydroelectric power, flood control and, of course, a reservoir – a huge lake called Lake Nasser. The dam changed the course of history for Egypt.

As the population of Egypt increased, so too was the need to address food security. The U.S. government has been and continues to be actively involved in helping Egypt, the second- or third-most-populated country in Africa (Nigeria is first, and Ethiopia is about the same as Egypt), meet this need for food security.

The reason is obvious; a nation state that can feed its people using its resources in a sustainable and ecological way removes one of the root causes of civil strife and unrest.

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Here, in this desert country, the challenges are enormous. With several decades now of flood control, the existing flood basin and delta soils here are changing in terms of intrinsic fertility.

With crop fields anywhere, if soil fertility in terms of capacity is not maintained, the depletion effect degrades these soils; crop yields go down and the pressure of food security increases.

Added to this effect is the physical properties of these soils … they are sands and fine sands. These soils have little surface area and therefore have lower nutrient-holding capacity. There is very little if any organic matter in the delta soils, although the basin (as in flood basin) soils do have some intrinsic organic matter.

The point here is: Given the heat and these physical properties, maintaining organic matter as an adjunct to soil health is difficult.

Irrigation presents two overarching challenges. One is in new desert land more than several kilometers from the Nile; the water source is groundwater from the aquifer or an extensive canal network. I am told the well depth is between 100 and 200 meters, so at most about 600 feet.

Many new wells are being built, and at this early date I have little knowledge of how these wells are dug in terms of permitting and density. I will learn more. Many regions of the world, including our own central U.S., have faced the challenge of removing groundwater in excess of its own recharge rate.

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The entire country of India is dealing with three or four decades of overt groundwater mining, with the consequence of depletion now manifest. I have already been in the Egypt delta regions with new land, in fact vast new lands, being brought into agricultural production. The first step is, of course, the well.

The second challenge is the quality of the water. I am on the front end of understanding if or how severe the salinity content of the groundwater is, and what impact this has on soils and crop production.

So far, my field work includes farming systems with vegetable and drip irrigation, pivots irrigating potatoes and tree fruits with drip emitters.

The nutrients are added to the mixing tank sitting near the water pump, so given nearly all of the plant-essential nutrients must be added to the crop, soluble manufactured fertilizers are the source.

Nutrient or fertilizer management is therefore tied very closely to the irrigation system. Irrigation water management, in terms of scheduling, is built upon three parameters: the timing of application, the rate of application and the volume necessary to maintain the volumetric water content at some level to satisfy the crop consumptive demand.

Introducing the fact that this schedule must also supply the nutrients adds another dynamic to the entire management effort of the landowner. My job here is to evaluate this effort and if there are parts of it that can be fine-tuned, then figure out how to implement these changes.

One of my early discoveries here is that the Egyptian farmer bases a lot of his farming practices on primacy … in other words, a management program that has been done over many years and several generations. Introducing a modern and integrated irrigation and nutrient management package is the challenge.

We are not inventing anything new or suggesting something unique to the Egyptian farming systems. These solutions are tried and true in arid climates where the desert is brought into agricultural production once water has been found (as surface water or groundwater).

My work here is directly with Egyptian farmers. I have asked for representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture to join in my work, but so far I have not met with them.

Readers of this column know that one of my overarching objectives in any country is helping the local, regional or national agriculture staff to have a level of legitimacy so they may do the kind of work I do.

This is important. Economic development should be about Egyptians helping Egyptians rather than bringing a USDA scientist from six time zones away to offer ideas for modernizing its agricultural systems.

I am told the extension service, as a part of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, is underperforming. The reason is twofold: one, the lack of political will to properly fund and equip extension staff – and two, the lack of ongoing training so they are up to date technically and professionally.

These are the same challenges or constraints in nearly all countries I have worked in and the operational workaround is enormously complex.

My suggestion is the political will comes first, and that means a commitment at the highest levels of government to address food security internally and not using an entitlement program (USAID, for instance) or other international programs.

I am told the Egyptian president has just announced a new minister of agriculture, so maybe there are positive changes ahead. The first is understanding what the resources are here, and how they can be used to increase food production not only internally but for export as well.

For instance, a scientist already mentioned to me there is a vast aquifer in the upper region of Egypt (to the south and bordering Sudan) that is largely untapped (having few wells). I will be looking into this more, but if it’s true, then this resource can be used to meet food production if done so properly.

The “properly” part is important; bringing new land into agricultural production requires a systems approach and an enduring one.

At this point, I am in the inventory and evaluation stage of my assignment. I will get out to the field and learn all I can from the Egyptian farmers and those that support them with technical and administrative support. In the next two installments, I’ll report what I find.

And I am thrilled to be here working in Egypt. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS

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