Friday, February 27, 2009

No More Egyptian Cotton For Me!

At least 60 people have died so far this year in gunfights between tenant farmers and landlords in the Nile Delta as they battle over coveted parcels of lush farmland. One in 10 Egyptians is unemployed. In the teeming textiles markets of Cairo, business has never been worse. Nowhere in Egypt is economic hardship and growing resentment against the west felt more keenly.

A Sudanese-Egyptian trader sits infront of his mouldering open shop-front, dwarfed by huge jute sacks of cotton, counting wooden prayer beads. In his other hand is a crude copy of the government futures projection for this year's crop. He places the grubby sheets of paper on the floor and kneels towards Mecca and prays.

The Land Centre for Human Rights, an NGO that fights for cotton farmers, believes the cotton farmers' intensive farming methods are coming back to haunt them. The methods they employ exhaust the soil and pollute the irrigated Nile channel waters that feed it reducing their annual yields. Many of the poorer farmers are harvesting at levels one-tenth the level they harvested a decade ago. Larger farms can afford to regenerate soil by leaving a third of their fields fallow for long periods. This is impossible for the tiny family farms. They are already living at levels nine-tenths below their previous standards and their children still need to be fed.

Unfortunately; crops, yields, fertile land and money are not the only items to be contended with. There is still a deeply ingrained mindset that cotton is good cash crop. The farmers still believe that if you plant cotton, you will be able to feed your family.

Says Hamdi Wabid: “The farmers have still not escaped the old mindset that cotton is a good cash crop. It is becoming apparent that cotton is not an economical crop. Now it's just hurting people – and perhaps most tellingly the environment – badly, and many families are going under.”

To tell the story of the cotton crisis, one has to start with the Nile River. The Nile spans nine countries and with a length of 6,700 km (4163 m) is the world’s longest river. The river begins its journey in a fairly natural pristine state; but, as it journeys downstream passing through populated lands the demands on it become increasingly significant. As the Nile nears the Sudan increasing amounts of water are diverted for agricultural purposes. As ever-increasing diversions are made; concerns are increasing for those in need downstream. This includes our cotton farmers.

As the Nile heads north towards Egypt, it is soon slowed by the giant Aswan dam. This is where the problems are exacerbated. Located 900km (559 m) south of Cairo, the dam was built to eliminate flooding, provide electricity and open more of the Nile delta to farming. What it has done instead is block the Nile's sediments which are no longer deposited at the river's mouth. It is these very sediments that keep the delta rich, fertile, and stable. Without the ability to renew its soil with the help of these rich sediments, the Delta's extensive farmlands are increasingly barren.

The other role these sediments play that is not usually recognized is that they shore up (pun, intended!!) the delta. Since these sediments are reaching the delta, the land is shrinking. Combine this with the erosion from the sea and thousands of square metres of coastland are irreparably lost each year. This destruction has caused part of the Delta to subside and tilt allowing more salt water entrance underneath the land. This increases the soil salinity and groundwater contamination.

As it approaches the sprawl of Cairo, the Nile becomes increasingly polluted. Once beyond Cairo, the river fans into this massive delta, where a host of waterborne diseases, such as schistosomiasis, also flourish. While the previous link to schistosomiasis was just written material, the next two links contain pictures. If you are sensitive; or, of fainter heart; please, do NOT click on these next two links. (;

Finally, in the waters of Alexandria, where almost 40 per cent of Egypt's industry is located; on top of everything else, a healthy dose of oils and heavy metals is added.

A young man named Riad Muhammad, in Egypt, (9) says: “I will be a cotton farmer, like my father and my grandfather. We get time to play and in the evenings we swim in the water channels. Sometimes, after the harvest, we get treats and money to buy lollipops and balloons. My mother tells me she is proud that I work like a man to help my sisters. This is my fourth year in the fields. One day I hope to own my own land, that is my big dream."

Erosion and rising sea levels mean the cotton fields are being pumped with salt water under the rich, fertile soil south of the Nile Delta. This makes it almost impossible to grow crops. Photo courtesy of Robin Hammond.

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