Egypt Table of Contents

Egyptian agriculture was transformed over the last century in large measure as a result of technological change. Technological changes included the switch from basin to perennial irrigation, mechanization, application of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, breeding new seed varieties, and, in the 1980s, the beginning of the use of drip irrigation and plastic greenhouses.

At the core of these changes lay the shift from basin to perennial irrigation. Basin irrigation depended on the annual Nile flooding, usually in August and September. The floodwaters soaked the low-lying land, providing moisture for a single crop after they receded. The silt borne by the river renewed and enriched the soil. The area irrigated by the river's high waters was extended with canals and dikes.

Perennial irrigation was more complex but more rewarding. It regulated the Nile flow through the building of canals, barrages, dams, and reservoirs, which made irrigation water available throughout the year, not just at flood time. In 1990 practically all of Egypt's cropped land was under perennial irrigation. Muhammad Ali was the first to conceive of perennial irrigation as a way of increasing cotton production. He initiated barrage construction at the head of the Delta, but the barrages were not completed until the 1860s. Meanwhile, temporary canals deeper than the Nile were built, and water was lifted by pumps. The British expanded the system after their occupation of Egypt in 1882. Under their auspices, the Asyut barrages and the Aswan Dam were completed in 1902. Perennial irrigation enabled Egyptian farmers to double and even triple crop the land. It also allowed them to add biennial crop rotation to the traditional triennial rotation.

Except for a few additions, the system remained unchanged until the Aswan High Dam was built in 1964 during Nasser's presidency. The dam created Lake Nasser, which extends about 480 kilometers south behind it, cost about E850 million, and represented approximately one-third of Egypt's gross capital formation in the mid-1960s. This control of the Nile waters made possible the reclamation of about 650,000 feddans and brought about 880,000 feddans under perennial irrigation, in addition to generating a considerable portion of Egypt's electrical power. It effected a shift in the cropping pattern, particularly in the cases of rice and corn. By making water more available, the system encouraged investment in other inputs and augmented crop yields. Many Egyptians were glad to have the dam during the prolonged drought that struck the areas where most of the Nile originates in the early 1980s and lasted until 1988.

The Aswan High Dam turned out to be not just an irrigation project but also a political project; it became a symbol of Egyptian nationalism and of Nasser's era, as well as a legacy of the cold war. The edifice was built with help from the Soviet Union after the United States and Britain, in protest against the arms agreement that Nasser struck with Czechoslovakia in late 1958, rescinded an earlier assistance agreement. In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and said the revenues from the canal would be used to finance the dam. Because of the political tensions surrounding the building of the Aswan High Dam and its irrigation system, subsequent criticism of the project has sometimes mixed political considerations with technical assessment.

The structure was not without difficulties. Some problems involved miscalculations, such as the underestimation of evaporation levels from the lake. Other problems were probably unanticipated, such as the impact the absence of silt in the canals would have. Under basin irrigation, the annual flood deposited large quantities of silt that revitalized the soil. The shift to perennial irrigation kept the silt in the canals, but because they were cleared regularly, the silt was added to the soil. After the dam was built, the silt was deposited in the lake behind it. The seriousness of the impact on the soil and the reasons for it remained controversial. Another unforeseen consequence of deposit retention in Lake Nasser was the use of topsoil from the Nile Valley to make bricks for construction; formerly these had been made of silt deposits. In addition, the dam's construction led to the relocation of the Nubians, an operation whose social and economic costs were not easy to estimate.

Whereas the government invested heavily in irrigation in the 1960s, it neglected irrigation's mirror image, drainage. The failure to invest in drainage was believed to have caused tremendous water clogging and soil salinization problems that reduced soil fertility and led to loss of arable land. More than 70 percent of the land was believed to be affected by these problems. Since 1974, however, the government with international assistance has earmarked considerable funds toward drainage in both the Delta and Upper Egypt. A major tile drainage scheme was under way in 1990 in cooperation with the World Bank. In the 1980s First Five-Year Plan, tile drainage covered 1.5 million feddans, in addition to 0.65 million feddans already tiled by 1983. General drainage covered about 1.7 million feddans by the end of the plan's period. In other words, from 50 to 60 percent of the arable land has been provided with drainage facilities. The Second Five- Year Plan (FY 1987-91) allocated about E1.5 billion for irrigation and drainage, but the allocation of funds between the two was not specified.

Although agricultural mechanization accelerated in the 1980s, it remained limited. The main agricultural tasks to undergo mechanization were plowing, threshing, and water-pumping. Planting, transplanting, weeding, and harvesting were still performed manually. Most tractors were privately owned. Large owners, who benefited from economies of scale, were more likely to own tractors. There was a widespread private rental market, however, and mechanical plowing was practically universal. The number of water pumps, which were introduced in the 1930s, grew rapidly; as in the case of tractors, they were concentrated in the hands of larger owners. The traditional saqiyah, the waterwheel drawn by water buffalo, did not disappear, and small farmers still found its use economical. A survey of three Delta villages in 1984 found that more than 60 percent of the less-than-one-feddan farms adopted pumps. The ratio increased with increased farm size, and virtually all farms above five feddans used pumps. Similar trends were found in pest control. Mechanical threshing was also becoming universal by the early 1980s. The government was trying to persuade farmers to adopt mechanical rice transplanting by demonstrating its effectiveness. Overall, however, mechanization remained confined to tasks that were mechanized before the 1980s and was not being adopted for new tasks.

Both the government and international donors encouraged mechanization through subsidized credit, assuming that the labor market was getting tighter and that mechanization would enhance crop yields. There was no doubt that subsidized fuel prices helped spread mechanization by reducing its costs. In the early 1980s, the labor market was tightening, and labor costs were rising as a proportion of total costs, from 25 to 33 percent in the early 1970s to between 40 and 60 percent in the early 1980s for major crops. The rise in labor costs resulted from emigration, alternative job opportunities in rural areas, and higher educational levels. But labor was not scarce everywhere, as was indicated by the persistence of seasonal labor. Some economists in the late 1980s questioned the wisdom of pushing the labor-displacing mechanization process in light of the rise in unemployment, the narrowing possibilities of emigration, and the inability of other sectors to create needed employment opportunities. They pointed out that the assumption that mechanization augmented yields was not supported by investigations in Egypt or by other studies.

As part of its reform program, the government wanted to increase the use of fertilizers and pesticides. To do so, it controlled the distribution of fertilizers through the cooperatives and specified the amounts allocated by region and crop. Farmers received their rations from the cooperatives on credit and were obliged to buy the minimum amount set by the government. Subsidies on the prices for inputs increased in the 1970s, and prices for these items declined in real terms over time. The cost of inputs, including pesticides and seeds, fell from an average of 25 to 33 percent in 1972 to around 15 percent for major crops in 1984. As a result, fertilizer application increased, growing steadily from about 940,000 tons in 1960 to 3.7 million tons in 1978 and to 6.3 million tons in 1986. In 1986 fertilizer application stood at roughly .5 ton per feddan of cropped area. Consumption grew sufficiently to support the domestic fertilizer industry, and domestic production supplied a considerable share of nitrogen fertilizers, which were the primary type in use.

Egyptian agriculture was susceptible to pests, thanks to the year-round cultivation and water cover. The government assumed responsibility for the task of controlling these pests and sought to develop pest-resistant varieties of many crops. The cotton crop was the main consumer of pesticides, and the government did the spraying. In the latter half of the 1980s, the government increasingly used aerial spraying.

In the 1980s Egyptian farmers began to use drip irrigation and plastic greenhouses, which had been spreading in other Arab countries since the mid-1970s. The extent of their use was minuscule by 1990; about 3,000 greenhouses were installed in reclaimed areas. Although they could potentially transform Egyptian agriculture, the technologies were highly capital-intensive, especially for the greenhouses that were often combined with drip irrigation. The government in 1990 wanted the greenhouses used only in the reclaimed areas to conserve the old land for wheat and other staples.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress