Egypt’s rice farmers see rough times downstream of new Nile mega-dam

Eric Knecht and Maha El Dahan –

Rice farmers in Kafr Ziada village in the Nile River Delta have ignored planting restrictions aimed at conserving water for years, continuing to grow a medium-grain variety of the crop that is prized around the Arab world.
A decision thousands of kilometres to the south is about to change that, however, in another example of how concern about water, one of the world’s most valuable commodities, is forcing change in farming, laws and even international diplomacy.
Far upstream, close to one of the sources of the Nile, Ethiopia is preparing to fill the reservoir behind its new $4 billion Grand Renaissance Dam, possibly as soon as this year.
How fast it does so could have devastating consequences for farmers who have depended on the Nile for millennia to irrigate strategic crops for Egypt’s 96 million people, expected to grow to 128 million by 2030.
Safeguarding Egypt’s share of the Nile, on which the country relies for industry and drinking water as well as farming, is now at the top of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s agenda as he begins a second term.
At the same time, authorities are finally tackling widespread illegal growing of the water-intensive rice crop, showing a sense of urgency that even climate change and rapid population growth has failed to foster.
The crackdown means Egypt will likely be a rice importer in 2019 after decades of being a major exporter, rice traders say.
Cairo has decreed that 724,000 feddans (750,000 acres) of rice can be planted this year, which grain traders estimate is less than half of the 1.8 million feddans actually cultivated in 2017 — far in excess of the officially allotted 1.1 million feddans.
Police have started raiding farmers’ homes and jailing them until they pay outstanding fines from years back.
“The police came to my house at three in the morning and took me to the station to pay the fine,” said Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, head of the farming association in Kafr Ziada, some 125 km (80 miles) north of Cairo in Beheira governorate.
“Even if the fine is 1 Egyptian pound (5 US cents), they’ll come to your house.”
Three other farmers reported similar experiences and said this year they would not plant rice.
Reda Abdelaziz, 50, said some people have become afraid to leave the village.
“If you’re travelling and they take your ID card and see you have a fine on you, they’ll put you in jail,” he said.
Abdelkhaleq took to the local mosque’s loudspeaker last month to say the government was doubling the fine for unauthorised rice cultivation to 7,600 pounds per feddan.
Mostafa al Naggari, who heads the rice committee of Egypt’s agricultural export council, says if the government sticks to the new approach Egypt will likely have to import as much as 1 million tonnes of rice next year.
“The dam has opened the door for there to be more of an awareness of water scarcity issues, but Egypt has for a long time needed to review its water allocation policy,” he said.
Sudan and Egypt are the biggest users of the river for irrigation and dams. Egypt wants to be assured that the dam will not affect the river’s flow, estimated at about 84 billion cubic metres on average per year.
Ethiopia aims to use the dam to become Africa’s biggest power generator and exporter, linking tens of millions to electricity for the first time.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has said Egypt requires an “urgent and massive” response to maintain food security in coming years for a number of reasons, including water scarcity, urbanisation and the effects of climate change.
Talks among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the dam in early April stalled over what Sudan’s foreign minister called “technical issues”. No date has been set for the next round.
“The filling of the GERD is just the most critical issue for the three countries to decide upon, and now, ahead of the first filling,” said Ana Cascão, an independent researcher on Nile hydropolitics.
“A fair and equitable filling strategy must take into account different scenarios on climate and rainfall variability — if it will be one of drought, then the three countries are ready to agree on a slower filling,” said Cascão.
Rice farmers, who typically begin planting at the end of April, said they may now leave their lands fallow given the difficulty of quickly switching to other summer crops like cotton and corn that require different machinery and techniques.
Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Aty said the situation posed a big threat to crops, livelihoods and even political stability if efforts to coordinate fail.
“Imagine to what extent these people will become vulnerable,” he said.
 — Reuters