SIWA: Raham Osman wants inquiring minds to know that, despite being surrounded on all sides by desert, including the Great Sea of Sand, Siwa Oasis doesn’t have a water shortage. Far from it.
Siwa doesn’t suffer from a lack of water, Osman, said, as he washed his face with a strong flow of cold, fresh groundwater from a sink in the hotel where he works. Too much water threatens Siwa’s livelihood, not too little.
“The water is rising and this causes problems with the buildings, Osman said. He pointed out the cracks forming in the walls of the hotel.
The water-logged ground threatens the building’s structural integrity, he said. But it doesn’t stop there.
“Before we had very big pomegranates, and so many lemons, said Salama Osman, Raham’s father and the hotel’s owner. “Now all this is dead.
“The biggest problem in Siwa is too much water, Osman said. “The ground in Siwa is sick from too much water.
“It’s not in the ground anymore, he said. “Now it’s up.
Flooding the ground
A study by the Desert Research Institute of Cairo and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research determined the cause of Siwa’s ground saturation to be a recent and dramatic increase in the number of ground wells in the area.
“[Ground water] is tapped from the Miocene fractured limestone [layer] through hundreds of springs and flowing wells, the study said. “Due to the misuse of ground-water, a continuous rise of the level of subsoil [shallow] water is water-logging [the soil].
The problem’s cause, according to Jeffrey Gawad, a hydrologist at the University of Arizona, is because of the conveniences offered by gas-powered wells.
Normally, water used for crop irrigation is either absorbed by the plants, or drains back through the ground into natural underground water reserves – the source of the oasis’ water. Before gas-powered wells, farmers in Siwa gathered water from the oasis’ naturally-occurring springs, nourished their crops with the water, and then the excess slowly filtered back through the ground.
However, the introduction of gas-powered pumps has changed all this.
“The gasoline pump allows water to be pulled from far greater depths, said Gawad.
Because of this usefulness, farmers, instead of using water from the springs, are now pulling water straight from the ground, and flooding their fields with the excess. In the 35 square kilometers of Siwa, there are estimated to be some 2,000 wells operating today.
“The problem is that they’re pulling too much water out of the ground, Gawad said. “The water can’t drain fast enough to replace this… the result is the land surface isn’t draining properly and it’s getting waterlogged.
Siwa’s crops are dying “because of the water-logging, he said.
Solving the problem requires limiting the number of pumps, increasing drainage, changing crops to more water-efficient ones, and even using laser sights technology to regularly check if the land surface is even, according to Gawad.
The government has tried to limit private wells, instead offering government wells that serve multiple farms. However, farmers have continued to drill their own wells, going so far as to hide them. A BBC team in 2009 found private wells carefully concealed inside masses of bush and overgrowth.
According to Salam Osman, the government’s money grants for improving Siwa’s irrigation have not had much of an effect either.
“The president has paid a lot of money to solve this problem, he said. “But people don’t care. Too often, they just take the money for themselves.
A 1973 survey described Siwa Oasis as rich in a variety of crops. Ahmed Fakhry, who conducted the survey, wrote: “[In Siwa Oasis] the number of grapevines is little more than a thousand. Sweet lemons, figs, pomegranates, and citrus lemon can be grown with great success. … There are peaches, plums, mulberries, pears, carobs, and almonds … The Siwans also grow in their gardens almost all the vegetables known in the Nile Valley.
Now Osman identifies just four crops for Siwa.
“First we have olives, he said. “Then dates. After that grass, for the cows. Finally, we have some cows.
Even the dates and olives are not what they used to be, according to Osman.
“Now, the olive is OK and the date is OK, he said. “But they’re not nice. Too much water.
Abdullah Mussa, a shop owner in the center of Siwa, said his supply is now limited to just these two crops.
“That’s what we grow now, he said. “Just dates and olives.
Maintaining Siwan traditions and livelihood
Whether it is language, lifestyle or dress, the oasis inhabitants have kept many of their ancestors’ traditions intact and their conservatism alive. Few smoke, and, according to craft salesman Mohammed Tarik, there is not even a single pack of playing cards in the whole oasis.
“Cards are haram [prohibited] in Islam, he said. None are available.
In its earlier times, the oasis was famous for its temple to the Ancient Egyptian god Ammon. Ancient Egyptians believed Ammon to be the universe’s creator and his oracle at Siwa was considered to be one of the ancient world’s most reliable seers. Alexander the Great even journeyed across the desert on horseback to consult with the oracle before campaigning further east.
Of Berber descent, Siwans speak their own language, Siwi, and were only officially added to Egypt in 1819, under order of Mohammed Ali Pasha.
In more modern times the oasis is frequented by tourists, looking to relax in one of Siwa’s resorts, or wishing to sand board in the nearby Great Sea of Sand. Tourists had also been attracted by Siwa’s famous crops.
However, unless more drastic actions are taken to fix Siwa’s water-logging problem, those days may be coming to an end.
Prices have risen dramatically in the past few years, according to Saied Risa, a Siwan farmer.
“You dig just a few centimeters and there’s water–it gushes out, he said. This has limited crop growth, and prices have followed suit.
“Before, it was LE 20 for a kilo of olives, Risa said. “Now it’s LE 50 a kilo… the olives are the same; they’re just more expensive now.
At one of the handful fruit and vegetable sellers in the oasis, shelves were not stocked with local crops. Instead, a friend drives in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from far-off Alexandria.
According to the driver, Mahmoud, he has no choice.
“There is no agriculture here, he said. -Additional reporting by Tyler Somess