Doubts over Egypt’s super-highway project

Lack of renewable water sources may hamper the development project Copyright: Flickr/divya_

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[CAIRO] Egyptian scientists have criticised an ambitious project to develop the country’s Nile corridor, after plans for the US$24 billion project were announced by the government last month (12 April).

The project, ‘The Development Corridor in the West of the Nile Valley’, aims to build a 1,200 km super-highway along the Nile in the Western Desert from El Alamein to Aswan with railway, water pipeline and electric power line.

Prominent Egyptian scientists questioned the technical feasibility of the project and called for more research before implementing it. They said similar mega-projects have failed elsewhere and that the lack of renewable water sources will destine this project to failure.

Farouk El-Baz, a geologist at Boston University, United States, who devised the project, told SciDev.Net the project will change the face of Egypt and open up new vistas of urban, agricultural and industrial growth.

"Around 30,000 feddans [126 square kilometres] of fertile land of the Nile Valley are lost every year by urban encroachment, while the population is expected to increase by 60 million in the year 2050," said El-Baz.

But Ismail Serageldin, president of the Library of Alexandria and former vice president of the World Bank, said that "few of [such] projects around the world prove to be successful" and many go over their estimated budget.

Maghawry Diab, a hydrologist and former president of Menofia University, said that the closest underground water in the area is about 1,000 metres below the surface, so it is not economically feasible to exploit.

And Rashad El Bayoumi, professor of geology at Cairo University told SciDev.Net that the underground water in the Western Desert is not renewable — meaning that the project "will be dead" when that water runs out.

But these obstacles could be overcome, according to El-Baz. The water for human consumption could be supplied by a new pipeline from the country’s Toshka Lakes, and agricultural activities could be restricted to areas with proven renewable groundwater sources.

The government has also responded to critics by saying that it will appoint two supervisory expert boards to oversee implementation of the project and announced that a conference to discuss the project openly will be held by the end of this year.

Work on the project will begin in the next six months and is expected to be completed within ten years.

El Baz suggested that initial funding of the project should be sought from bonds to be offered to the Egyptian people — the "owners" of the project — but it is uncertain where the US$24 billion estimated by the feasibility study will come from.