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Sunday, August 9, 2015

EGYPT: New Suez canal vs Toshka; similarity in the balance

Same political
weft and warp
Sisi (New Suez Canal)
Presented as a solution to Egypt's economic issues, about two months after becoming president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a huge project dubbed ‘the new Suez Canal,’ promising a huge boost of income for Egypt and drawing comparisons in the media to Gamal Abdel Nasser, when he championed the Aswan High Dam project more than 40 years ago.

The project promised to upgrade and expand the Suez Canal, an important trade route between Europe and Asia. The idea was nothing new. Similar canals were built during Sadat and Mubarak's time.   

The first of several promised ‘national projects,’ al-Sisi urged Egyptians to unite completely behind his vision and support the project. The project was more grounded in politics and reality than anything else. 

People began to compare general-turned-president al-Sisi to Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president who, after following a similar path to the presidency, nationalized the Suez Canal at the age of 38 and challenged Western countries’ control of the waterway. This drew strong support for Nasser and united people behind his promise of economic growth from the Suez Canal, especially after fighting off a failed invasion by Britain, France and Israel. Al-Sisi is fanning similar nationalist pride after snubbing the concerns of the United States and European Union about the coup that brought him to power. Both have also begun a nationwide crackdown against members of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Al-Sisi promised that his New Suez Canal would bring a similar much needed economic boost to the populous country’s failing economy. The project promises to create one million new jobs for Egyptians, who have long suffered from high unemployment

Mohab Mamish, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, promised that the project would more than double the annual revenue of the waterway, from US $5 billion to US $13.5 billion, by 2023. It would do this by allowing two-way traffic and decreasing the long waiting time for ships, allowing 87 vessels to transit daily, rather than the current limit of 49. 

Widening the canal does not, however, necessarily mean that more trade will transit; that will depend on the volume of international trade. The Panama Canal, which is an important route for trade between Asia and the Americas, is also being upgraded to accommodate more traffic. 

When Mamish first announced the project, the plan was to complete the digging of the new canal in three years. But, during the press event, al-Sisi stressed that they should complete the digging in just one year. The digging of the new canal and the widening of parts of the old canal are parts of a complicated process, and skeptics have raised concerns that shortening the timeline from 36 months to 12 months was unrealistic.

For security reasons, the military was appointed to oversee the whole project. Several companies would be involved in the project, but it will all be under the supervision of the army. The actual excavation was then awarded to a consortium led by Bahrain-based Dar al-Handasa, in which the Egyptian army’s engineering corps is a partner.

As soon as the announcement was made, television stations began broadcasting videos of bulldozers digging around the clock to meet the target. However, the tight deadline promised by al-Sisi meant that foreign companies had to be contracted to help in the digging – contrary to the original plan to depend solely on Egyptian firms – especially as the excavation quickly turned from dry digging into dredging when water was encountered early on.

Dredging – the removal of underwater mud and sand – is much more difficult and expensive than dry digging. The excavation was originally planned to be dry, but water began to seep into the new canal from the older waterway as the bulldozers began moving material. The contractors reportedly have to move more than one million cubic metres daily. This added unforeseen expenses to the project, increasing exponentially the cost of the new canal.

This has raised concerns about the quality of studies done before starting such a major project, or whether the studies had even been carried out. In addition to the unexpectedly high dredging expense, scientists have raised environmental concerns about the massive project. In late November 2014, a paper published in the journal Biological Invasions suggested that 350 invasive species have already made their way from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through the old Suez Canal. Now, the new project risks doubling that number, further straining the Mediterranean ecosystem.

The new Suez Canal project, like the rest of the projects announced by al-Sisi, is large and ambitious. Skeptics warn that Egyptian presidents have a history of announcing large projects that never meet their targets, such as Hosni Mubarak’s Toshka project, which aimed to reclaim millions of desert acres for agriculture and is often regarded as a huge failure.

These grand projects capture the imagination of Egyptians, who have a long history of nationalist movements and strong support for the military. But, with al-Sisi’s strong backing by unquestioning media and the majority of citizens, he might not be held accountable should his grand projects fail to measure up to their ambitious promise.

Mubarak (Toshka)
Presented a the solution to Egypt’s demographic and economic issues, and the Arab World’s largest and most expensive engineering enterprise, the Toshka New Valley project has now very little to show except for evidence of ill-informed political decisions.

Toshka’s premise was simple yet grandiose: to dig a 240 kilometer canal out in the Western Desert feeding off Lake Nasser’s water. The bid was to reclaim land and relocate up to 20 percent of Egyptians to this “new valley,” thus easing the country’s serious overpopulation, unemployment, and food security problems. 

The idea was nothing new: it was proposed as part of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s original plans for the High Dam in Aswan, but it was abandoned in 1964. When work started at Toshka in 1997, Hosni Mubarak was only reviving Nasser’s scheme. 

Toshka was less grounded in reality than in politics, and this has played into its failure, according to Emma Deputy, a doctoral student from the University of Texas at Austin, who has been researching the Egyptian mega-project as part of her dissertation. She spoke about her research at Nahdet al-Mahroussa on Wednesday night. 

A look at some technical requirements show that not everything was taken into full consideration before the first ploughs started digging, and to this day, the Water Resources and Irrigation Ministry — responsible for the project — does not make public the different studies related to Toshka it may have conducted over the years.

For one, the Western Desert’s high saline levels and the presence of underground aquifers in the area act as a major hindrance to any irrigation project. As the land is irrigated, the salt would mix with the aquifers and would reduce access to potable water. 

The clay minerals found in the soil are also posing technical problems to the big wheeled structures moving around autonomously to irrigate the land. Often their wheels will get stuck in a little bowl created by wet clay that dried, and the irrigation machines would come to a standstill. 

The aura of secrecy extends to the financial aspects of the project. Toshka’s total budget has been estimated from as low as US$83 million (according to numbers from the Egyptian government) to a whopping US$87 billion (according to the US State Department).

The publicly available state budget does not mention the Toshka project.

According to some figures aggregated by Deputy, less than 25 percent of the original budget has been spent already, but the results are piecemeal. The only objective met so far, she said, is the diversion of water from Lake Nasser into what little of the Sheikh Zayed Canal was built.

The canal is currently 60 kilometers short of the first of the oases through which it was supposed to run, Baris.

“It’s unfortunate, because Baris would have benefited from the canal,” said Deputy. Strict water management in most of the western oases has the water shutting down after 9 pm.

Deputy estimates that, as of 2010, Toshka has irrigated about 16,500 feddans, but she concedes that her numbers might be too high. Conflicting government figures show that about 1,000 feddans have been reclaimed in all of Egypt from 1996 to 2010.

Toshka’s original objectives were set in two phases: in the first one, the Sheikh Zayed Canal would be completed and 550,000 feddans would be reclaimed. At the end of the second phase in 2017, a total of two million feddans would have been recovered from the Western Desert.

In 2005, the government announced that it was abandoning the second phase entirely and that the deadline for the project’s completion was extended to 2022.

According to Deputy, canceling the second phase did not increase the project’s chances at becoming successful, because so many initial targets had not been met.

“(Toshka) was failing so badly in the first place that it didn’t make a difference to cancel the second phase,” she said.

Conservationist Mindy Bahaa Eddin considers Toshka an example of “disaster planning” in Egypt. She said that there is a greater need for stakeholder consultations when working out details of such large-scale projects, so that potential problems can be understood and resolved ahead of time.

For example, she said, Toshka would have caused great damage to the many ancient sites found in Kharga Oasis, in a similar way that water is currently creating problems for sites in Fayoum.

1) Both projects were politically motivated.
2) Cost is too high to afford under the economical circumstances then and now.
3) Egyptian nation has always been the victim.

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