When the New Valley Project was first launched in 1997, the Egyptian media described it as a new river delta in the south of the country, to match the Nile delta in the north.
When the New Valley Project was first launched in 1997, the Egyptian media described it as a new river delta in the south of the country, to match the Nile delta in the north. But the project, which aimed to reclaim land in the region of Aswan through a special groundwater channel (Sheikh Zayed Canal) behind Lake Nasser, faltered a few years after its launch and did not keep its promise to reclaim 540,000 acres.
Unofficial statistics estimated that only about 40,000 acres were reclaimed, but over time, Egyptians forgot the project until the current government announced plans to increase investment. This was a part of a plan to reclaim million of acres nationwide, and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab visited Aswan last month to demonstrate the government’s enthusiasm.
Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, a young Egyptian man, had not forgotten the hopes that accompanied the original Toshka project, to channel water from Lake Nasser, and decided to engage in its revival despite doubts over economic feasibility. In 2012, Ahmed, who holds a Bachelor of Social Service, rented 180 acres in Toshka together with a number of friends.
After graduating, he worked as a taxi driver, but then changed the course of his life completely. He sold the taxi and went into animal husbandry and fodder cultivation, relying on his childhood experience of sheep breeding before Eid al-Adha each year.
He heard about a company in Toshka that leases land for young and small investors for 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($280) per acre per year with facilitated payment and tax exemptions. He performed a feasibility study of the Toshka project, and managed to persuade twelve friends to engage in the cultivation of a 180-acre piece of land, paying 20,000 pounds each. They decided to cultivate the area with the crop birdsfoot trefoil, which does not require much work.
“Over time, we found that the project’s feasibility failed to match reality,” Ahmed remembered. “The obstacles arose after we got the land.” The main problem they faced was the agricultural machines, the majority of which were broken. Local government officials were supposed to loan out modern machines, in addition to a service and maintenance centre and spare parts, but failed to deliver.
“Eventually, we had to sell all our possessions to buy agricultural equipment for 560,000 pounds to save our dream from failure and loss,” he said. After solving the problem of mechanization, the birdsfoot trefoil began to yield and gradually succeeded. “After two years of fatigue and suffering, we started to reap and supply our crop as a feed to dairy farms and feed mills. We even exported to other Arab countries through some suppliers due to its high quality.”
Water in the desert
The UE Zahira Company faced different difficulties. “We received the land in 2008, but our problem was the Toshka spillway, meant to transport water to the land allocated to us, which was left incomplete in 2011,” said Raouf Darwish, a consultant for the company’s reclamation project.
The company was allocated 100,000 acres in the Sheikh Zayed Canal area, but given the political conditions in Egypt after the January 2011 revolution, land reclamation was delayed for three years, even though most of the project’s infrastructure had been completed.
Raouf believes that the Toshka project lacked the necessary services. “The project is a desert without life and urgently needs a hospital to receive the injury or illness cases of thousands of workers,” he said. “A sick engineer at the company died before reaching Abu Simbel hospital, more than 50 kilometres away, which lacks people with medical expertise. The Toshka project also needs a communication network because the mobile network is very bad, which has a negative impact on the work.”
Lack of services
Ahmed agreed with Darwish on Toshka’s shortage of services, especially transportation, which is a nightmare for employees and small investors. “Everyone finds it very difficult to move around, especially in emergencies that require travel to Aswan,” he said. “I had to buy a motorbike to move within the project. Medical care is almost zero and there isn’t even a scorpion serum available most of the time, despite the fact that the project is located in a mountainous area with many dangerous insects and snakes. Only one doctor comes every two weeks. The mobile phone network is very poor. There is only one drinking water station and in the case of malfunction, residents are forced to drink water directly from the canals.”
Despite the many problems, the Toshka project is about to enter the first phase of the million-acre reclamation plan. Around 138,000 acres are to be reclaimed in the region this year, creating new jobs and attracting young people, according to Hussein Taha of the Egyptian Irrigation Ministry.
He said the irrigation infrastructure at Toshka covered 99% of the area, but the project still faces many obstacles as the companies involved did not show due diligence. In addition, the Toshka project still needs to be connected to the valley with a road network, and the promised investors and interested young people have not yet arrived.
But he insisted that all the obstacles facing the Toshka project were being examined, and that the country’s political leadership was making this giant national project one of its priorities.
Desire to continue
Ahmed is also still optimistic about the Toshka project and hopes particularly that the new city of Toshka will be established quickly so that his family can come from Aswan and live with him at the project, instead of travelling there every month.
He also said he would continue in any case, because he felt that by now, he could rely on himself completely, having gained considerable experience in dealing with difficulties.
Darwish is also optimistic. He expected his company to reclaim 30,000 acres of land next October when all the irrigation and electricity tenders would be put up. But will Egypt’s government succeed in solving the problems of the national project and give it new life? Only time will tell.