Saturday, October 16, 2010

egypt's conundrum over food security and nile waters

Afrik-News | Russia’s decision this year to halt wheat exports has dealt Egypt a severe blow and brought many questions to the fore. Egypt’s population explosion is fast surpassing its agricultural capacities, and the Nile river water resource, which irrigates its reduced wheat farms, has also come under heavy scrutiny as other Nile riparian countries seek a break from colonial era agreements that give Egypt and Sudan about 90% of the Nile’s water. The clock is ticking away with incredible speed as Egypt tries to develop external strategies. Strategies that are increasingly becoming risky for Egypt.

In August 2010, Egyptians discovered that an environmental catastrophe in Russia could directly affect their livelihoods after Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin announced that his country was suspending the exportation of wheat because of devastating bush fires that had consumed large portions of its wheat farms. The Egyptian government assured citizens that the Russian decision would not have an immediate impact on the country as it had some 3 Million tons of wheat in reserve, enough for a few months ahead.

Egypt is presently the second biggest importer of wheat worldwide, and Egyptians stand to suffer should the Russian decision linger for more than the “few months” needed before a complete depletion of the country’s wheat reserves. Egyptians are worried and the public is demanding answers to some vital questions.

Why is Egypt, a country that once exported large quantities of wheat, now threatened by an act of God that takes place several thousand kilometers away, in Russia? As farmers question the impact of the government’s decision to import more wheat instead of encouraging domestic production, it goes without saying that producing wheat locally is simply not economically viable for the northern African Country. In fact, in 2007 the price of a ton of wheat produced locally amounted to 1100 Egyptian pounds against an international market price that stood at 900 Egyptian pounds.

Following the heavy financial losses in the agriculture sector linked to the growing of wheat, the Egyptian government reduced the amount of land allocated for wheat cultivation in favor of the expansion of much higher yielding export products like strawberries and other fruits.

In recent times, the already reduced wheat producing sector has been hard hit by the tug of war among the Nile Basin countries, seven of who are seeking a “fair share of the Nile’s water resources”. Egypt and The Sudan, under colonial era agreements, have the right to about 90% of the Nile water resource (55.5 billion cubic meters for Egypt and 18.5 for Sudan, annually). Ethiopia contributes about 80% of the total Nile water downstream through the Blue Nile, — which provides 59% of Egypt’s Nile water, — was among the least favored by the 1929 and 1959 accords between Egypt and Britain (on behalf of its colonies) and Egypt and Sudan.

Seven out of the eight remaining Nile Basin countries have threatened to build dams in their countries to improve their agricultural sectors and also to address their water own needs. Egypt sees this as a threat to its national security and has suggested that it would discourage the move militarily if it has to.