Nile water in Sinai a new asset in development, security efforts

The water delivery aims to create farming communities, increase cultivable space and attract agricultural investments.
Saturday 26/10/2019
An Egyptian farmer stands in a well of water used to irrigate his land. (Reuters)
A much-needed relief. An Egyptian farmer stands in a well of water used to irrigate his land. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Tens of thousands of cubic metres of Nile and treated water are being pumped into Northern Sinai for farmland irrigation, part of an Egyptian national plan for development in the region, the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation said.

The ministry said the water delivery aims to create farming communities, increase cultivable space and attract agricultural investments.

Water delivery to North Sinai is an old Egyptian dream. The idea of pumping Nile River water into Sinai emerged in the late 1970s after Egypt made peace with Israel.

In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ordered a canal dug to carry water from the Damietta branch of the Nile, near Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, into Sinai. Water flowed into the canal and then into Sinai in 2001.

The Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah Canal was created to move water from the western Sinai to North Sinai. The canal siphons water into a major plant in Bir al-Abd, which distributes the water to farmland across North Sinai.

The arrival of water to the Sinai is an important milestone of development, specialists said.

“This Sinai will surely revive national dreams for cultivating hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in this area,” said Sayed Khalifa, head of Egypt’s farmers’ union. “The agricultural development projects that will start as a result will change the nature of life in North Sinai as a whole.”

Egypt plans to reclaim 162,000 hectares of land in Northern Sinai. The government’s motives are beyond economic development.  North Sinai has been the site of continued fighting between Egyptian security forces and militants affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS).

Egyptian leaders have said the national counterterrorism fight should not be restricted to military and security means.

“The rule is that development is a counterterrorism tool, too,” said retired army General Gamal Eddine Mazloum. “Where there is development, there is no fertile soil for the growth of terrorist groups.”

ISIS militants turned parts of North Sinai into war zones, forcing Christian inhabitants out and attacking army and police posts. The Egyptian Army has significantly weakened the extremists but militants are still capable of carrying out attacks.

Egypt has specified nearly $20 billion for the development of Sinai. Most of the funding is from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

On October 21 it was announced that Kuwait had donated $1 billion for Sinai development, money to be used for the completion of road projects. The funds are also to be used to implement water, electricity, housing and infrastructure projects in Sinai, the Egyptian government said.

Arab countries have been strong backers of the Sinai development plan as the region recovers from decades of official neglect. There are also fears that an expansion of ISIS operations beyond Northern Sinai would threaten navigation in the Suez Canal and, consequently, oil exports from the Arab Gulf.

Egyptian officials have said they hope to convince 3.5 million citizens to relocate to Sinai, a 60,000 region inhabited by only 400,000 people. It said the number of residents would total 8 million by 2052.

To encourage its citizens to move to Sinai, Egypt is building tens of thousands flats, establishing factories, universities and schools, constructing roads and water desalination plants.

The Sinai development plan faces challenges, including the eradication of terrorism, which slowed the pace of development, analysts said.

Sinai, however, is awash with economic opportunities, which will be a boon for development efforts, economists said.

“This is an area that is rich with promising investment opportunities,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University. “The new development plan will turn this territory into a new hub of economic activities such as mining, agriculture, fishing and tourism.”