Egypt uses fish farming to fight tunnel smuggling
CAIRO - Egypt is creating a large fish farm in the Sinai peninsula on the border with the Gaza Strip, providing an economic opportunity while also trying to halt smuggling through the sprawling network of tunnels between Sinai and the Palestinian territory.
Cairo has blamed growing militancy in the Sinai on the tunnels, saying groups on the Palestinian side use the underground passages to transfer arms and fighters into Sinai.
It adds that the tunnels are used in transferring Egyptian subsidised goods, including fuel, into the besieged Palestinian enclave, benefiting a limited group of smugglers with links to Hamas.
“The fish farm is a smart move on the part of the Egyptian Army to put an end to threats posed to Egypt’s national security by the presence of the tunnels,” Samir Ghattas, director of local think-tank Middle East Studies Forum, told The Arab Weekly. “Seawater is enough to cause the total demolition of any tunnels on the border between Gaza and Sinai.”
Egypt has been cracking down on militancy in Sinai and tunnels in the border area for about two years. The Egyptian Army has relocated thousands of residents from the region and demolished hundreds of tunnels and arms warehouses created by militants in the peninsula.
An Islamic State (ISIS)-linked group staged a series of attacks on Egyptian Army and police posts in Sinai for several months. Scores of troops and police, along with hundreds of militants, have been killed in the fighting. The group has attacked officials in Cairo, including an attempt on former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in late 2013 and the assassination of prosecutor-general Hesham Barakat in June 2015. Cairo accuses Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, of providing Sinai militants with arms and explosives through the tunnels with the aim of destabilising Egypt.
Egyptian Army bulldozers have been digging a fish farm, which is expected to occupy 100,000 square kilometres — more than 16% of the Sinai. Tonnes of sand have been carried away and huge tubes placed to pump seawater to destroy the smugglers’ tunnels and form the base of the fish farm. There are believed to be as many as 1,200 tunnels in the area, with Hamas the prime beneficiary.
Experts estimate Hamas’ annual profits from the tunnels at $45 million. This might explain why the Palestinian movement was strongly angered by Egyptian action on the border. The movement was reported to have said that allowing seawater to seep into the area would threaten homes inside Gaza and cause Gaza’s economy huge losses. Some Hamas figures said demolition of the tunnels would deprive Gaza residents of much-needed supplies that enter through the tunnels.
Gaza has been suffering an all-out Israeli blockade since Hamas took control of it in 2007.
Local economists, however, said turning the area into a gigantic fish farm will pay off for Egypt. The farm is expected to produce 250,000 tonnes of fish every year, the Egyptian government said.
“This means that Egypt can do without fish imports altogether,” economist Rashad Abdo said. “This will save our country hundreds of millions of dollars spent every year on these imports.”
Egypt produces 1.5 million tonnes of fish every year, according to the Agriculture Ministry, which says it has plans to raise production to 2.5 million tonnes in a few years to meet growing demand.
In 2014, Egypt imported around 230,000 tonnes of fish, paying $400 million, according to the Food Industries Chamber at the Egyptian Industries Federation.
The new fish farm will bridge the gap between production and consumption, at least for the time being. “Our country can actually become a fish exporter in the future if it uses modern technologies in the management of its fish farms,” Abdo said. “This is even true given the proximity of the new fish farm in Sinai to the Suez Canal.”