The most severe problems usually arise due to ignorance of their causes or their being disregarded, despite knowledge about them. Anyone who closely follows residential development in Egypt must realise that there is a pressing issue, represented in the need of the Egyptian rural youth for urbanisation, to cope with the population increase in rural provinces, particularly where there are no outlets into the desert, which occurs in the heart of the Delta governorates that host the most fertile lands in Egypt and perhaps in the whole world.
And even in the governorates of Upper Egypt, which are surrounded on both sides by rugged areas of scarce arable land, the development of urban extensions in adjacent desert areas requires an active role for the state to rehabilitate these areas for building.
And this, a central issue in the life of peasants, was not dealt with seriously by successive governments since the 1970s up to the present day. Nor was there any planning to address it in a way that would preserve one of the greatest productive assets in Egypt, namely its fertile lands, and uphold the right to housing for the growing number of countryside youth, about 49.1 percent as of the beginning of this year, equivalent to about 57.2 percent of the population of Egypt on the same date.
In spite of the existence of serious building infringements on agricultural lands before the January 25 Revolution, the situation has been unprecedentedly magnified following the revolution. Infringements before 25 January 2011 were carried out by people who had been close to those in power and their National Democratic Party, or even by the general public who realised that the Mubarak regime used this issue as a card during elections, since cases against offenders were dropped as a form of electoral bribery.
Yet after the revolution, infringements became widespread; there was a massive wave of construction on agricultural land in violation of the law, in light of the state of lax security — one that has altered the features of the countryside throughout Egypt, replacing crops and orchards with urban jungles.
I have expressed my position on this issue both before and after the revolution, and it has never changed. But it is an issue worth re-raising, since Egypt is on the threshold of a presidential election. This discussion could open the door to more comprehensive and firmer solutions to the various economic and social issues in Egypt, including the issue of urban encroachment.
The scale of the disaster
To grasp the magnitude of the tragedy, it is enough to observe statistics reported by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), which indicate that the area of old agricultural land (the Nile Valley and Delta) has declined from 6.156 million acres in 2006, to 6.117 million acres in 2010, a 0.6 percent decrease. That figure has decreased further in 2011 to about 6.071 million acres, a decline of approximately 0.8 percent. This decline indicates the deforestation of this area and its conversion to urban use.
Although this comparison suggests that the rate of construction on agricultural land has leapt in 2011, compared to 2010, if we take a step back, we would find that the decline in the area of the old agricultural land had been even worse in previous years. For the old farmland area decreased from 6.656 million acres in 2006, to about 6.536 million acres in 2007, to about 6.454 million acres in 2008, to about 6,156 in 2009. This indicates that in three years — 2007, 2008, and 2009 — Egypt lost a combined total of about 7.5 percent of its agricultural land.
Even the new lands that have been steadily increasing in light of land reclamation for agriculture experienced a significant decline in 2011, dropping to 2.548 million acres, compared to about 2,623 million acres in 2010, a decline of about 2.9 percent in one year. As is evident, construction on both old and new land has grown. And as for the year 2012, for which there is no reliable official data about the size of the decline in agricultural land available, the decline may have been the most severe, where impunity of violators set a model for others to follow.
If what has happened after the revolution poses a big problem, then in tackling this issue, we should flashback to the mid- 1970s, when major schemes of building on agricultural land were conceived by Egyptian workers who traveled to work in the Gulf and used their savings mainly in construction on agricultural land, in the absence of any government strategy for housing in the Egyptian countryside.
As a result of this strategic lack, construction projects have, in the past 40 years, devoured between 1.5 and two million acres of the most fertile lands of Egypt and the world in the Nile Valley and the Delta, a land that cannot be compensated for by land reclaimed from the desert, which is of a poorer quality in comparison to the old agricultural land.
The successive governments of Mubarak's regime settled for referring violators of the law that protects agricultural land to courts, then retracting cases during te parliamentary elections or presidential referenda to bribe voters in the countryside. These governments did not pay attention to the existence of the issue of providing housing for the new generations of the countryside without encroachment on agricultural land.
The reality is that the literal, strict implementation of the law criminalising building on agricultural land, practically translates into depriving new generations in the Egyptian countryside of the right to housing, especially because there is no agricultural, industrial, or service sector activity to accommodate them outside of their rural governorates. And therefore there needs to be an open-mind approach while addressing this dilemma, to ensure the right to housing for residents of the countryside, and preserving at the same time the agricultural land of ancient Egypt, which consists of a rich and deep layer of Nile silt, which reaches an average of 12 meters, and up to 17 metres in some areas, which exceeds the corresponding levels in other river basins in various countries across the world.
This issue is a real predicament for Egypt, placing the country between the need to preserve agricultural land as a productive asset that cannot be compensated, and the right of residents in the countryside to housing. The truth is that an objective approach to addressing this issue must proceed from the fact that the land of the Nile Valley and the Delta, with its tremendous, rich, black soil, that is more than 12 metres deep, cannot be compensated in any way. And that there is a real housing crisis in rural Egypt because of the increased population in the countryside and their impeded chance of finding housing other than through sprawling into agricultural land, particularly in light of the state's idle role in the provision of housing and the preservation of Egypt's wealth of fertile farmland. And that it would be difficult to retrieve the production capacity of the land on which construction took place, since the soil has been infiltrated with chemical and gravel building materials.
A solution to the crisis
In light of the premises noted above, it is possible to seek realistic solutions to the issue of building on agricultural land, which is one of the important issues that any future president would have to deal with, and offer possible solutions that would end the state of corruption and neglect of the problem and the host of other negative repercussions that have resulted from previous handling of this issue.
For starters, the state must immediately and sternly apply strict fines on those who have built on agricultural lands, amounting to LE300 per square metre, at least, while creating harsher legal sanctions to prevent new attacks on the agricultural land. And the estimation of employees of the value of buildings as a means to calculate fines should be excluded and replaced with a standard fine for everyone on equal basis to compensate Egypt for fertile agricultural land that it has lost.
At the same time, those who have built on agricultural land should be deprived of receiving any residential units from the government in rural or urban areas. If these fines will yield hundreds of billions of Egyptian pounds for the state, from those who have build on agricultural land after the January 25 Revolution (nearly LE200 billion), in addition to fines collected from those who built on the land before the revolution, then the value of these fines should be directed to the reclamation of new agricultural land, and should be used to transfer a portion of the population of the densely populated Egyptian countryside to new areas, to ease population pressure on agricultural land in the Nile Valley and the Delta.
It is also important to build a real strategy to accommodate the youth of the countryside in the presence of an active role for the state, in a manner designed to prevent the waste of more areas of fertile agricultural land. There is no doubt that those who have respected the law and did not build on agricultural land, despite their need and their children's need for housing, are entitled access to any government-built housing units in the countryside or in the capitals of the governorates of Al-Wagh Al-Qebly and Al-Wagh Al-Bahary. Also, any official modifications to the cordon of buildings in the countryside, should serve those who have maintained their agricultural lands and did not violate the law.
The fact is that the strategy of the state to solve this economic and social problem can be implemented through several paths: the first is the state's establishment of low and medium-level residential complexes in the Nile Valley and Delta, and the creation of infrastructure, particularly water plants to comply with the demands of these tower blocks. This type of construction, which is based on vertical expansion to provide housing for the new generations in the countryside, and which can be contracted by the state, will reduce horizontal urbanisation in rural areas, and hence, would lead to containing the assault on agricultural land.
It is essential that the design of such housing be appropriate to the needs and lifestyles of the people of the countryside, and that the prices be linked to actual costs, so that they match the financial capabilities of the rural poor and middle-income youth, and that there be long-term installments and payment plans for the cost of these houses. This means that the state should play this role with the intention of protecting agricultural land and not for the purpose of making profit, and it would have to abide by the economic criteria related to achieving fiscal balance and compensate for depreciation, and to ensure the continued operation of its companies that operate in this field, so as to not open a new door for deficits in the state budget. Besides, a portion of the aid designated for low-income housing may be allocated to supporting these vertical construction programmes in the countryside.
The second track to address the issue of building on agricultural land in a manner that reconciles the rights and needs of the rural youth to housing, and the necessity to preserve the most fertile agricultural land in Egypt, boils down to the need for the state to establish developmental industrial, agricultural and service extensions in desert areas bordering the provinces of the Nile Valley in Central and Upper Egypt, and in the provinces bordering the desert in El-Wagh El-Bahary, to attract new generations of the population in those provinces to new desert areas.
The state can regain the reclaimed land, which had been unlawfully looted by prominent capitalists and corrupt politicians, both in terms of price or in terms of changes in the activity assigned to them, or illegal trade, and to redistribute the land to landless peasants and graduates of agricultural schools and colleges to ensure their mobility and settlement outside their old agricultural provinces, thereby reducing the demand for housing in the Nile Valley and Delta, and relieving the pressure to transform parts of the agricultural land into urban areas.
Also in this context, the Corridor Development Project, in the heart of the desert is, in spite of its high costs and extended implementation timeframe before it would be rendered a permanently attractive area for residents, a possible strategic solution, even if postponed for the future in light of what the elite and the nation will agree on in this regard.
The third track is to attract the children of rural provinces that are not adjacent to the desert like El-Gharbeya, Kafr El-Sheikh, Damietta and Dakahlia, to work in the new sites of agricultural and urban development that are being developed in the desert and its range projects, from industrial to agricultural, to the service sector, through offering them reclaimed land there and financing small and cooperative projects for them in those areas.
Egypt possesses large areas of potential agricultural expansion in the Sinai and New Valley governorate, Toshka, the North Coast and other areas in the Western Desert. This expansion is largely dependent on the active role of the state in leadership of the private sector, including large, medium and cooperative and small enterprises, towards breaking into the desert and the re-distribution of mass population across the area of Egypt, instead of the appalling state of congestion in the Nile Valley and Delta, which leaves about 94 percent of Egypt's area unpopulated, as is the case at present.
When these routes to provide the right to housing for the people of Egypt's rural provinces and to open avenues for the countryside's youth to break into the job market and resettle outside the Nile Valley and Delta are implemented the state will be able to enforce the law criminalising construction on agricultural land in a strict and fair manner, to prevent the waste of old agricultural land, which constitutes a significant portion of the wealth of Egypt and that should be preserved as the basis for agricultural development.