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April 02, 2008

Arid Egypt depends on sophisticated Nile-based irrigation for agriculture

By Belinda Olivares-Cunanan

The Nile has been the source of life for the Egyptians. Ninety percent of the country is desert and the 10 percent land area that supports over 60 million people derives all its food from the fertile riverbanks and valleys, which have benefited from the great river’s annual flooding that leaves a rich layer of black fertile loamy silt.

This storied river is the world’s longest at 6,680 kms. It begins at two sources, Lake Victoria in Uganda and Lake Tana in the Ethiopian Highlands, and from there they are joined by a single tributary which runs all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. But though the Nile runs through 10 countries of Africa, the biggest beneficiary is Egypt.

Today the Nile is at the very center of the world crisis in food. Reports indicate that Egypt, one of the world’s major producers of rice and wheat, has decided, along with a few other major producers, to play it safe and cut its exports of rice and wheat. This is due to the fact that stockpiles of wheat, like rice, worldwide are at their lowest in decades, while consumption has outpaced production in the past seven years.

Egyptians are not as dependent on rice as they are on wheat, and if they don’t get their bread in the morning, that will cause riots, as it has in the past.

The secret of Egypt’s successful rice and wheat program—especially in the decades prior to the damming of the Nile in Lake Nasser in Aswan—lies in its elaborate irrigation system, which dates back to several millennia.

It’s said that the country’s agricultural system depended on the annual flooding of the Nile: when there were no floods, hunger turns to famine and the economic system breaks down. Because of the river’s vagaries, the Egyptians developed a highly organized irrigation system, which began at the dawn of history as dug canals and pots and buckets and later as animal-pulled waterwheels, to move water and extend the cultivable land. With growing sophistication, they invented the “nilometer,” a devise to measure the rising waters and predict soil fertility and crop yields (this also helped determine the level of the taxes levied by the king).

Because there’s hardly any rainfall in this desert land, the Egyptians knew the importance of irrigation. With the construction of the Aswan Dam in the early 1960s, irrigation has made the banks of the Nile the bread basket of the whole country. It’s a joy to drive on both banks and see green and lush lands planted to all kinds of cash crops, based on an elaborate system of irrigation.

By contrast, Filipinos today tend to blame the golf courses, subdivisions and other new uses of land—as well as that perennial whipping boy, population growth—for the rice and food crisis. But scarcity of land will always happen as the population grows. What is needed is to make the available land yield two or three harvests through irrigation, so that we’re not dependent on rain. Out of the three million cultivable land we have, only a third has irrigation.

Vietnam is another country that has long valued irrigation. Over the decades of war, it did not neglect the construction and repair of irrigation facilities, which is why it is a major rice producer.

Phillipine Daily Inquirer

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