Fayoum, Egypt's largest oasis city just 85 km south of Cairo, is popularly known for its agricultural production, but water shortage and debt has led farmers to demand urgent government action.
The city is also known also for its rich natural beauty, lush green fields and unique nature preserves, including the Wadi El-Rayan waterfalls and Lake Qarun, the only salt-water lake in Egypt.
A stark contrast, however, lies just 30 kilometres south of the central Fayoum city, in the village of El-Hagar in the province of Atsa.
Upon entering the village of El-Gharaa, filled with busy shops, buzzing tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorised rickshaws) and bustling passers-by, one seems to be transported to a different time upon entering the barren land, which was once rich with a wide variety of crops.
Ironically, El-Gharaa, which translates into (the flood), originates from the annual flooding of the Nile River, until the Aswan High Dam was built in 1970. The flood was essential to the cultivation of crops due to the silt that was left behind.
"We used to export tomatoes from this land; it used to make us a lot of good money that we could live off of. Now, all that is left are thorns," lamented a village elder from El-Hagar, while holding the stalks of a tomato plant.
Standing on the rocky land – once rich with the production of tomatoes, wheat, maize, cotton and sesame – Mostafa Mohamed Abdel-Gawad and other village inhabitants recalled the plight experienced over the last decade.
Village elder and local representative, Roshdy Abdel-Latif, 62, explained that, for approximately ten years, 10,000 feddans (1 feddan = 1.038 acres) had suffered from drought. He noted that approximately seven villages were suffering from this problem.
For the last two years especially, there has hardly been any cultivation, since, especially in the summer agricultural season, no water has been reaching the land. He believes this affects another 17,000 feddans throughout the Fayoum governorate.
Abdel-Latif noted that their plight was due to the burgeoning illegal construction that started in 2005 on agricultural state land by a number of businessmen who have been "stealing" the water for their own land-reclamation projects. The land, however, is registered not in Fayoum, but in the neighbouring Beni Suef governorate, adding a further impediment.
He explained that this was the result of a number of wealthy businessmen who had set up large water motors that had been used to divert water from the source, Bahr El-Garagaba, which distributes water to the rest of the villages via different canals.
"They are thugs who are violating the state’s rights and our human rights," asserted Abdel-Latif.
According to an official record of all violations for Bahr El-Garagba in 2012, 32 different people are listed as perpetrators. The total cost in losses of these offenses amounts to more than LE43 million.
Mounting Agricultural Debts
While initially used for subsistence, many El-Hagar inhabitants – who total approximately 7,000 – have depended on cultivation to pay off their agricultural debts.
Incurring debts is one of the most stifling issues faced by Egypt’s fellahin, or small farmers, over the last four decades. The state-owned Principal Bank for the Development of Agricultural Credit (PBDAC), which was originally established to provide small-scale farmers with credit, has instead worked as any other commercial bank, with interest rates on loans reaching as high as 20 per cent.
"By growing tomatoes, we were able to pay off our debts," Abdel-Gawad said.
"Now, however, we are buried in debt, as most of us now face court cases and prison sentences as a result of our debts," noted Abdel-Latif. He added that, instead of being called the "credit bank," it should be called the "bank of revenge," playing on the similarity of the two words in Arabic.
Despite an August decision by President Mohamed Morsi to relieve over 40,000 fellahin of their small debts (less than LE10,000), most of El-Hagar's farmers claim this does not apply to them.
Gibril Abdel-Khaleq, an ailing 75-year-old from the village, explained that he currently owed some LE80,000, accumulated from loans and other added expenses from the eight feddans of land he used to own.
Abdel-Gawad, 51, who helped cultivate Abdel-Khaleq’s land, also stated that, if the land produced crops, it would help him pay off his loans. "We haven't seen meat in two years; none of us can afford to eat meat anymore," he complained.
He claims, however, that only the few who can afford it have dug wells to cultivate their land. This has brought added problems, as two men fought over the water earlier this year, resulting in the death of one of them.
This is not the first time El-Hagar residents have spoken out. Several protests have been held, the last of which was in Cairo on 7 and 8 October in front of the Egyptian Cabinet building in Cairo.
Protesters had demanded to meet Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, who, they noted, was familiar with their case, since he had served as minister of irrigation and water resources in Egypt’s post-revolution transitional government. Their demands, however, came to nought, and they were instead merely told to file a complaint.
Mostafa El-Wany, 21, a recent graduate of tourism school, for his part, said several complaints had been filed and presented to the four relevant ministries. He stated that the issue lied with the ministries of irrigation, agriculture and interior, due to the land encroachment, and the ministry of electricity, due to the power used to run their projects.
Ahram Online obtained the official complaints presented to the four ministries and the Fayoum governorate. Moreover, based on the recorded minutes of a 5 September meeting held in the presence of officials from the ministries of irrigation, electricity and interior and the governorate, the constructions were proven to be illegal. Abdel-Latif, however, noted that, as far back as October 2010, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasr Eddin Allam had stated that the illegal constructions would be removed.
He added, however, that there have been several cases of foot-dragging, as every official – while admitting the constructions in question were illegal – failed to take action. He believes that the main initiative must come from the governor, who should coordinate with the others.
"If the governor hasn't done anything so far, then who can?" Abdel-Latif asked. He noted, however, that the only explanation was the shared interests between the perpetrators and state authorities.
Nevertheless, Hemdan Ahmed, 35, believes the issue could involve a much greater cost. He believes that, firstly, the removal order must be carried out and that all further encroachments must be prohibited.
A constant police presence must also be established on the Bahr El-Garagba, he said, as infrastructure can be temporarily removed, but come right back as soon as the authorities leave. He added that some form of compensation should be afforded to all those who have suffered as a result of years of drought.
Local resident Zeinab Mubarak, 65, stated that, if it weren’t for her children and the relatives of other residents living outside the cities, they would not survive.
"We stand at the same point that we have for several years," Ahmed said. "We were supposed to begin growing wheat at the start of this month as part of the winter agricultural season, but our seeds are currently at the cooperatives. I can’t afford to go get them."
He added: "As time passes, land continues to go uncultivated, and debts continue to accumulate, the louder the time bomb ticks."