New bill imposing fees on irrigation provokes outrage among Egyptian farmers

After postponing the controversial land registry law, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime insists on provoking the anger of a different sector of Egyptians: the farmers.

The government went to parliament with a new bill, which sparked much anger among farmers because it required them to pay licencing fees for the water-raising machines they use for irrigation. Article (38) of the new draft law on water resources and irrigation, submitted by the government, specified about EGP 5,000 (about $325) as a licence fee to use a water-raising machine to irrigate agricultural lands.

The article prohibits the establishment or operation of any fixed or mobile lifting machine that is managed by one of the automatic methods or others to raise or drain water on the course of the Nile River, waterways, public irrigation, and drainage networks or reservoirs, for any purpose, without a licence from the ministry for a period of five years, renewable. The overwhelming majority of Egyptian farmers suffer from low levels of irrigation water in canals and waterways branching off the Nile, below the level required to reach their field,s and so they have resorted to using modern, expensive lifting machines.

The new draft law renews questions about the role of parliament, which has not previously rejected a law presented by the government, despite the fact that the primary role of parliament is to legislate laws for the citizens’ interest as well as to monitor the performance of the government. Under the pressure of widespread public discontent on social media, the government was forced to return to parliament last week an amendment to the real estate registration law that forced all property owners and apartments to register their properties with very high fees and through cumbersome procedures, otherwise the alternative is to deny them access to public facilities. Months ago, the government was forced to reduce the fines it stipulated for building violations in the name of reconciliation. The government retreat came after a wave of widespread protests in the countryside and Upper Egypt. Still, it again imposed large fees on car owners and raised it to a large extent in return for reconciliation in traffic violations.

Faraj Abdel Awad, a farmer in Assuit Province, says that the use of “donk” (the name given there to the water lift) is costly in itself. It consumes a large amount of fuel with the increasing difficulty of raising the water to the required level. The farmer points out that in the past, the farmer relied on renting a machine for a certain amount at irrigation times that might coincide with a low level. He said that many farmers today have had to buy a lifting machine because of their continuous need for it in order to save money on their rent and that it has become a source of additional income for some farmers.

His neighbour, Abdul Basit Rajab, interjects in the conversation, saying that the farming profession is no longer profitable but is barely sufficient to feed the family in light of the current difficult circumstances. With this law, Rajab said, the government sells water to farmers at an exorbitant price and indirectly. He warned that burdening the farmer further would lead to a new explosion similar to the villages’ protests last year.

On September 20, and over a period of two weeks, Egyptian villages witnessed protests against the house demolition law that violated the terms of building permits. Despite the government’s insistence on implementing the law and al-Sisi threatening to use the army to do so, it gradually retreated from implementation. It reduced the fines imposed several times and postponed implementation more than once until now. In the House of Representatives plenary session last week, several MPs raised their objections to this article. They demanded the bill be cancelled, stressing that laws that guide irrigation water use are required, but without overburdening the farmer.

For his part, former parliamentarian Amer Abdul Rahim says that this law will be passed as happened with all previous laws that clash with people’s interests because parliament expresses the interests of “those who brought his representatives, which is the authority,” as he put it. Abdel Rahim went on to assert that introducing laws that angered Egyptians and then withdrawing them later predicts a state of “hesitation and fear that possesses the current power, separate from the people, their concerns and interests, and only retracts when the people’s anger rises.”

On the other hand, spokesman for the Ministry of Irrigation, Muhammad Ghanem, says that water risers are used by a limited proportion of farmers, in addition to the fact that the licence extends over five years, and it regulates the rates of payment of fees according to the capacity of the crane and the area of ​​the land. He added that the small farmer will not pay anything because he uses a special stream that is not covered by the law, stressing that it was necessary to change the law due to the increase in the population, the increase in pollution, and the high rate of evaporation.

In the same context, people continued to protest against the new law on social media, warning that what is in citizens’ pockets is no longer sufficient to help the government close the budget deficit. The head of the farmers’ union, Hussein Abu Saddam, says that the new irrigation law is driven by concerns of water poverty and fear of the future impact of dams on Nile sources. Abu Saddam criticises the fact that the draft law was issued without a dialogue with the community, although it affects more than half of Egyptians, stressing that the law in its current form will be an obstacle to the desired agricultural development. He says that the matter goes beyond the issue of fees, to the point that its materials interfere in various ways in determining the areas designated for cultivation, and requires the approval of the Ministry of Irrigation in any new agricultural expansion, and prohibits all works that waste water, without defining them.

The draft law also criminalises contracting to dig underground wells or diverting or seizing rainwater without a licence from the ministry, in a first precedent, in the words of the Farmers Association. The head of farmers’ union believes that setting usage fees for each lifting machine on public canals suggests that the law does not aim to preserve and rationalise water but rather collect funds and create the principle that water is for the one who pays and not for the one who deserves it.

The Land Centre for Human Rights says that the new draft law includes some articles targeting taxation, not citizens’ interests. Abu Saddam explains that the law also included raising the price of legalisation of reclaimed agricultural lands by farmers, increasing the prices of the rent of endowment and reform lands, as well as the rents of agricultural lands belonging to the Ministry of Irrigation, and raising the prices of the meter rents where poor peasants reside.

Professor of Land and Water at Cairo University, Nader Nour el-Din, also criticises the imposition of irrigation machinery fees as “unfair” for farmers. He stresses that the state is obligated to deliver drinking and irrigation water and that farmers have resorted to cranes to deliver water, adding that the Ministry of Irrigation is not permitted to impose fees on the farmer who has suffered from the ministry’s failure. As the water expert affirms, farmers experience the worst levels of material returns.