National Geographic : 1993 May
the Undugu talks. It has threatened to build its own hydropower dam, rattling nerves in Cairo. The brutal civil war in Sudan has sidetracked one key water scheme-the Jonglei Canal that was to drain Sudan's southern swamps and pro vide Egypt and Sudan each with two billion more cubic meters of water a year. Says Abu-Zeid, "Egypt is not a water-rich country any more. Beyond 2000 our water budget is very dark and very serious." The next day I fly to the town of Aswan, in southern Egypt, where the daily furnace stokes up by 7:30, and the color bakes out of sunsets. From the Aswan High Dam, Lake Nasser spreads south as if floating on the heat. A hundred twenty million tons of silt settle yearly behind the dam, silt that once replenished the banks and built the Nile Delta. To compensate, farmers have had to increase their use of fertilizer, which contributes to water pollution. But the High Dam has kept its short-term promise. In the years of drought before the previous winter's ample rains, Lake Nasser kept Egyptian agriculture stable and the economy from collapse. Aswan is the southern terminal for 200 river tour boats. I take a three-day trip down the Nile, visiting monuments, breathing the fresh stale ness of life unchanged for millennia. Islands thick with grain and fruit trees quiver with reedy growth, and fellahin till the soil among date palms. The river pulses north, generous to those who trust it. Soil breathes, life appears, man struggles. Time flickers past. The new Egypt that wants to grow into the des ert must tear itself away from this nostalgia. History complicates its mission. The British, who occupied Egypt from 1882 to 1922, discouraged most Egyptians from the desert. At the Water Research Center in the delta town of El Qanatir, I speak to Bahay Issawi, former director of the Egyptian Geologic Survey. "The British tried to separate valley dwellers and Bed ouin, to keep barriers between us," he says. "The desert is full of genies and dangerous things, they said. We Egyptians inherited the idea, without knowing why. In 1965 I still needed a permit to go into Bedouin territory. That policy held Egypt back for a long time from Sinai." Now, in a "new lands" program, Egypt offers young people livestock, money, and virtually free water to farm the desert. Thousands have accept ed. The aquifers that could sustain agriculture in the Western Desert and in Sinai have been identi fied and drilling programs begun. In addition, the 103-mile El Salam, or Peace, Canal will soon channel Nile water under the Suez Canal and along the Mediterranean coast to the North Sinai Project near El Arish. This could add 400,000 acres to cultivation. The land is cheap, but too many of the pioneers in the new lands have been wealthy investors, not the young farmers the government wants to encourage. And those who grow staples in the Egyptian desert find that five acres of irrigated desert will grow only as much as half an acre of river bottomland.