Dr. Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian American space scientist and geologist who worked with NASA on the Moon exploration and the Apollo programme, has expressed his disappointment with the Egyptian government’s decision to borrow money to buy wheat. He said that it was a “shame” for a country with a rich agricultural history and potential to depend on foreign loans for its food security.
El-Baz, who is also a Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, spoke to Daily News Egypt in a virtual interview about the political situation in Egypt and the future of sectors such as agriculture and space in the country. He shared his views on the challenges and opportunities facing Egypt in these fields and offered some suggestions for improvement.
Mohamed Samir: Dr. Farouk, you are the one who came up with the idea of the new Delta project. How will this project change and improve the food security situation in Egypt? What is the role of this project in achieving that goal?
Dr. Farouk: Thank you for your question. The new Delta project is a development corridor that stretches along the Nile from the southern border near Lake Nasser to the Mediterranean Sea. It is not a new delta, but a way of expanding and connecting the existing cities and regions of Egypt.
I suggested that the ten major cities of Egypt, starting from Lake Nasser, then Aswan, then Sohag, and so on, should have a corridor or a new road or a new exit that goes westward into the flat desert of Western Egypt. And then, all these corridors should be linked by a line that runs from the Mediterranean to the border of Sudan. This line should also continue through Sudan and the rest of Africa until it reaches South Africa, where they have already built a similar corridor.
I thought that this would be a natural way of connecting all the cities of Egypt and making them more accessible to the Mediterranean and the rest of Africa. In the future, this would also enable Cairo to become a stop for all products from Africa to Europe or from Europe to African countries. That is why I called it a development corridor.
Taha Sakr: Dr. Farouk, the world is facing a big problem because of the Russia-Ukraine war, which affects the global food supply. How can Egypt overcome this challenge in the long run?
Dr. Farouk: Thank you for your question. I think Egypt has made many mistakes in the past 100 years, especially in how it used its agricultural land along the Nile. I am not blaming the Egyptian people, but mainly the Egyptian government. When I was a lecturer at Asyut University in 1958 and 1959, I was saddened to see that all the university buildings, classrooms, playgrounds, and facilities were built on fertile land in Asyut. The same thing happened with all the government buildings, such as the governorate, the municipality, the police headquarters, etc. They all occupied agricultural land that is unique in the world. This land was formed by the Nile over more than 6 million years. We cannot replace it. Egypt is different from any other country in the world. Egypt was a wheat exporter for the Roman Empire, for the Greeks, and Arabia.
It means that we used to produce wheat for everyone around us. And today we have to borrow money from banks to buy wheat from Ukraine so that we can make bread for our people. I think this is a disaster.
The governments of Egypt have failed one after another. The land that was created by the Nile for more than 6 million years is now covered with concrete by all the ignorant government officials, whether they are governors, police officers, army officers, or university professors. Because of this ignorance, we are now dependent on loans to buy wheat from Ukraine. And now that Russia is at war with Ukraine, we cannot find enough banks to lend us money. We have not paid back last year’s loans and we cannot produce enough bread for our poor people. This is a shame and a tragedy for me. The main responsibility for this mess lies with the successive governments of Egypt from the time of the 1952 revolution until today. The rulers of Egypt before and during King Farouk’s reign made it illegal to build anything on agricultural land, but since the revolution of 1952, the countryside has been shrinking.
Taha Sakr: Dr. Farouk, what solutions do you suggest for the current Egyptian government to overcome the problem of food security?
Mohamed Samir: And can I ask you one more thing? Is the damage to the agricultural land irreversible?
Dr. Farouk: Unfortunately, yes. It is irreversible. It is dead. You have replaced the soil with cement, and there is no way to bring it back. The first thing that the Egyptian government should do is to announce that anyone who builds or touches the agricultural land, the soil of the Nile deposits, or the black soil of Egypt, will face severe consequences.
The Egyptian government should warn everyone, especially the state officials, such as the police and the military, not to build on agricultural land. They are the ones who are leading this destruction of more than 6 million years of fertile land. After the construction of the Aswan Dam, no more soil will come to Egypt, no matter what you do.
Taha Sakr: We also hear that you have discussions with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi about the Delta project and also about the development corridor. Can you tell us more about these conversations and their outcomes?
Dr. Farouk: I met the current president when he was a presidential candidate, and he told me that he had included the development corridor in his presidential programme. I introduced him to some Egyptian experts from the Geological Survey and the Ministry of Agriculture, who are very knowledgeable and competent. We spent three days with him, discussing various aspects and possibilities of the project. However, that was before he was elected. I have not met with him since then.
Taha Sakr: But do you think through the evaluation process of Al-Sisi’s performance in this regard, do you think that the president himself is considering or taking this matter seriously?
Dr. Farouk: He seemed to take it seriously at first, but then he got distracted by other issues when he became president. He did not follow up on the project or consult with the people who advised him. He also made a mistake by building on the Nile, which would force us to borrow money from foreign countries to buy wheat. We should never depend on imported wheat, because Egypt used to be a major wheat exporter for many civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs.
Mohamed Samir: How can Egypt deal with the threat of climate change, especially the sea level rise that affects the delta region? What are some of the national solutions that Egypt can implement to prevent soil erosion and reduce carbon emissions?
Dr, Farouk: The sea level rise is a result of global warming, which is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels as a source of energy. Egypt can take a leading role in the world and become completely dependent on solar energy, which is abundant and clean. Egypt can harness the solar energy that the Western Desert receives, which is more than any other place in the world, and use it to meet all its electricity needs and even export it to Europe. This would reduce Egypt’s carbon footprint and also create economic opportunities. To prevent soil erosion, Egypt can adopt sustainable agricultural practices, such as crop rotation, organic farming, and water conservation. Egypt can also protect its coastal areas by restoring natural habitats, such as mangroves and coral reefs, that can buffer the impact of sea level rise and storms.
Mohamed Samir: Some people argue that Africa’s CO2 emissions are only a small fraction of the global emissions and that our actions will not make a difference if the major polluters like China and the US do not change their policies. Is there a local solution that we can adopt to adapt to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise that threatens our agricultural lands? For example, the Netherlands has developed some techniques to prevent flooding. Can we do something similar, or are we doomed by global problems that are beyond our control?
Dr, Farouk: We can contribute to the global solution by using solar energy as our main source of power. We can produce all our energy from the sun and we can even export some of it to Europe from the Western Desert and the Eastern Desert, which receive more solar radiation than any other place in the world. This would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and also generate income for us. To adapt to the effects of sea level rise, we can also implement some local measures, such as building seawalls, dikes, and dams to protect our coastal areas, planting trees and vegetation to prevent soil erosion, and improving our water management and irrigation systems to conserve water and increase crop productivity. We are not helpless in the face of climate change, but we need to act now and cooperate with other countries to find sustainable solutions.
Taha Sakr: Several Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have recently made significant achievements in space exploration. How do you evaluate their experiences and programmes in this field?
Dr. Farouk: I think they are doing very well. They have launched satellites, sent probes to Mars, and participated in international missions. They have also invested in developing their space infrastructure, education, and industry. They have inspired their young people to think beyond their daily lives and pursue their dreams in space. I applaud their efforts and achievements. We [Egyptians] should have followed their example and started our space programme long ago.
Taha Sakr: Do you think that the Egyptians are making progress in space exploration, even if slowly?
Dr. Farouk: No, I don’t think so. They have created a space agency that is supposed to be in charge of this field, but it is nothing more than a typical government agency. It is not innovative, productive, or supportive of the young people who are interested in space. It is just another bureaucratic institution that does not achieve anything.
Mohamed Samir: How can we create a real space agency in Egypt? What do we need to change or improve? Do we need a new and independent agency? How can we make it more effective and innovative? Or maybe the Egyptian private sector could play a role in it.
Dr. Farouk: To create a real space agency in Egypt, we need to have a clear and ambitious vision. We need to set specific and realistic goals that can benefit Egypt and its people. We need to have a space agency that is not just a bureaucratic entity, but a dynamic and creative institution that can make a difference. Yes, we have one, and 700 people are working there. We even bought a satellite and called it Egyptian Sat, but that’s it.
Taha Sakr: How can artificial intelligence help scientific research, especially in predicting natural disasters such as earthquakes?
Dr. Farouk: Artificial intelligence is a powerful tool that can help scientific research in many ways. However, artificial intelligence is not a magic solution that can solve all the problems or answer all the questions. Some phenomena, such as earthquakes, are still very difficult to predict accurately, even with the help of artificial intelligence. This is because earthquakes are caused by many factors that are happening under the earth’s crust, which we do not fully understand or measure. Geologists have some knowledge and theories about what is going on there, but they cannot tell exactly when, where, and how strong an earthquake will occur.
Mohamed Samir: In general, how do you see the impact of artificial intelligence on scientific research?
Dr. Farouk: Artificial intelligence is like computers, and no one thought that computers would have any effect, but they do and they do. So, any new developments will have an impact. That is good, but it cannot be the source, because the source is the human brain, and the leaders of the human brain are the decision-makers who take an idea, say we are going to do something, and make people do it.
Mohamed Samir: Back to earthquakes. Ethiopia is located near the Great Rift Valley. In the event of a large earthquake there, would it affect the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? Is there any danger involved, considering the weight of the lake behind the dam?
Dr. Farouk: Any structure that you build, whether it’s a shop, a big apartment building, a dam, or anything else, is affected by earthquakes. It is built on rock, and vibrations caused by earthquakes can damage the rock. So, there is no doubt that an earthquake would affect the dam. What will happen exactly, only God knows, because it depends on the strength of the dam, the magnitude of the earthquake, and other factors. So, you can’t say I won’t build a dam if there is an earthquake risk. No, you have to go on with your life and be as careful as possible, but go on and live and do your best.
Mohamed Samir: So, in your opinion, in other words, some people are exaggerating the risk of an earthquake affecting the dam and threatening Egypt and Sudan?
Dr. Farouk: Yes, I think some people are overreacting to this possibility. An earthquake would affect Ethiopia first and foremost, and then maybe some parts of Sudan. It would not affect us at all.
Mohamed Samir: Following the earthquake in Turkey, I remember when you debunked that so-called Dutch scientist who claimed that he predicted the earthquake and you proved that it was not possible. But in one of his predictions, he claimed that Egypt will face an earthquake this year. So, some people were wondering: Would the High Dam be endangered in case of, let’s say, 6+ magnitude earthquakes happening here in Egypt, near Aswan? Or was it already built with that in mind?
Dr. Farouk: You can’t build anything anywhere in the world with 100% assurance that there are no earthquakes that can affect it. Nowhere in the world! The power of earthquakes and the resistance of structures to earthquakes vary tremendously. And you cannot say one way or another, but you can say in the last 20 years we had only earthquakes between 3 and 7 magnitude in this area. But nobody can predict anything like this at all. All you can do is live your life. Go ahead and live, build as much as you wish, do everything well, and hope that there is not going to be one big enough to shake you up or damage your buildings. And in the vast majority of cases, as we have seen worldwide, the dams have not been affected by earthquakes.
All the things that were built worldwide had this kind of question, But none of them were destroyed by these earthquakes, but by the fear of potential earthquakes to break them up.
Taha Sakr: Moving to a different point, what are the most important elements that countries seek to obtain from the moon? How do you see China and Russia’s cooperation in space in general and also their cooperation or efforts in exploration on the moon? And what are China’s ambitions in this regard?
Dr. Farouk: There is a lot of interest and competition among the big countries in the world to explore and exploit resources on the moon. China and Russia have announced their plans to cooperate in building a lunar research station, but they are not really working together. China is doing everything that Russia did before, but better. Russia was the first to launch a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, and to land a spacecraft, Luna 2, on the moon. But then America surpassed Russia by sending humans to the moon with the Apollo programme. Now Russia is talking about going back to the moon, but they are not doing much. And China is trying to catch up with America. They are planning to send an astronaut to the moon soon. So they will be the second nation to do so, which is good. All of this competition is good because we will learn from it. The whole world benefits from the technology that is developed and the knowledge that is gained from these efforts. So technically we all learn from their achievements.
Mohamed Samir: Do you think humans will build a colony on Mars within the next 50 years?
Dr. Farouk: I doubt the necessity of that. What they should think about is how to make it easier to travel to Mars, because there may be some resources on Mars that we would like to mine and use. Therefore, the world wants to send people to go bring some things from Mars and/or orbit around it and then return to orbit around the moon or Earth. So, they should develop better, cheaper, and safer means of launching and travelling into space. And that’s what I think some people are beginning to think about now.
Mohamed Samir: As for the minerals and materials that can be mined from there, would it make it economically feasible for that kind of operation?
Dr. Farouk: Yes, there are some minerals and materials that can be mined from the moon or Mars that are more abundant or valuable than on Earth. For instance, even on the moon, some places have a higher percentage of titanium in the basalt rocks. On Earth, titanium is found in about 4% of the basalt, but on the moon, it is about 7%, which is nearly double the amount. So maybe we can mine that titanium from the moon and use it for various purposes, such as surgical instruments and aerospace engineering. Titanium is a very useful and expensive metal, so if we can mine it on the moon economically, that would be great. There are other potential resources on the moon or Mars, such as helium-3, rare earth metals, and water ice that could also be worth mining. But the technology and the cost are not there yet. But some people are thinking about it and working on it.
Taha Sakr: We reached the last part of the interview, which is not related to space. It’s about the political atmosphere in Egypt. How do you evaluate President Al-Sisi’s performance through the last two presidential terms? How do you see the political atmosphere in general in Egypt during this period?
Dr. Farouk: I think it is fair to say that I am not in a position to judge his performance very well because I don’t live in Egypt. And so, this is a question that you should ask someone who lives there. So it’s only from my perception from outside, but from outside, I think that things are good and his performance is reasonable. I don’t see anything that is particularly outstanding, but his performance is good enough. But as I said, I don’t live there, so my opinion may not be very accurate or complete.
Taha Sakr: Regarding the ongoing national dialogue in Egypt, do you think that it would be a positive process for increasing freedoms in Egypt or giving more space for more opinions to appear? Or do you think that it is just a propaganda tool?
Dr. Farouk: Well, unfortunately, I don’t think we have enough politically savvy people in Egypt to have a meaningful discussion in the public sphere. I think politics has been stifled in Egypt since Nasser’s revolution. The politics have been silenced. So, we don’t have enough intellectuals, personalities, and thinkers to have a productive, candid, and diverse dialogue that will benefit everyone. The people that are on the scene now are kind of trying to boost their image one way or the other. And that is not going to lead us anywhere. So, I don’t think that the political atmosphere is favourable for a real national dialogue since the population of Egypt has been oppressed.
Taha Sakr: As for the upcoming presidential elections, do you think that the next ballots will witness strong and fair competition?
Dr. Farouk: I hope so. Competition is very good for democracy and accountability.
Taha Sakr: Will you vote in the upcoming elections?
Dr. Farouk: Sure, we have the opportunity to vote in the embassies here and everywhere outside of Egypt. The embassies are open for every Egyptian to vote.
Taha Sakr: Some people announced themselves as potential presidential candidates. Have you checked their programmes?
Dr. Farouk: I don’t care about who is going to say what they are going to do. I want to see what they can do. I want to see people start saying that if they enter into the political arena, this is their vision and this is their agenda. I need a programme. I need to see what they will do if we make them president.
Taha Sakr: So the electoral programmes are not clear till now for you?
Dr. Farouk: No, they are not clear at all. I don’t care about the names of the candidates, such as Hamdeen Sabbahi or anyone else. I know their names, but that’s not enough. I need to know what they stand for. What is their vision for Egypt? What are their plans and policies for the population, the youth, and the position of Egypt in the world? How will they address the challenges and opportunities that Egypt faces? How will they achieve their goals and what resources will they use? These are the things that I want to know before I decide who to vote for. I want to see clear and detailed electoral programmes that show me what they can offer to Egypt and its people.