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Egyptian farmers living in the shadow of Ethiopia’s dam
Although negotiations on Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam have gone quiet since August, the behind-the-scene talks are bubbling, as Egypt tries to secure a legally-bound agreement ahead of the completion of the GERD.
As recently as 4 October, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta. The two leaders talked regional security but also the latest development “in relation to the issue of the renaissance dam, where it was agreed to intensify coordination between the two countries in the coming period on this sensitive and vital issue,” said a spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency.
At stake is the $4.8bn project, touted to be the largest hydropower plant in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, pending its completion. Ethiopia reveres it for eventually doubling its electricity production, and providing a “significant economic boost” for a country that’s in the throes of developing its economy.
The real fear, particularly for Egypt and Sudan, is the project will cut their historic dependence on their share of Nile water. In July, Ethiopia went ahead to fill a portion of the completed dam reservoir in despite warnings from both Cairo and Khartoum to wait until an agreement.
In addition to the official concerns and reservations which Egyptians hear and see daily in public statements and talkshow programmes, millions of farmers living across the two banks of the Nile – whose conditions have consistently deteriorated in recent decades – fear that the large scale dam will negatively affect their livelihood.
From white gold to vegetables
Three years ago, Mossab Saleh, a 55-year-old farmer from Sharqiya prepared for the cotton harvest season where most of the village’s farmers celebrated a year’s work, usually using the revenues to hold their relative’s weddings, buying cattle, or booking umrah trips in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca.
But today, Saleh and most of his colleagues have abandoned cotton due to a shortage in the government regulated amount of water.
Instead, they cultivate vegetables and fruits.
Saleh’s story of abandoning cotton comes as Ethiopia says its new dam on the Blue Nile will begin generating power in the next 12 months, the country’s president said on 5 October.
READ MORE Dear Egypt…
Egypt’s main concerns include the impounding of the dam during periods of prolonged drought, the dam’s annual operating rules, the legal approach regarding any future projects on the Blue Nile, and agreements to establish a means of resolving any disputes.
Addressing the parliament in March, Egyptian Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Ati said: “In 2050, Egypt’s population will reach 170 million, and this means we will need at least an additional 7.5 billion cubic metres of water to cover the population’s growing water needs.”
Abandoning our grandfather’s profession
The shift from cotton to vegetables, as Saleh and his several family members agree, has been a choice for many farmers after the Egyptian government reduced the amount of days where it provides water citing a national shortage.
Saleh blames this radical change the family has witnessed on the GERD.
Over 100 million Egyptians rely on the Nile for 90% of its water supply and about 57% of that comes from the Blue Nile.
The low and unsteady income from vegetables forced several members of Saleh’s family to abandon agriculture all together and start new professions to provide for their families. However not all of them were able to secure these jobs and are currently unemployed or are irregular construction labourers.
“Some became tuktuk drivers, some became construction labourers, and some just went to Cairo hoping to travel to Libya,” says Saleh.
“Instead of having a stable job in the field, they now work one or two days during the week and the rest of the time they are unemployed,” he adds. “Now there are hundreds like them”
Mohamed Ahmed, a 41-year-old veteran union member and employee at the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration in the Saleh’s village tells The Africa Report that farmers learn the profession from the day they are born, with no professional or business training.
“Abandoning their only profession and setting off in the currently aggressive market will not only increase unemployment but also affect the agriculture business. That should be considered a matter of national security for a country of 104 [billion] people,” adds the veteran syndicalist.
Grains to greens
Similarly in the city of Giza, Akram Al-Awis who grew rice for some 40 years has now turned to growing spinach and lettuce, but his business is suffering as the quality of the produce is deteriorating since the government has allotted him only three days to water his land.
This dam will be the end of our land.
“The amount of water available is not enough and the land is getting dry. With the help of some other landowners we were able to divide the loss together.” says Al-Awis.
“This dam will be the end of our land,” he says, adding that he is now raising his children to change their careers. “Why would I teach them farming if the land will go dry in a matter of five years.”
His family is currently being courted by wealthy business people to sell their two feddans plot (8.4 square metres), and to invest their capital elsewhere.
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Abdel Wahab Al-Sayed agrees with Al-Awis, who says the drop in the allotted water share given to farmers since last year will drive many farmers to sell their land to big landowners or wealthy businesses.
“The next generations will grow up not knowing what we did and [how we] suffered to keep this land,” says 37 year-old Al-Sayed whose grandfather was granted this land in Menofia – north of Cairo near the Nile delta – as a reward for fighting in the North Yemen war 1962-70.
“For years we have been suffering from the high costs of gas, fertilisers, and seeds, which sometimes we have to get at higher prices in the black market to avoid the long queues and nepotism in the official outlets,” says Al-Sayed, adding that despite those expenses, the “prices of crops and taxes remain the same”.
“Egypt already has a decades old problem of labour in agriculture. Adding the scarcity of water to the equation, mass job losses will take place which will eventually affect the sector, which in return will increase the number of people under the poverty line,” Magdi Diab*, an independent economic researcher tells The Africa Report.
Al-Sayed’s family have been planting rice for decades but the latest Agriculture law has put tight regulations on planting water intensive crops like sugarcane and rice. Violators of the law may be imprisoned for six months fined EGP 20,000, about $1,200.
Farmers have rarely been organised into a solid unionised force, but have rather spontaneously and individually participated in several uprisings and resistance movements. After the 2011 revolution, several calls have been made to unify farmers under the Farmers Syndicate.
But currently the syndicate is like many other state controlled civil society organisations, which acts like a representative of the state to the farmers and not the opposite, say at least two farmers.
An activist in the leftist Revolutionary Socialist group whose family also depends on farming, tells The Africa Report that these rules have deeply affected the farmers and their livelihood.
“They were applied without any societal dialogue and without taking the opinion of the very people whose lives are affected by it,” he says, adding “farmers are more concerned with securing food for Egyptians because their lives depend on it.”
READ MORE Dear Ethiopia…
The activist who spoke on condition of anonymity says that: “Farmers do not constitute a political danger to the regime due to the competition among them and lack of any sense of solidarity or organisation.”
“Members of the syndicate and the parliament only show up before the elections to gather votes and distribute smiles while we don’t hear from them till the coming election,” says Salem, a farmer from Luxor who also grew sugarcane but his produce has drastically decreased due to new regulations.
In March, Salem and several of his colleagues gathered in a peaceful demonstration to protest the government’s decision to further decrease the cultivation of sugarcane. Salem and several others were briefly detained and the demonstration was dispersed.
A catalyst for change?
Amid growing fears on the effects of GERD on farming, a new way of approaching agriculture is slowly starting to take over as the government explores different methods of irrigation.
These methods, if applied and introduced systematically to farmers, could change the very agricultural practices that have been cemented for thousands of years, and help ease possible shortages.
Acknowledging the potential threat to the water security of downstream Sudan, and Egypt, a source in the Ministry of Irrigation, notes, as other experts have as well, that the GERD has the capacity to hold 88% of the mean annual flow of the Nile River.
The source speaking, on the condition of anonymity, says that: “Egypt has always stressed its need for every drop of the Nile water and that Egyptians can never give up on their right to water.”
During the last five years, he adds, the government has spent over $1bn to establish water distillation stations with the aim to build around 55.
He adds that the state is exploring different methods of modern irrigation systems rather than its current furrow irrigation, such as using drip, micro-sprinklers, converting the diesel-operated wells to solar energy, installing a monitoring system, recycling, and linking wells to local monitoring networks.
Similarly, Egypt will have to compare and contrast pros and cons from similar experiences of water shortage and urban expansion in Israel and Jordan respectively.
In Israel, with limited access to rivers, for example, wide scale adoption of low volume irrigation systems has increased, the average efficiency to 90% as compared to 64% for furrow irrigation. according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was accompanied by PR campaigns urging citizens to conserve water in different ways.
As the new hydropower dam is expected to begin generating power in the next 12 months, these potential irrigation methods and others are expected to become a necessary tool for the Egyptian government to counter any water shortage and its economic and social consequences.
Short of an agreement with Ethiopia, such innovation may be the surest way to ensure the livelihoods of Egypt’s farmers.
*name has been changed for security reasons