North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Egypt’s desertification is ruining fields, cutting crops and displacing farmers

Agriculture accounts for 28% of all jobs in Egypt. With temperatures predicted to rise by 2-3% by 2050, many families will lose their livelihoods

Eman Mounir
8 November 2021, 4.46pm
Many villages in Fayoum have been abandoned by their residents as men migrate looking for other sources of income
Eman Mounir

Mohamed Shubek, a 47-year-old farmer living in Fayoum, nearly 100 kilometres south of Egypt’s capital, Cairo, remembers when his field was productive and his yields plentiful. But since 2017, desertification has drastically hit his farmland, rendering half his 3.5 feddans (3.6 acres) infertile. The problem has crept over the bigger parts of the Youssef Al-Seddiq district in the governorate.

“I lost nearly 60% of my crop. I used to harvest up to ten tons of olives per feddan. This year, I only made about 150 kilograms. It’s a complete devastation,” he said, looking painfully at the dried-up, cracking surface of his smallholding.

Egypt is among the world’s top producers of table olives and its olive oil production accounts for 24.5% of global production according to the International Olive Council. However, the North African country’s production of olives, and its agriculture sector as a whole, is being weighed down by climate variations such as desertification.

Desertification reportedly impacts 3.5 feddans an hour in Egypt. This is a staggering rate for a country of which less than 3% of its land is arable. A rapidly growing population, over-cultivation, excessive usage of chemicals and other unsustainable farming practices, as well as climate factors, all contribute to the problem.

‘Good-for-nothing land’

Farmers in Fayoum, an area known for its olives, are some of the most severely hit by desertification. Shubek now lives off financial support from his sons who turned their backs on their father’s land and ancestral profession of farming in favour of other sources of income. Yet, he still thinks he’s luckier than some of his neighbours, who own bigger plots of land with even less productivity.

Emad al-Shimy is one of Shubek’s neighbours. He owns 12 feddans, of which he can use only half in the summer due to water scarcity, and eight during the wetter winter seasons. Four feddans, he said, have been completely ruined by desertification and are barren.

“I can’t even sell them. Who would want to buy good-for-nothing soil? Even if someone decides to buy it, it’ll be for nothing,” al-Shimy said, adding that his land was worth 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($31,824) only five years ago, but less than half of that today.

Like Shubek, al-Shimy’s own sons have also left the village in search of work elsewhere.

What is desertification?

The United Nations describes desertification as “the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas” due to human activities and climatic variations.

How is climate change affecting Egypt?

  • Temperatures in Egypt have increased at a rate of 0.1°C per decade on average between 1901-2013.
  • Over the past 30 years, the increase has intensified with average temperatures increasing by 0.53°C per decade.
  • Over the past 30 years, total precipitation has dropped by approximately 22%.

Adapting to de facto climates

Located on the narrow fertile banks of the river Nile, which are home to the vast majority of the 102 million Egyptians, Fayoum once benefitted from annual river floods that kept it lush. But with river waters being held back by Aswan’s High Dam, Fayoum’s soils have become exposed to a string of human-made threats including climate change. Growing concerns of further water shortages, as a dam in Ethiopia threatens to cut Egypt’s share of the Nile waters, also raises the risk of further damage to the soil.

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According to a 2018 study, Fayoum lost about 12,224.78 acres of its agricultural land to desertification between 1987 to 2017. This is equivalent to worth nearly 3.2 million Egyptian pounds, the study states, in addition to the losses in financial incomes resulting from ruined crops.

Faced with this undesired reality, Fayoum farmers find themselves forced to ration their cultivations, planting their land once a year when water is available, rather than seasonally.

Mohamed Fayed, a farmer from Tunis village, says that many farmers now plant wheat during winter months, abandoning their land from spring to autumn.

Desertification is ruining farmland in Egypt’s Fayoum at a staggering rate | Eman Mounir

Owning four feddans, Fayed grows olives in two and uses the other two for seasonal crops, when possible. He describes this year’s harvest as the worst in years, producing only 300 kilograms of olives from both feddans. He witnessed the same low productivity across the governorate while helping farmers sell their crops, blaming extreme weather conditions for their losses.

According to Adel Motamd, professor of environmental geography at the Faculty of Science in Egypt’s University of Assiut, the degradation of Fayoum’s land is the result of “unavailability of sufficient water for irrigation, and also the inefficiency of drainage networks in agricultural lands which causes waterlogging, as well as high temperatures, and low rainfall”. Motamd estimated losses incurred as a result of failed crops in Fayoum are equivalent to 250 million Egyptian pounds a year.

Egypt’s harvest of olives has also been hit across the country. Shaker Abu Al-Maati, head of the meteorology department at Egypt’s Central Laboratory for Agricultural Climate, says that the local olive yield dropped of between 60%-80% in 2021, depending on the region, compared to a year earlier because of climate variations. Egypt produced 497,000 tons of olives last year and was projected to harvest 690,000 tons in 2021, thanks to the 100 million olive trees being planted by the government, but failed to do so.

Annual temperatures in Egypt
Annual temperatures in Egypt
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According to projections, things will only get worse. The World Bank predicts two major crops in Egypt, wheat and maize, will be reduced by 15% and 19% respectively by 2050, by which time annual mean temperatures in the country are expected to have increased by 2-3% – with warming taking place more rapidly in interior regions – and rainfall is set to drop between 7-9%.

The World Bank claims as much as “15% of Egypt’s most fertile arable land in the Nile Delta is negatively affected by sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion”, which contributes to soil degradation. Egypt’s irrigation minister recently said as much as a third of Egypt’s fertile delta is expected to drown due to rising sea levels.

‘No men are left’

In a country where the agriculture sector accounts for 28% of all jobs, desertification leads to many farmers migrating away from home. At least three villages in the Youssef el-Seddiq district are now deserted, according to those left behind.

Attiya Breik sold his 3.5 feddans for much lower than their value. “Farming no longer reaps its fruits. Every season, I pay for seeds, fertilizers and irrigation and in the end the crops dry up and there is no financial return for me. So I sold the land and bought a tuk-tuk and a car for my son and I to work as drivers on,” he said. His son, like other young men, has left the village.

Olive trees in Fayoum’s village are being affected by worsening desertification | Eman Mounir

Hassan Mesbah says that his hometown’s location at the tip of the water stream that flows through Fayoum, meant less and less water has been reaching it over the years. Around 100 feddans have gone barren in recent years, he said, driving many of the men to move elsewhere in search of work. He’s one of the few who remained.

“When you enter the village, you’ll only find women,” he said sadly. “No men stay in these villages anymore”.

A 2007 UN study warned that nearly one-third of the world’s population – roughly two billion people – are “threatened by encroaching desertification”. Calling on governments to take an integrated approach to address drivers of desertification, the study warned that as many as 50 million people faced displacement over the following decade. More than a decade later, and with little measures taken to counter the destructive impact of climate change and desertification, Fayoum’s people are only some of those who are paying the price.

This article was written in collaboration with Egab.

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