The choice of the date for unveiling Egypt’s ‘project of the 21st century’, to build a massive irrigation system in the Western Desert, was hardly a coincidence. The Southern Valley Development Project inaugural plaque was unveiled by President Mubarak on 9 January 1997, 37 years to the day since the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser attended a similar ceremony for the Aswan High Dam.

The dam stands as Nasser’s most enduring legacy to the Egyptian people. Even those Egyptians who blame Nasser for most of the ills in their society concede that the dam has proved its worth many times over. Without it, Egypt would have suffered grievous damage in the long drought years of 1980-88.

Mubarak is now seeking to leave a similar legacy. The aim is to ‘go out from the Nile Valley,’ to establish viable new communities in desert areas situated along the route of what some geologists believe to be an ancient western branch of the great river. Mubarak has presented this enterprise as an imaginative means to tackle Egypt’s population problem. The country’s 60 million people are crammed into the Nile Valley, which makes up only about 5 per cent of Egypt’s total area. By conquering the desert, Egypt will be able to secure a better life for all.

The dream is hardly original. Nasser had tried, with limited success, to develop the Western Desert oases, drawing water from the Nubian aquifers that are the springs for Libya’s great manmade river project. President Sadat’s administration in the 1970s came up with the idea of permanently filling the Toshka depression, designed to take overflows from Lake Nasser, and building a canal to irrigate projects in the New Valley.

John Waterbury, in his seminal Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley, published in 1979, noted with respect to these desert irrigation plans: ‘Projects in Egypt have a perhaps fortunate habit of dying slow and unheralded deaths.’ At first, this assessment seemed appropriate. All notions of using surplus Nile water for new projects were suspended in the 1980s as the Nile basin was afflicted by years of drought. Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan Dam, fell to 150 metres above sea level in the summer of 1988. Another two- and-a-half metres, and the lake would have reached the critical level at which releases of water through the dam would have to be halted.

Changed perceptions

Successive years with above average Nile floods since 1988 have changed perceptions. The new project will involve pumping water out of Lake Nasser just north of the Toshka overflow system, which was activated in 1996 for the first time, as the water level reached 178.5 metres above sea level. The pipes serving the pumping station will be placed at 147.5 metres above sea level. The water will go straight into the Sheikh Zayed Canal – bypassing the Toshka depression – and flow north to the Western Desert oases. The canal is already being excavated by the Mosahama Beheira Company, which built the Toshka overflow system and the Salam Canal, which takes recycled Nile water into Sinai. The new canal will be 30 metres wide and seven metres deep. It will be lined with concrete and polyethylene.

The government says some 5,000 million cubic metres of water will be taken out of Lake Nasser every year. This compares with Egypt’s annual entitlement of 55,500 million cubic metres, according to the 1959 agreement with Sudan. The government says it will offset the amounts drawn into the canal by rationalising water use elsewhere. Officials say 1,600 million cubic metres a year will be saved by reducing the area sown with rice, and the remaining savings will come from improvements to the Delta irrigation and drainage network and through recycling treated wastewater.

In defence of the scheme, government officials also point to the fact that Egypt has used less water than its quota allows in recent years, because of the conservation needs imposed by the drought.

However, international hydrologists express deep reservations. They argue that using water for land reclamation is both expensive and inefficient, and that the project is based on unrealistic expectations about Nile water supplies. Studies show that over the past 120 years, the allocation of Egypt’s quota of water could only be achieved in about three in every five years. In addition, the situation for Egypt would have been much more difficult in recent years if Sudan had managed to use its full quota. Finally, Ethiopia is aiming to increase its use of water from the river by building a series of dams on the Blue Nile.

Egypt has said officially that it has no dispute with Ethiopia about Nile questions. However, analysts say Egypt is using a variety of tactics to stall the Ethiopian plans, including the use of its influence on international funding bodies.

Such objections to the New Valley project are derided by the government as the defeatist babble of knee-jerk oppositionists. However, international water and climate specialists will need to see a lot more evidence of the project’s feasibility before they are convinced that it is anything other than what one academic terms ‘a massive national fantasy.’