Egypt's urban expansion depletes Nile farmland

Red-brick urban settlements are springing up everywhere, snuffing out farmland to make way for the growing population

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Lush green farms once stretched all around the Nile River, the fertile dark soil a vital source of life since the Pharaonic times, when ancient Egyptians developed some of the first sophisticated farming methods in the region.

Now, red-brick urban settlements are springing up everywhere, snuffing out farmland to make way for the growing population in this country of about 90 million people.

Children still play among the banana trees and alfalfa fields as sheep graze nearby and palm trees rustle in the wind - but such pastoral images are being pushed out by an unstoppable sprawl encroaching on the landscape.

Most Egyptians have always lived in the fertile stretch along the Nile, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the country's territory, and which is also the nation's breadbasket. But urban growth has become the chief threat to farmland as Egyptian farmers haphazardly - and illegally - build new houses to make room for the next generation.

The construction surged even more amid a security vacuum that followed the 2011 popular uprising that ousted the country's long-time autocrat, Hosni Mubarak. Building without permit on agricultural land is now a crime punishable by jail or fines - but it hasn't stopped. In the absence of government subsidies and modern machinery, impoverished famers struggle to make ends meet and feel they have no choice but to build on their own land or sell it off, bit by bit.

Scientist Farouk El-Baz warned that at this rate, Egypt could lose all its agricultural land within 180 years. There wouldn't be a single acre left "to plant on," he said, and Egyptians will be "dying of hunger, as agricultural land disappears under modern urbanism."

Aged and tanned by Egypt's scorching sun, 49-year-old farmer Hamed Fathi says farmers have no option but to build without permits.

"The government sells lands to businessmen dirt cheap, while we can't get a few meters to build for our sons," he sighs. "What are we supposed to do?"

In 2011, a U.N. report on combatting desertification and drought ranked Egypt as the country losing fertile lands faster than any other in the world. Every hour, it said, the country loses around 3.5 feddans (acres) - about 30,000 acres a year.

"Villages are quickly being transformed into high-density urban settlements, without any proper plans for urban expansion or any regulations on building codes," says Mohamed El-Shahed, architect and founder of Cairobserver, a blog focusing on Cairo's development and architecture.

Those who sell their land head to big cities in hopes of finding jobs.

"Farming is no longer good enough," says 55-year-old Abu Islam, standing among his rice paddies, his two children helping him move seedlings. "Everyone has given up on us. I'm waiting for the right customer and price before I sell."