By Mohamed Abdelmonsef
Most agriculture scientists typically focus on cultivating important crops and explaining how to make best use of water resources. Professor Hany El-Kateb of the Technical University of Munich in Germany and Presidential agriculture advisor, however, has an interest in how to invest over 5.5bn cubic metres a year of wastewater in building new green cities in the desert. This development would take population increases into account without polluting the environment.
Daily News Egypt met with Professor El-Kateb to discuss his unconventional vision for these projects. He is one of seven scientists around the world specialising in creating databases for forests on which the world relies for solving climate change issues that cause a threat of surface sea and ocean water increase compared to the surface of the earth.
How can a population importing 50% of its food cultivate forests?
It is important to know that the forest cultivation will depend on wastewater, which forms an environmental risk and source for diseases. The Ministry of Housing estimates that the amount of wastewater received at the Holding Company for Water and Waste Water treatment stations is approximately 6.3tn cubic metres, of which 5.5bn can be used to cultivate 1.5m acres of desert forests.
What is the importance of cultivating these forests?
First, cultivation will result in [the capture of] 25m tonnes of carbon dioxide that can be sold to industrial countries, as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) demands that these countries offset aside a portion of forests to [capture] carbon dioxide prior to horizontal expansion of industries that worsen the ozone hole.
Is there an economic benefit to cultivating these forests?
I expect that the project will provide around 32,000 direct job opportunities and 70,000 indirect opportunities due to the construction of factories for wood, paper, lubricating oils, and paint products as well as non-food products.
To what extent could the project be expanded?
The Holding Company for Water and Waste Water statements confirm that this figure will increase to 17bn cubic metres by 2017, meaning that we could cultivate 4.7m acres, which is equivalent to 50% of current cultivated land in the old valley and the desert.
Do you believe that Egypt has a comparative advantage in cultivating forests globally?
Of course I do, because trees grow very fast in Egypt, at four times the speed of growth rates in Germany. The river red gum tree reaches 10 metres in length and 10 cm in thickness in just 1.5 years from the time it is planted, which is the highest growth rate for trees around the world.
Is this idea very unconventional for Egyptians?
On the contrary. Egypt began cultivating forests in 1996 when a tree forest was planted on a 500 acre land plot in Srabiom, Ismailia. Now Egypt has 25 forests across several governorates on a total area of 14,000 acres.
Has this brought in economic revenues?
No, the expected economic earnings were not achieved due to workers’ weak technical capacities, an inability to cultivate trees that were not warped or coiled for wood factory owners, and the absence of a management system to handle factory owners’ needs as the main consumers of trees.
This is not true. Perhaps you are aware that Egypt was the first country in the world to form a governmental entity for forests 1,000 years ago to fund ship manufacturing during the Fatimid Caliphate. The country depended on this body to fund various projects, and we can also rely on it to fund developmental projects in the 21st century.
Do you believe this is the only reason why businessmen tend to cultivate other forests?
I am sure there are other reasons, the first of which is the difficulty of conducting accurate feasibility studies for the project, due to the absence of databases that are reliable for capital earning speculations. The information that is available is not even accurate, and the laws in force need to be amended because they prohibit cutting even a portion of trees in order for them to grow better, nor do they specify land ownership for an investor through usufruct or ownership.
How can we encourage investors to expand cultivation?
The success of this project requires the establishment of a governmental entity for forests so that investors can deal directly with that body, in order to complete managerial procedures for the projects. An investor’s workers must also be trained on how to plant ‘economic’ trees, especially since forest cultivation is new to Egyptians.
If we do not have adequate studies and experience, how will we implement the idea?
We have a project funded by the University of Munich with EGP 4m in order to gather the necessary data for forest cultivation in Egypt. This includes identifying areas suitable for establishing forests in the desert hinterlands of Egyptian cities, as well as the type of trees that may be cultivated in Egypt and the expected economic returns for each type of tree. Attention must be paid to how to convert sewage water to arable water, with completion expected in 2016.
Preliminary studies confirm the presence of 134 types of economic forest trees in the Cairo Zoo and the Orman Park, the best of which is the white teak which produces better quality wood than that of beech and mahogany, which are very similar. Oil is extracted from jojoba trees and jatropha to lubricate aircraft engines, and lemon scent is extracted from lemon eucalyptus trees.
Will expanding this project have an impact on development in Egypt?
Yes, the project will help stabilise sand dunes, which move with the Khamaseen winds, that lead to a loss of 25% of Egypt’s crops each year during early spring. The project will also attract rain clouds which will lead to more rainfall in Egypt, helping spread forests along the Egyptian border with Sudan and even through the Mediterranean Sea.
Can this project help with a population transfer from the Nile Valley and the Delta to the desert?
Certainly, and the largest challenge facing the agricultural field now is construction on agricultural land. Egypt lost 9% of its arable land over the past 36 years due to construction on agricultural land in the Nile Valley and Delta, and according to a report written by the Convention to Combat Desertification, Egypt has the highest deforestation rate in the world.
And what kind of danger does that have on food security in Egypt?
This phenomenon severely decreases food self-sufficiency rates in Egypt and increases the risk of rising sea levels, whereby Egypt is considered the third most vulnerable country in the world to this threat. The beach line of Rashid has declined by several metres, indicating that the northern part of the Delta will erode within half a century. This picture demonstrates the valley’s form in 1972 versus 2011, in addition to the visual pollution caused by the haphazard construction of cities in Egypt.
Have you laid out a vision for building cities in the desert?
Of course. We have to ensure that traffic flows inside the city in a way that facilitates movement from one place to another using bikes instead of cars and that new energy is utilised, whether that be solar or wind, to generate the energy required for houses and road lights and to encourage self-sufficiency in food, services, and job opportunities for the population. The only solution for overpopulation in the old valley is to build new green cities in the desert, that take into account the urban aspect of the area so that populations can be moved.
Won’t building these cities represent huge costs for the country?
This is not true, because the cost of building cities in the desert, which accounts for 95% of Egypt’s land, is cheaper than solving infrastructure issues, including roads and sewage networks, in the old cities, where population density has reached 20,000 per square kilometre. The New Valley governorate has 166 individuals per acre in the inhabited areas, as opposed to one person for every square kilometre in the uninhabited areas.
How will cities and villages be in the same place?
The project design provides for a series of small cities, one of which will have a population of 500,000, and another with a population of one million which will be connected to the main city, so that the largest possible housing units may be built on the smallest piece of land and with the lowest possible cost. All services will be provided so that there is no need for the population to move to the city.
What about desert reclamation projects in light of the water deficit the country is facing these days?
First, I would like to strongly disagree with the concept horizontal expansion for desert reclamation using non-renewable well water in the Western Desert. The youth must be aware of water scarcity in the desert.
What do you think is the solution?
I believe that sea water treatment is the only solution to Egypt’s water shortage issue, which is a result of its fixed share of 55.5tn cubic metres of Nile river water since the agreement in 1959. This caused each individual’s share to fall to less than 650 cubic metres annually while the water shortage has reached 1,000 cubic metres annually.
How do we achieve this?
Egypt has 24,000 longitudinal kilometres along the two seas, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, which require a cheap method for building water treatment stations that rely on solar energy to initially provide water for individuals instead of transporting Nile water to these cities.
Would you like to add anything for the reader?
I would like to emphasise President Al-Sisi’s decision to create a scientific presidential advisory board comprised of an elite group of Egypt’s senior scholars and experts that are renowned across the world, because this move highlights his interest in using science to solve the country’s issues.