Overpopulation: Egypt’s highway to breakdown

In Egypt, the “common good” culture has long been lost in the face of the quest for individualistic material gains, writes Muhammad Moneib in a call for drastic and revolutionary changes.

Lying among dozens of newly built residential complexes in the horizon of Cairo are the Great Pyramids of Giza. Surrounded from almost every direction, the ancient landmark that was once visible from afar is now barely noticeable. Decades upon decades of failed policies, corruption, and general carelessness have put the famous wonder of the world in such a dire state, symbolizing the situation of a whole country whose heavy overpopulation not only has eroded its illustrious past, but has eaten up much of its scarce fertile land, clearly jeopardizing its future.

Since the dawn of history people have settled along the banks of the Nile river. Considered as the longest river in the world, the Nile descends from the fertile lands of Uganda and Ethiopia through Sudan into the largely arid lands of Egypt till it meets the Mediterranean Sea. This flow formed a narrow strip of fertile areas along the river in the middle of the vast deserts of Egypt that allowed the emergence of one of the earliest and most enduring civilizations that made the river and the country almost synonymous. Yet, the historic bond has begun recently to show cracks, thanks in large to the stress applied on Egypt’s green lands as a result of the unprecedented population growth and the construction of the High Dam, and their consequent increase in the rates of urbanization and desertification.

Advertised as the answer of Egypt’s problems through increasing its cultivated lands by one-third, the High Dam has ironically proven to be a catalyst of Egypt’s fast loss of green lands. Since its completion in 1970, the so-called Aswan Dam has proven substantial in the urbanization of many of Egypt’s villages by providing electricity. The artificial lake Nasser – named after the populist president who overlooked the dam’s inception – acted as a basin allowing for irrigation throughout the year by effectively banning the seasonal flood.

However, along with the floods the dam has obstructed many of the natural ingredients that formed the ecosystem around the Nile, most notably silt. Such a loss caused a rise in the usage of artificial fertilizers, which, in turn, caused the deterioration of the soil’s fertility, effectively cancelling out the advertised initial benefits. And that’s only one aspect of the problem.

The effects of the High Dam were not just felt on the cultivated lands. During the dam’s construction, it was clear that Aswan’s Abu Simbel Pharaonic temples stood the danger of being submerged by Lake Nasser. A massive relocation campaign was initiated under the umbrella of UNESCO – the project was later hailed as a triumph of archaeological engineering. The recollection of this event in the present context can only bring to attention the probable future need of a similar effort to save the pyramids from submergence by the city.

An article in the Guardian dating back to 2006 explored a similar situation with another famous ancient Egyptian monument: the Temple of Karnak. Citing research done by American Egyptologists concerning the state of the temples in Luxor, it asserts that among the problems endangering the monuments, “the most important threat has involved the recent, massive intensification of farming along the Nile and the widespread planting of sugar cane, a plant that flourishes in saturated soil,” whose effect is that “the ground water – which contains high levels of salt – is being absorbed by the temples’ soft sandstone,“ which will eventually cause “the rock disintegrates.”

The article concludes with the then secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities asserting that “It would be pretty much impossible to change agricultural practices,” championing an engineering solution instead: a clear admission of the irrevocable effects of overpopulation. Around the same time of the temples’ relocation, a similar, albeit less glorious, relocation was taking place as a consequence of the dam’s construction. First, some Nubian villages that stood in the dam’s way were forced to move aside. Later, however, the relocation was more voluntarily: Thanks to the gradual rise in the living standards of many peasants caused by the temporary abundance the dam had created in combination with Nasser’s populist policies, many of the peasants started to look for more, eventually either emigrating to the city (a trend that started in the late Thirties but with far less steadiness), or bringing it to their villages. A massive cultural relocation was taking place.

Such social mobility has often been linked to consumerist behavior that has become mainstream in the Egyptian culture over the years. Similarly, the availability of stored energy – like the one provided by the High Dam – is often considered the main drive of overpopulation. While there’s no sharp increase of the Egyptian population in the decades subsequent to the dam’s completion, its inception was in part to sustain the growing demand on food production by storing water to allow for continuous agriculture.

The dam’s solution proved to be temporary and short sighted though: In their book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams, Edward Goldsmith and Nickholas Hildyard state that “Given that the overt reason for building the Aswan Dam was to relieve Egypt’s problem of chronic malnutrition, that loss of good quality land to urban and industrial sprawl is particularly ironic: indeed, without the power provided by the High Dam, it would never have occurred.”

Moreover, the cultural shift in the peasantry caused further recession in the fertile lands as many peasant families resorted to making profit through building residential areas above their own fields. A 2002 study published in the International Journal of Remote Sensing concluded that, “urban land cover types to occupy 3.7% of the total area of Egypt and that over 30% of the soils most suitable for agriculture are under urban land cover.”

This grim figure makes much sense when viewed alongside the rising figures of Egypt’s food imports, which where estimated back in 2010 by the oil minister at 40% of Egypt’s food needs and 60% of that of wheat; Egypt is accounting for the loss of its current and stored energy through expensive and unstable external resources. Despite its apparent transparency concerning this issue, it is the government’s complacency and failed policies throughout the decades that have caused the once promising country to fall into a state of dystopia that culminated into the 2011 revolution. Yet, the network of the beneficiaries of such a corruption have proved too resilient when facing the forces of change, that after almost three years from the toppling of Mubarak, nothing has changed to the better when it comes to governance.

On the contrary, the weakening of the heavily centralized government proved even more disastrous, as many have seized the opportunity to go on with their individualistic ambitions, including, but not limited to, urbanizing more cultivated lands. The irresponsive bureaucracy was replaced by irresponsible individualism in face of the government’s disappearance, as if the corruption of the state had paved the road for a state of corruption.

The dependency of Egyptians on the Nile is echoed even more loudly in the form of their dependence on their government. Just as they inhabit densely the narrow banks of the Nile, a lot of Egyptians look to Cairo either for work or as the only place for interaction with the centralized government’s bureaucracy. Since the 1940s, the rate of population growth of Cairo surpassed that of Egypt as a whole. At the highest point, Cairo’s population was a little shy of the fifth of Egypt’s. This figure has receded recently, however, because of the increased rate of urbanization of other cities.

Still, the dependency on Cairo is evident in the constant stream of rural-to-Cairo immigration, the concentration of businesses and governmental institutions in its suburbs, and the numerous new settlements encircling it, constituting what is ironically dubbed as the “new cities.” All these factors contributed to the transformation of Cairo into a highly polluted city of almost no green spaces (usually lost to urbanization) and harboring one of the most inefficient traffic networks in the world.

In an effort to reduce overpopulation, a recent campaign was initiated to call for family planning. Flyers were put on the walls and fences of Cairo’s streets to remind the population of the dangerous situation, and TV commercials were made to inform about the necessity to plan for the family’s future by having fewer children. The campaign was met with ridicule by a large portion of the population – many of them illiterates – partly due to general mistrust to whatever the government says, partly because many popular religious scholars have claimed that such an act as family planning is forbidden.

Hence, one cannot downplay the role of religious dogma in a country like Egypt. Another recent notable failure of the government was an attempt to unify the call of prayers of the capital’s thousands of minarets. The goal was to make all the mosques use one call for the prayers so as to produce a harmonious sound instead of the noise-inducing interference among the thousands of calls that are raised five times each day. Several attempts to impose it as a law went unnoticed as the proposal was ignored by almost all mosques.

The same had happened with similar awareness campaigns concerning the status of women in the Egyptian society. Many women in low-income families are faced with the difficult situation of working to sustain their families and bearing more and more children to fulfill what is perceived culturally as their ultimate obligation. These long-held beliefs are very dear to the masses, and no cosmetic attempts, however sincere, to change them would have a lasting effect. Solutions must be more effective in dealing with the root causes instead of trying to treat the symptoms.

Egypt’s perils have many parallels in the world. The planet itself is feeling the stress of overpopulation as the steady growth makes us oblivious about the environmental damage humans keep on causing. As for Egypt, the limit of sustainability may be even closer. The last three years witnessed unprecedented unrest with no sign of calming down to the point prior to the revolution. While overpopulation may not be a direct link, its effects are. Egyptians are beginning to feel the limits of their country’s sustainability as the economy keeps on falling behind and the prices keep on soaring up. Coupled with a failing economy, overpopulation is deadly and breakdown is inevitable.

As the matters stand, there’s not much room for optimism. The complexity of the overpopulation problem is that its effects turn into being its new causes, forming a feedback loop that grows like a snowball: Overpopulation needs more economic growth, which means squeezing more energy from the environment, which, in turn, means even more growth in the population. Such a snowball reaches a size by which it gains a destructive power sufficient to destroy its environment and eventually reaching self-destruction.

To avoid this grim scenario, many countries facing overpopulation have resorted to extreme measures – China’s one-child policy being the most notable example. What started as a controversial social engineering attempt to control its population growth, has been successful in slowing down the rate of growth of a population of more than a billion people from 2.8% in the 1970s down to 0.5% at present. Nonetheless, as with most attempts of social and environmental engineering, the side effects turned out to be a lot more critical than initially thought. China’s population is aging fast, endangering the competitiveness of the heavily industrial country on the world stage.

Back in Egypt, the “common good” culture has long been lost in the face of the quest for individualistic material gains. Even for those who recognize the common danger, there’s not much to be done unless a consensus is built to make drastic and revolutionary changes in the social and economical layers of the society to fight corruption, lessen the gap between the rich and the poor, decentralize the government, empower women, protect the environment, and decrease the population’s density. It is not clear how, even then, Egypt would be able to overcome the external factors of the interdependent global economies, but, at least, the population would slow down as awareness and living standards improve.

Only then Egypt may stand a good chance to survive rather than disappearing into obscurity, the way its most famous monument is heading right now.

By: Muhammad Moneib


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