In the midst of all the current uncertainty in Egypt, one worrying trend is dropping off the radar: the illegal construction of housing on agricultural land. It would be utterly disgraceful if a country, whose ancient civilization was based on agriculture, allowed its fertile land to be swallowed up by an urban sprawl. Egypt’s new leaders have a responsibility to curb unchecked construction before it is too late to reclaim the arable ground.
For a while now Egyptians have been taking advantage of the ongoing security vacuum to hastily construct homes on farmland. Egypt’s politicians have failed to stem the problem, if anything they have sped up the process. In a bid to win votes in the 2012 presidential election, both hopefuls, Mohamed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq, promised to turn a blind eye to illegal building on agricultural land. Egyptians scrambled to build before laws were enforced that would see their new homes demolished.
Building on agricultural land is, in fact, illegal according to the 1966 agricultural law and its amendments. Yet in the wake of the January 25 revolution a growing number of Egyptians violated the law in order to improve their standard of living. Illegal construction of homes on agricultural land has been one of the continuous challenges that police and security forces have struggled to combat throughout the last two years.
In May this year Ahmed Khalil returned to his home governorate of Al-Menofeya in the fertile Delta region. “I was shocked by what I saw, and how the village has changed in a couple of months,” he said. Khalil found red-brick buildings being built on farming land, taking up nearly half of the arable plots. “That was when I realized that this country really lacks stability and security since the revolution.”
A report published by the Ministry of Planning stated that the real-estate sector has deteriorated since the revolution, adding to the explosion in illegal building. Spokesman for Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Khaled Wassif, stated that “The number of illegal buildings has tripled since the revolution.”
To understand the scale of the problem you need to understand Egypt’s geography and agribusiness. Farming in Egypt is confined to less than 4 percent of its total land area because the country falls within arid and hyperarid zones. In spite of the small number of acres, agriculture remains one of the key sectors of the Egyptian economy. The misuse of agricultural land is therefore an imperative issue for the ailing country. “The seizing of lands and erecting residential buildings on them is causing irreparable damage to the country’s agriculture,” warned Wassif.
To justify building on farming land, Al-Menofeya’s residents argue that the rise in real-estate prices made it difficult for them to afford legal accommodation. One resident, Mohammed Gaafar, stepped out of his home angrily claiming; “this is my land, what I do on it is my business and if I wish to ruin it then that is what I want.”
While another resident, Sabah Hammam said “this might be illegal, but the president [Mursi] said that whoever already built is clear of any charges.” Hammam explains that, since the January 25 revolution, they have finally been able to find a decent home.
Usually officials and police storm land before the buildings are finished and demolish the unauthorized structures, Wassif explains. “But the problem is that now it takes two days to build an apartment, to make sure we are not able to demolish it,” says Wassif. Officials are struggling to curb this phenomenon, although cases are occasionally filed and buildings demolished while still under construction.
“We have been speaking to lawyers and filing cases to call for the law to be modified to prevent illegal building,” says Ahmed Shawky, a specialist in Egyptian agriculture. Officials and specialists believe that a more strict law with prison terms, fines and forced demolitions would be an effective solution to the growing problem.
As unrest continues in post-Mursi Egypt, the rate of illegal building may seem an insignificant hiccup in a long list of ailments. Yet, the long-term effects could be far more serious. Desertification continues to reduce Egypt’s food production and construction of a dam in Ethiopia will limit Egypt’s fresh water supplies, likely spelling more ruin for Egypt’s agriculture. This predicament should be a wake-up call for the new government to take immediate action, before Egypt is pushed into a crippling food crisis.