Enabling women to combine farming with bringing up children and running household

Photo credit: ICARDA

Cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs. 

Female farmers show the way

In parts of Egypt’s arid New Lands, female farmers are choosing to grow prickly pear, a type of cactus, rather than more conventional crops such as wheat. Prickly pear is better suited to desert conditions than most of the crops promoted by the Egyptian government. It also generates an income which helps women to pay for their children’s education. Against a backdrop of climate change and associated water shortages, ICARDA researchers have identified ways that the government can support female farmers in the New Lands and promote the cultivation of prickly pear and other drought-tolerant crops throughout desert settlements.

OPUNTIA BIOGAS ELQUIGLOBALENERGY P9270040_2 copy.JPG
OPUNTIA BIOGAS ELQUIGLOBALENERGY P9270040_2 copy.JPG

Due to climate change and population growth in the Nile Basin, Egypt is set to face severe shortages of irrigation and drinking water in coming years – it is predicted that by 2050, Egypt will need to use around 50 per cent of the Nile’s water for drinking alone. At the same time, up to 15 per cent of agricultural land in the fertile Nile delta could be inundated as sea levels rise.

Since the 1980s, the Egyptian government has been resettling farmers in desert regions, the so-called ‘New Lands’, in response to land and water shortages and as a strategy for boosting food production. Each settler is provided with a plot of land, a shared irrigation pump, and a house. ICARDA researchers have been investigating how female settlers have adapted to farming in these arid conditions.

PRICKLY PEAR: AN ADAPTATION TO A THORNY PROBLEM

Female farmers in some New Lands settlements grow spineless prickly pear, Opuntia ficus-indica f. inermis, to supply the tourist sector in Cairo and Alexandria. This is partly a response to their marginalization from support programs, such as agricultural extension activities, which promote more conventional cash crops such as wheat.

In fact, prickly pear suits desert conditions better than other produce grown in Egypt, such as fruit trees. The cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs. Because of these characteristics, it has sometimes been dismissed as a ‘lazy farmers’ crop. These same features, however, enable women in the New Lands to combine farming with bringing up their children and running their households, which are often located some distance from their farms. The cash they earn from selling prickly pear fruits has helped them to fund their children’s schooling and provide for their daughters’ marriages.

BARRIERS TO EXPANDING THE PRODUCTION OF DROUGHT-TOLERANT CROPS

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For more information:

Najjar, D. (2015). Women’s contributions to climate change adaptation in Egypt’s Mubarak Resettlement Scheme through cactus cultivation and adjusted irrigation. In Buechler, S and Hanson A.S. (Eds). A Political Ecology of Women, Water and Global Environmental Change. Chapter 8.

Read the full article: ICARDA

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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