Egypt's new Nile Valley: grand plan gone bad
TOSHKA, EGYPT // On a two-lane road between between the Egyptian cities of Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south of the country, a blue sign reads: "Welcome to the New City of Toshka". But yawning on either side of the road is a vast, empty desert that stretches for miles.
Toshka was designed in 1997 as the beginning of the relocation of 20 per cent of Egypt's 85 million citizens to a "new" Nile valley, using water pumped from Lake Nasser to irrigate the barren sands of the Western Desert.
It was to be Hosni Mubarak's grandest legacy - an answer to Egypt's crowded cities, pollution, food shortages and unemployment problems all addressed in one mega-project. Toshka became known as "Mubarak's pyramid" for its unprecedented scale as well as the slow pace of construction.
A half-hour drive south from the "New City of Toshka" reveals the meagre results of Mubarak's pharaonic ambitions 15 years later. There are only 21,000 hectares of farmland, less than 10 per cent of the goal. None of the cities, factories, schools or hospitals have been built. Most produce is exported for the benefit of the private companies that bought land there.
It is now up to whatever government will be in place after presidential elections scheduled for next month to decide what to do with its huge investment in a largely dysfunctional project with uncertain prospects.
How elected officials choose to rebuild Egypt's ailing economy will begin with deliberations over decades of investments in projects across Egypt that on the whole failed to deliver jobs, greater distribution of wealth and a competitive advantage for the country as a whole in the region.
The country's most powerful political party, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, is against continuing Toshka as planned, an official said.
"We are completely against Toshka, as it was envisioned," said Mohamed Abdul Fattah, the party's secretary general in Aswan - the biggest city near Toshka. "The project was media propaganda for Mubarak to have his legacy … What we need is planning and management, not a fantasy to be remembered by."
Muslim Brotherhood officials have articulated the group's own "renaissance" plan for Egypt that seeks to boost the economy with private sector initiatives and large-scale projects. The challenge will be how to move forward without encountering the same pitfalls as Toshka.
For Egyptians, the project taps into a multi-generational dream that started in the 1940s and 1950s to "green the desert" through engineering and take advantage of the 95 per cent of the country that is uninhabited because it is too dry.
Since the emergence of ancient Egyptian civilisation in 3200 BC, people have lived along the lush shores of the Nile river and delta that seeps into the Mediterranean Sea.
President Gamal Abdel Nasser's construction of the High Aswan Dam between 1960 and 1970 inspired scientists to speculate on the possibility of a second valley. The dam created the 5,250 square kilometre Lake Nasser, provided electricity and controlled flooding.
Standing before a field of swaying wheat at one of the largest farms at Toshka, Rashwan Atallah Atallah still sees the establishment of a new city as a vibrant possibility.
Born in the Lower Egypt city of Kafr El Sheikh to a farming family with just 1.26 hectares of land, he is now the head of agriculture for the state-run South Valley Development Company that has prepared 9,660 hectares of farms at Toshka.
"The people in Cairo say this is all a failure before they even visit," he said. "I would move my family here someday … We need a little more time."
Toshka is a testament to Egypt's love of mega-projects as a solution for its demographic and economic problems, but it also was a nod to Mubarak's propaganda-fuelled attempt to quell societal tensions that were coming to a boil in the final two decades of his rule before he resigned last year.
The project was the focus of a major government public relations effort, especially in its early years. News reports were rife with construction updates and enthusiastic discussions of its effects on Egypt.
The state-run Eastern Company introduced Toshka cigarettes, while Egypt's most famous children's author wrote five books for young audiences on the project. Toshka the Prosperity, set in 2017, portrayed a utopian city where a young girl invites cousins from the "Old Valley" - the fictional name given to the green strip along the Nile that is the home to nearly all Egyptians today - to visit.
"You can live in a spacious house with big rooms surrounded by a singing garden," the girl writes to her relatives at the start of the book. "No doubt your houses in the Old Valley are small and narrow."
But the gap between the spin and the reality began to widen over the years, leading Emma Deputy, a doctoral student writing her dissertation on the project, to conclude Toshka was more valuable as a symbolic answer to Egypt's problems than an actual new Nile Valley.
"Toshka was a quick fix for all these social problems, lack of food security, joblessness," she said. "If you think about it, this project was aimed at a generation that is now in their 20s, the same population that led the revolution last year."
In Abu Simbel, a small city on the shores of Lake Nasser, Mayor Asaad Abeid El Majeed said he grew tired of hearing about Toshka when he lobbied for changes with the government back in Cairo. Earlier this month, more than 100 youths demonstrated in front of his office because of unemployment and a shortage of housing.
"The answer to our problems is not in big projects," he said. "It's about simple things like changing the law in our governorate to open more land for affordable housing. It's about investment that leads to jobs."
At the Future Village of Abu Simbel, a collection of bare-bone, one-storey houses on the edge of the city, farmers say they have seen their crops shrivel and die because of water shortages even though they are located just a few kilometres from Lake Nasser. The government has neglected them in favour of projects like Toshka, they say.
"Nobody wants to take responsibility for our problems," said Jaber Ahmed Abdallah, who moved to the village from Aswan as part of a government programme to give landless farmers some property and a home.
At Toshka, an hour up the road, the fields are awash in water.
The $436 million (Dh1.6 billion) Mubarak Pumping Station, completed in 2005 as one of the biggest in the world, can pump as much as 10 per cent of the water in the lake to Toshka through the open-air Sheikh Zayed Canal.
The water has led to some modest success at Toshka, with orchards of grapes and fields of wheat, beans and peanuts in operation. But nearly all of the produce is exported because that's more profitable for the farming companies and their contracts with the government don't require that any of the crops be sold domestically.
Egypt is facing a growing agricultural shortfall and has become the world's biggest wheat buyer, buying about half of its wheat.
The farms have provided just a few thousand jobs, while the country is dealing with rising unemployment and a need for 700,000 new jobs every year. Egyptian government officials said last year that they were renegotiating contracts with the companies at Toshka to include requirements to speed up cultivation. Those efforts came on the back of allegations of corruption related to land deals there and across the country.
Saudi Arabia's Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the owner of Kingdom Agricultural Development Company, agreed last May to hand back 31,500 of its 42,000 hectares, with the option of buying more if it cultivates the land. Al Dahra, an Abu Dhabi company, also reached an agreement last year to keep its 18,000 hectares in exchange for assurances it would speed up cultivation.
But none of these agreements deal with the larger issue: whether to proceed with building the housing and infrastructure that comes with a new city. And what's more, how to divorce Toshka from its greatest supporter, the fallen president.
A rare proponent for forging ahead is Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, who was Egypt's minister of water and irrigation when the project was launched in 1997. He said Toshka is a good idea that's been hampered by ineptitude.
"From the beginning Toshka was designed to develop a new community, not only as an agricultural project," said Mr Abu Zeid, who now heads the Arab Water Council in Cairo.
"The fact remains that we cannot sustain ourselves in a narrow valley, with all the social and economic problems of overcrowding. We have to go to the desert and we have to build. Or the country will collapse."