A warning about the impact of a rapidly growing population in a land of limited resources.
[Q&A] Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali discusses the current political situation in Egypt, the issue of limited resources and overpopulation, and what he sees for the future of the country.
How would you characterize the political situation in Egypt today?
I believe we are in a period of transition where it is not clear what will happen. We have to wait for the results of the elections between the two persons who are hoping to be president of the republic. One represents the fundamentalist approach. The other represents the liberal approach.
But even with the election of the president, we are at the beginning of a very long process. In my point of view, it will take a few years before we’ll be able to reach a real stability in the country.
I have been involved in many similar situations in Africa, Latin America, Central America, Asia, Cambodia … You will not solve those problems in one year, or by electing Mr. A or Mr. B. It will take more time. Many institutions have been destroyed. And then we have an economic crisis. Nobody mentions the different consequences of this economic crisis.
You have said that Egypt’s problems are not the problems of today – that we need to look ahead to the problems of tomorrow. What did you mean?
Tomorrow means you will have one million more Egyptians every year. Tomorrow means the population, which was 20 million and will reach, in the next few years, a hundred million, will not have enough food, because 90 percent of the territories are desert, and because the whole population is concentrated in the Nile basin.
Tomorrow also means you will have a problem of water. There is not enough water today, and there will not be enough water in the future, because countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda will move from agriculture based on grain to agriculture based on irrigation, and then they will use the water of the Nile.
So, we will have two basic problems in the next few years: 1) the demographic explosion, and 2) not enough water to cultivate additional lands.
What can be done?
What can be done is to encourage emigration. What can be done – and it won’t be easy – is to have a kind of control to avoid this demographic explosion. What can be done is to encourage Egyptians to work abroad.
Even still, there is no water. We have to find a solution. In Asia, they found a solution with the Mekong River. We could learn from that. It is important to have a kind of regional organization taking care of the distribution of the water, taking care of the relations of the different countries concerning navigation on the Nile, and taking care of the problem of electricity by building high dams. But we have not yet been able to create this organization, which was created in Asia, with the Mekong, and is now created in other parts of the world.
For so many generations, your family has been intimately involved in the politics of Egypt. What do you hope to see change in your lifetime in Egypt?
I believe it is important to have a better regional cooperation so that you will be able to have Egyptians working abroad. For the time being, we have Egyptians in Libya, in Jordan, in the Gulf countries … and they represent a very important income for the country. How can we encourage this?
And, again, how can we obtain additional quantities of water so that we can cope with the problem of desertification? Rather than have agriculture limited to five to eight percent of the territory, we want at least 10 to 20 percent of the territory to be used for agriculture. But again, we need water.
Who is working on the water problem right now? Is there anyone who is close to solving this?
There is, but they do not pay enough attention to this problem. You see, one of the weaknesses of countries in the developing world is they are not able to prepare themselves for the future. They are confronted by daily problems, so they give priority to those, at the expense of trying to solve the problems of tomorrow.
I believe that we must begin now, to think what we have to do to cope with those problems of tomorrow.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1992-96. He is currently president of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.