Egypt’s desertification is ruining fields, cutting crops and displacing farmers

Agriculture accounts for 28% of all jobs in Egypt. With temperatures predicted to rise by 2-3% by 2050, many families will lose their livelihoods

Eman Mounir8 November 2021 –

Many villages in Fayoum have been abandoned by their residents as men migrate looking for other sources of income | Eman Mounir

Mohamed Shubek, a 47-year-old farmer living in Fayoum, nearly 100 kilometres south of Egypt’s capital, Cairo, remembers when his field was productive and his yields plentiful. But since 2017, desertification has drastically hit his farmland, rendering half his 3.5 feddans (3.6 acres) infertile. The problem has crept over the bigger parts of the Youssef Al-Seddiq district in the governorate.

“I lost nearly 60% of my crop. I used to harvest up to ten tons of olives per feddan. This year, I only made about 150 kilograms. It’s a complete devastation,” he said, looking painfully at the dried-up, cracking surface of his smallholding.

Egypt is among the world’s top producers of table olives and its olive oil production accounts for 24.5% of global production according to the International Olive Council. However, the North African country’s production of olives, and its agriculture sector as a whole, is being weighed down by climate variations such as desertification.

Desertification reportedly impacts 3.5 feddans an hour in Egypt. This is a staggering rate for a country of which less than 3% of its land is arable. A rapidly growing population, over-cultivation, excessive usage of chemicals and other unsustainable farming practices, as well as climate factors, all contribute to the problem.

‘Good-for-nothing land’

Farmers in Fayoum, an area known for its olives, are some of the most severely hit by desertification. Shubek now lives off financial support from his sons who turned their backs on their father’s land and ancestral profession of farming in favour of other sources of income. Yet, he still thinks he’s luckier than some of his neighbours, who own bigger plots of land with even less productivity.

Emad al-Shimy is one of Shubek’s neighbours. He owns 12 feddans, of which he can use only half in the summer due to water scarcity, and eight during the wetter winter seasons. Four feddans, he said, have been completely ruined by desertification and are barren.

“I can’t even sell them. Who would want to buy good-for-nothing soil? Even if someone decides to buy it, it’ll be for nothing,” al-Shimy said, adding that his land was worth 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($31,824) only five years ago, but less than half of that today.

Like Shubek, al-Shimy’s own sons have also left the village in search of work elsewhere.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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

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