Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati has announced that the government is reducing the area of land available for rice cultivation by more than 50 per cent.
Instead of 1.7 million feddans, only around 700,000 feddans will be cultivated this year (one feddan is 1.038 acres). The decision, taken to rationalise water consumption, will be applied from May to September 2018.
Rice consumes about two-and-a-half times the amount of water needed to grow wheat or maize as it needs to be grown in flooded fields. The government’s decision to reduce the country’s rice crop is designed to reduce water consumption, and similar measures have already been taken regarding sugarcane and bananas, like rice major consumers of water.
Rice cultivation will now only be allowed in the Delta governorates, and it will be prohibited in Upper Egypt, Suez, South Sinai, Marsa Matrouh, Qalioubiya, Menoufiya, Cairo and Giza. Farmers who violate the new rules will be subject to penalties under Irrigation Law 12/1984.
Many farmers are not happy about the decision, and they have written to the Ministry of Agriculture to complain. Mohamed Abdallah, a farmer in the Daqahliya governorate, said that despite the decision the farmers in his village intended to plant rice as usual because their families eat part of the harvest and sell the rest to earn an income.
Ragab Shehata, head of the Rice Division at the Federation of Egyptian Industries, said this was not the first time the government had issued a similar decision, only to find that it was ignored by farmers.
The decision is designed not only to save water, but also to find a balance between the production and consumption of rice. Production currently exceeds consumption by one million tons annually. In 2017, production stood at four million tons, while consumption was three million.
Following the minister’s announcement, rice prices rose from LE6,000 to LE7,000 per ton. According to Shehata, prices should not be negatively affected until May, but some traders could have taken advantage of the government announcement to increase prices.
Samah Ibrahim, a Cairo housewife, expected to see an increase in rice prices because “less production means less supply and higher prices.”
Consumers have been suffering from hikes in food prices since the floatation of the pound in November 2016. “It is the government’s role to find solutions that reduce prices, not to issue decrees that reduce production,” Ibrahim said. She added that in her view the price rises of rise were due to “traders stockpiling rice to cash in when the price increases.”
Some experts are also against the decision. Ali Abdel-Rahman, head of the International Union for the Environment and Development, a pressure group, blamed the government for not studying the results before making the announcement. “This political decision will have negative impacts on farmers, rice prices and investment in rice industries,” he said.
The decision had not taken farmers who depend on rice for their annual income into consideration, he said. Farmers cannot cultivate land used for growing rice with other crops, and so the total agricultural area will be reduced, he added.
The shortage of water was also not a good enough excuse for such a decision. “Egypt’s current water resources are enough to grow 18 to 20 million feddans of rice, but the actual cultivated area is between eight to 10 million feddans,” he said.
While the government said the aim of the decision was to save Nile water, Abdel-Rahman said that the water used for growing 90 per cent of the rice in the North Delta governorates was salt water from the Mediterranean Sea or reused agricultural water.
“Rice is a basic meal for most Egyptian families, and instead of working to keep Egypt’s self-sufficiency in rice, the government has decided to cut its agricultural area by half,” Abdel-Rahman added.
The government should promote the use of new kinds of rice that do not need as much water, Abdel-Rahman suggested.
The area allocated for rice cultivation has long been a controversial issue. In 2015, the government planned to decrease the area from 1.1 million feddans to 724,200 feddans, but upon consulting the group of economics ministers the decision was put to rest to avoid any shortages in local markets that could lead to increases in prices.
In 2016, the area increased to two million feddans, but was then decreased to 1.7 million feddans in 2017. The highest rice production over the past 10 years was in 2007/2008, when it reached 7.3 million tons, while the lowest was in 2010 with only 4.3 million tons, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.
The Daqahliya, Kafr Al-Sheikh, Sharqiya, Beheira and Gharbiya governorates have the largest rice-cultivation areas.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly