How Egypt’s water feeds the Gulf

Vast expanses of green extend across the horizon, tended by the advanced machinery that has replaced hundreds of agricultural workers. The land is watered using center-pivot irrigation systems, connected to one another in a series of canals through which water is driven by one of the biggest water pump stations in the world. A number of engineers oversee the expansion works to cultivate new fields of alfalfa on land run by one of several Gulf investment companies in the Toshka project.

This is Egypt’s Western Desert, an area where rapid changes are in full swing to make green what was mostly sandy desert two decades ago.

The desert’s greening is part of an agricultural development and investment initiative framed as aid to the Egyptian people. But in fact, Gulf corporations acquired most of the land as part of the oil-rich countries’ plan to ensure their food security by cultivating land outside their borders.

The scene today is the culmination of the moment when Gulf countries realized the importance of preserving their already scarce water resources. In January 2009, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia launched the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz initiative for agricultural investment abroad, outlining plans to achieve food security by investing in countries with agricultural potential.

This initiative included offering financial support to Saudi investors, with the government covering up to 60 percent of construction and production costs. The government also committed to negotiating bilateral agreements with other governments to facilitate business for investors abroad and secure the export of at least 50 percent of their produce to the kingdom.

This long-term agricultural strategy evolved with one ministerial decision after the other, starting from limiting wheat cultivation in 2005. A 30-year program of wheat production and cultivation in the kingdom then decreased gradually until it was completely halted in 2008 due to concern over the depletion of water resources. Last year, while the Saudi government lifted the ban on wheat farming under certain conditions, the cultivation of green feed was completely banned as it consumes up to six times more water than wheat.

Saudi Arabia wasn’t the only Gulf country with an impending water crisis. The United Arab Emirates was also facing diminishing water resources and turned to importing about 90 percent of its food. The UAE thus also began to push for investment in farming ventures abroad.

Facing similar challenges, the two countries jointly announced “The Strategy Of Resolve” last year to strengthen economic, political and military cooperation. This includes establishing a unified strategy for food security, with plans to harness the full potential of agricultural and livestock production and to work together on joint projects.

In the last few years alone, the Emirates has managed to gain control over almost 4.25 million feddans of land spread out over 60 countries, while Saudi Arabia now controls about 4 million feddans around the globe.

Some define the rush by richer countries to buy or lease large expanses of land in countries with agricultural potential as a form of neocolonialism, which achieves food security for the investing countries while exploiting non-renewable resources, including water, in the farming countries.

Gulf investors found their panacea in Egypt, which is increasingly adopting a capitalist agricultural production model that prioritizes investment in large-scale, modernized farming to export crops over pursuing strategic crop cultivation and traditional farming methods in the Nile Valley and Delta.

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