Egypt’s population is huge compared with the amount of agricultural land available in the country. There are almost 87 million Egyptian’s, which makes Egypt the 16th most populous country in the world, and only 2.87 percent of the land is arable. There are 34,220 square kilometers of irrigated land, and irrigation is required for all agriculture in Egypt except immediately along the banks of the Nile River. The rest of the country is desert. Egypt’s total land mass is just a little over one million square kilometers, so 34 thousand square kilometers of irrigated land is a small amount in comparison.
The Nile valley has always been the source of life in Egypt. For a country that is about the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, one river valley seems trivial, but the Nile is one of the great rivers of the world. Over the last six thousand years the Nile has supported a great culture by allowing agriculture to flourish in the desert. But there is a limit to how big a population the Nile can support. At this point Egypt is a net importer of food, although oddly it also exports agricultural products, although mostly woven cotton.
The Aswan Dam
Egypt obtained complete sovereignty from Britain in 1952, but the Egyptians retained some British methods and some British projects. One of those projects was a dam across the Nile. By 1971, the Egyptians had designed and completed the Aswan High Dam across the Nile in the South part of the country. By this time Egypt already had the largest population of any Arab country and the demand for food was overtaxing the land and water supply of the Nile. The Aswan dam allowed Egyptians to build more irrigation canals and fill them from Lake Nasser which filled up behind the new dam.
The dam has changed the way of agriculture and also the ecology of the Nile River basin. Before the construction of the Aswan dam, groundwater levels in the Nile Valley fluctuated eight or nine meters per year with the water level of the Nile. Once the dam was completed the river levels no longer fluctuated naturally, which had an effect on ground water fluctuations. Because the lower Nile is brackish due to sea water coming up the river with the changing tides of the Mediterranean, the changed groundwater levels are now causing soil salinization and also waterlogging of surface plants.
To rectify these problems requires subsurface drainage systems to be installed where ever there is irrigation and the drainage systems are expensive. But salinization and waterlogging aren’t the only problems caused by the Aswan dam. The dam traps river sediments that used to wash into the Nile delta every year, building up the banks all along the river. Now those sediments are no longer washed into the delta and as a result there is increased coastline erosion all along the Nile Delta. Also with the dam, the water is calmer than when the Nile naturally flooded every year. Water turbulence is lower, which allows more sunlight to penetrate deeper into the river water. As a result more algae grows in the Nile, which increases the cost of drinking water treatment in many places in Egypt.
The Politics Of A Huge Population
For the last forty years Egyptian politics have aggressively pursued economic reforms away from the centralized government that Gamal Abdel Nasser established in the 1950s after independence from Britain. The idea is to attract foreign investment and facilitate industrial growth that can provide jobs for the burgeoning population. With a huge population, poor living conditions for many, and limited job opportunities for the average Egyptian, there is always a possibility of public unrest. When social discourse in Egypt breaks down due to economic stress the military steps in. When violent political dissent emerged in 2011, targeting President Hosni Mubarak, the military, at first, remained on the sidelines, but when conditions deteriorated the military refused to allow Egypt’s huge population to get out of control. The military acted decisively taking political control of the country and chasing Mubarak from office.
Traditionally in an agricultural cycle the military is used to protect the land from being overrun by external hordes who steal crops as they come to maturity. With agriculture and land – as opposed to territory – the military protects the agricultural production so the soil produces a bountiful crop beyond what would be yielded from the same land without planting. The harvest is protected so those who planted can reap and store their yield. In modern day Egypt the military is far less concerned with outside intrusion and far more concentrated on suppressing domestic violence.
The Egyptian army is the largest army in the Middle East and in Africa. It was first formed into a professional army in the nineteenth century and has continued to gain structure and discipline decade by decade. The army fought in a variety of Middle Eastern wars, including five wars with Israel, the North Yemen Civil War, the Libyan-Egyptian War, the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. The role of the Arab world’s largest army is now to provide a steady calm influence over Egyptian politics making certain that no internal Egyptian political factions, or external political factions like the Muslim Brotherhood, provoke the large population to unruly dissent. The relationship to the food supply is no longer direct protection of crops from outside thievery. Instead, the military now subdues the population that is more easily moved towards unrest due to lack of jobs and the lesser role of agriculture in the average Egyptian’s life.