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Female farmers show the way

Apr 29,2015

Cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs.
Cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs.

In parts of Egypt’s arid New Lands, female farmers are choosing to grow prickly pear, a type of cactus, rather than more conventional crops such as wheat. Prickly pear is better suited to desert conditions than most of the crops promoted by the Egyptian government. It also generates an income which helps women to pay for their children’s education. Against a backdrop of climate change and associated water shortages, ICARDA researchers have identified ways that the government can support female farmers in the New Lands and promote the cultivation of prickly pear and other drought-tolerant crops throughout desert settlements.

Due to climate change and population growth in the Nile Basin, Egypt is set to face severe shortages of irrigation and drinking water in coming years - it is predicted that by 2050, Egypt will need to use around 50 per cent of the Nile’s water for drinking alone. At the same time, up to 15 per cent of agricultural land in the fertile Nile delta could be inundated as sea levels rise.

Since the 1980s, the Egyptian government has been resettling farmers in desert regions, the so-called ‘New Lands’, in response to land and water shortages and as a strategy for boosting food production. Each settler is provided with a plot of land, a shared irrigation pump, and a house. ICARDA researchers have been investigating how female settlers have adapted to farming in these arid conditions.

Prickly pear: an adaptation to a thorny problem

Female farmers in some New Lands settlements grow prickly pear, Opuntia Ficus Indica F. Inermis, to supply the tourist sector in Cairo and Alexandria. This is partly a response to their marginalization from support programs, such as agricultural extension activities, which promote more conventional cash crops such as wheat.

In fact, prickly pear suits desert conditions better than other produce grown in Egypt, such as fruit trees. The cactus thrives on very little water and does not require frequent labor inputs. Because of these characteristics, it has sometimes been dismissed as a ‘lazy farmers’ crop. These same features, however, enable women in the New Lands to combine farming with bringing up their children and running their households, which are often located some distance from their farms. The cash they earn from selling prickly pear fruits has helped them to fund their children’s schooling and provide for their daughters’ marriages.

Barriers to expanding the production of drought-tolerant crops

Yet this success story has come about despite, rather than because of, existing policies and programs. Existing programs focus on promoting the cultivation of wheat, fruit trees, and animal fodder in the New Lands, rather than drought-tolerant crops such as prickly pear. A lack of agricultural research on prickly pear has enabled myths about its cultivation, such as the mistaken idea that it should not be intercropped with beans, alfalfa, or wheat, to flourish, limiting its take-up as a cash crop. Other potential uses of prickly pear include fodder for animals and aesthetic products such as oil and cosmetics.

The lack of support for prickly pear cultivation is compounded by inadequate training in desert farming methods generally, especially for female settlers in the more remote New Lands settlements. Poor access to irrigation water is another problem in the New Lands: better-off farmers with land nearer the Nile tend to take more than their fair share of its water, while poor farmers with plots at the end of irrigation canals have to make do with what is left.

Female settlers face specific problems

While there are a few women on village-level water organizations such as Water Councils, their voices are seldom listened to because of local cultural norms that discriminate against them. In the more remote settlements, many female household-heads have had their electric irrigation pumps and transformers stolen. Others have been issued with diesel pumps which are expensive to run and produce high carbon emissions. Many women are nervous about using diesel pumps because they fear that their clothes will get caught in the turbines.

The Egyptian agricultural authorities could support poor farmers in Egypt’s New Lands, both male and female, to adapt to climate change by:

  • Delivering information and training on drought-tolerant crops
  • Guaranteeing fairer access to irrigation water.

In addition, the government could support female farmers by:

  • Improving security in remote desert settlements to reduce theft
  • Ensuring that women have a strong voice on Water Councils and other irrigation bodies
  • Providing equipment suited to women’s specific needs, such as electric irrigation pumps.

Improving support to New Lands farmers 

ICARDA has identified several ways in which the Egyptian government could support both male and female farmers’ efforts to farm successfully in the New Lands against a backdrop of climate change and increasing water stress. Poor farmers need better and fairer access to irrigation water. They also need training and information to encourage them to grow drought-tolerant crops. The problems specifically facing female farmers need to be addressed, for instance by improving security in remote settlements and ensuring that their voices are heard on Water Councils. By successfully growing prickly pear as a cash crop, female farmers have shown a way to adapt to climate change. Now they need the support to back them.

For more information:

Najjar, D. (2015). Women’s contributions to climate change adaptation in Egypt’s Mubarak Resettlement Scheme through cactus cultivation and adjusted irrigation. In Buechler, S and Hanson A.S. (Eds). A Political Ecology of Women, Water and Global Environmental Change. Chapter 8.

This research was conducted within the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems. In addition to Dryland Systems, support was provided by Canada's International Development Research Center (IDRC), the Ford Foundation, and the University of Western Ontario.