In the winter of 1964, Makhluf Abu Kassem was born in an agricultural community newly created at the far end of Egypt’s Fayoum Oasis. His parents were among the village’s first settlers, moving there three years earlier from the Nile Valley to carve out a new life as farmers.
It was a bright and prosperous start. The region was fertile and for 40 years they made their living growing corn, cotton and wheat.
Now 55, Abu Kassem looks out at what is left of his shrivelling farm, surrounded by barren wasteland that was once his neighbour’s farmland – victims of dwindling irrigation in recent years.
“There used to be enough water to make all this area green … Now, it is as you see,” he said.
In the past, he and other villagers irrigated their farms through canals linked to the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeline since ancient times. It provides the country with a thin, richly fertile stretch of green land through the desert.
But years of mismanagement, corruption and increasing population led to the loss of at least 75 percent of farmland in the village and the surrounding areas, according to Abdel-Fattah el-Aweidi, head of the Gazaer Qouta Agriculture Association overseeing the area.
Now, Abu Kassem fears a dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, the Nile’s main tributary, could add to the severe water shortages already hitting his village if no deal is struck to ensure a continued flow of water.
“The dam means our death,” he said.
Fight for resources
The exact effect of the dam on downstream countries Egypt and Sudan remains unknown. For Egyptian farmers, the daunting prospect adds a new worry on top of the other causes of mounting water scarcity.
Egypt is already spreading its water resources thin. Its booming population, now more than 100 million, has one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, at about 550 cubic metres per year, compared with a global average of 1,000.
Ethiopia says the electricity generated by its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a crucial lifeline to bring its nearly 110 million citizens out of poverty.
Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90 percent of its water supply, including drinking water, industrial use and irrigation, fears a devastating effect if the dam is operated without taking its needs into account.
“If the dam is filled and operated without coordination between Egypt and Ethiopia, its effect will be destructive to the whole Egyptian society and the state will not be able to address its repercussions,” said Egypt’s former Irrigation Minister Mohammed Nasr Allam.
It is estimated that a permanent drop of five billion cubic meters of Nile water to Egypt would cause the loss of one million acres (400,000 hectares) of farmland, or 12 percent of the country’s total, he said.
Sudan says the project could endanger its own dams, though it would also see benefits from the Ethiopian dam, including cheap electricity and reduced flooding.
Abu Kassem’s village, with the bland bureaucratic name of Second Village, was one of multiple agricultural communities created in Egypt in the 1960s by the socialist government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Built on reclaimed desert, it depends for irrigation on the Yusuf Canal, which flows from the Nile through Fayoum, fanning out in a series of channels.