Egypt's Environmental Future

02/16/2011 01:18 pm 13:18:43 | Updated May 25, 2011

In the wake of Egypt's populist revolution, little thought has been given to how difficult it is for a fledgling democracy to flourish should its population be subject to a severe chronic food shortage. Nutritional instability can lead to political instability, and Egypt is more than half way there.

The nation's food prices have been rising at a dizzying inflation rate, imposing a crushing burden on the 40 percent of Egyptians who earn less than two dollars a day. They have had to spend between 60 and 80 percent of their meager monthly income just to put the basic daily staples on the dinner table. Nor are the rest of the Egyptians that much better off, with the average monthly food expenditure constituting 40 percent of people's monthly wages. Meanwhile, to feed a population that is projected to double in 25 years, a crowded and widely impoverished Egypt has been forced to import an ever increasing amount of food as it own agricultural productivity has declined because of soil erosion, salinization and toxic chemical pollution.

Even in the best of times, nature has dealt Egypt a difficult hand, considering that less than four percent of its arid land mass is suitable for farming. And these are not the best of times. The soil of more than half of Egyptian farmland is rated in medium to poor condition, leading to an inescapable conclusion. Egypt needs to slow its population growth and put a halt to rampant environmental degradation or conceivably have its incipient democracy nipped in the bud (assuming it politically gets off the ground).

The Arab state's environmental challenge is further complicated by virtually all of its 80 million people being crammed into a narrow fertile 12 mile wide strip lining the Nile River. The river provides all the country's water needs yet has had its quality and supply seriously compromised by pollution and manmade diversions of its normal flow.

What can we do to help Egypt stave off environmental disaster and the threat it poses to the evolution of democracy? How about a significant adjustment in our foreign assistance program! Out of the $1.5 billion we gave Egypt in 2010, 87 percent was allocated to weaponry. Of the remaining 13 percent, much of it was directed to jump-start some big business ventures, fund democracy indoctrination programs that given recent events, might be deemed overkill, and furnish currency for Egyptians to buy our exports.

Maybe we should cut back a little on propping up the military and instead invest in the sort of project proposed by Ahmed El-Naggar, editor in chief of the Egyptian Economic Strategy Trends Report. He suggests that the United States assist in clearing Egypt's northern coast of unexploded mines, a move that he says would free up hundreds of thousands of precious arable acres for distribution to landless farmers and agriculture school graduates. Such a project would meet two of Egypt's greatest needs, expanded food production and additional jobs in a nation plagued by massive unemployment.

What about offering more assistance in expanding drought resistant crops and water conservation programs? We could allocate funding for facilities in which farmers would recycle rice straw for insulation purposes instead of burning the material and creating severe air pollution over Egyptian cities. Perhaps more money could be directed to Egyptian renewable energy ventures and waste treatment plants.

Our leaders need to recognize the integral link between Egypt's environmental health and its ultimate political destiny. So far, Washington's track record has left much to be desired.

Edward Flattau's fourth book Green Morality is now available.