Photos of dead fish lying on the dry bed of the lake circulated on social media a few days before the ministry issued an explanation of its ongoing measures.
The irrigation ministry stressed that the measures are meant to return the water in the oasis to its normal level without harming the lands adjacent to Fatnas Lake and other areas of special ecological nature.
Owners of cafés overlooking Fatnas Lake say the turnout of tourists has been negatively affected, suggesting building bridges to prevent water from reaching agricultural lands on their own expense to get tourists back.
Siwa Oasis is located 748km southwest of Cairo. It is replete with natural hot springs, wells, and reservoirs, which have been running since the times of Romans and Pharaohs and were used for living and agriculture.
In October of every year, Siwa receives thousands of tourists when hotel and camps’ occupancy rates reach their peak. At present, however, the locals expect a deteriorating tourism flow due to the dried-up lake – which used to be a favourite destination for many tourists to enjoy its sunset.
Locals say that tourism in the area has already been negatively affected, as “many tourists, who are currently visiting the lake, return sadly after seeing the scene.”
“I refunded the deposits of booked rooms in September until the water returns,” Tamer Abdeen, owner of Marasina Camp that overlooks the lake, told Ahram Online.
Ahmed Eissa, an owner of a café on the island, said the lake’s scene has been dramatically changed from dozens of tourists watching its dazzling golden sun during sunset to an abandoned place; no one could sit and have a drink at his café because of the bad smell of dead fish.
“Tourists’ flow in the summer season is already low, and since 4 August visitors that arrive leave immediately… in a matter of days I will not be serving anything,” Eissa told Ahram Online.
“The sunset view all over Siwa is breathtaking, but this lake has different and cozy vibes that make it beautiful. There were flamingo birds and immigrating birds living here,” the café owner said.
“We are far away from cultivated lands. I appeal to the ministry to return water to the lake. The scene is awful now,” he said.
Fabiola Pisln, a 24-year-old Hungarian medical student who has visited Fatnas Island twice, expressed her sadness to Ahram Online, saying she was fascinated by the accommodation and sunset view when she visited the island in July. “I was shocked to see it like this now,” Pisln said.
Despite the complaints of the locals working in the tourism sector, Mohamed Omran Beheiry, the head of the Tourism Administration of Siwa Oasis in Marsa Matrouh governorate, welcomed the ministry’s new measures.
“Being one of Siwa’s residents, I believe this is the right thing to do. The porosity absorbs salts and affects plants and homes around here… we have been appealing for this decision to be effected,” Beheiry told Ahram Online.
Irrigation ministry’s development plan
The ministry has begun implementing a plan for the development of the oasis and its bridges, ponds, wells, and natural springs to maintain agricultural production, according to a statement the ministry released a few days ago.
The ministry added that it is currently applying several measures to solve problems that have been ongoing for 30 years by developing irrigation and drainage systems in Siwa Oasis.
“The development measures are meant to introduce radical solutions to the problem of increasing salinity in the water of the ‘cracked limestone reservoir,’ the main reservoir for the production of irrigation water in the oasis, as a result of the random drilling of wells,” the ministry noted.
It added that the measures also aim to solve “the problem of increasing quantities of agricultural wastewater” that led to a rise in the level of groundwater in the agricultural lands of the oasis, which “negatively affected these lands.”
Since the 1970s, farmers have been digging random wells for their expanded farms and agriculture activities, which increased the amount of agriculture water wastage that has no drainages to go through.
Deep wells are being dug to produce fresh water from the Nubian sandstone reservoir to mix with the water of surface wells, the ministry explained.
It added that many underground wells have been closed as they were excessively withdrawing water from the surface aquifer, leading to a decrease in water levels in ponds and drains, including the Fatnas area, especially during the current period of the year when the evaporation rate reaches its peak.
This has been positively reflected on the lands adjacent to the lake, which were previously damaged and the productivity of their crops (palms and olives) deteriorated due to the high ground water levels, the ministry pointed out.
Siwa Oasis is famous for cultivating dates and olives. In 2020, Egypt produced 1.7 million tons of dates, contributing over 21 per cent of the global date production, estimated at eight million tons, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Local reports say that out of the 1.7 million tons, Siwa Oasis alone produces about 350,000 tons of various types of organic dates.
Osama Abdel-Zaher, the chairperson of the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources’ of Underground Water Sector, told Ahram Online that the water levels in Fatnas Lake will gradually increase with the advent of autumn and winter seasons, and tourism could resume.
Open Water Channel Project
The agricultural wastewater in Siwa Oasis tends to rest in ponds and low-level lands and has eventually formed four large lakes in the oasis, according to Beheiry.
Two lakes are located in the western part of the oasis: “Bahi El-Din” and “El-Maraky” – which is a large lake that includes Fatnas Lake which is no more than two percent of its size. While in the eastern part there are “Ghormi” and “Zaitona,” Beheiry said.
“The lakes to the west are abundant in water, while the eastern ones are suffering from desertification. The more water levels rise in these lakes, the more houses and farming lands are affected, whether in winter because of the increased levels of water, or in summer because of evaporation which increases water salinity,” Beheiry added.
This is why the state has been building the Open Water Channel Project towards the east, he noted.
In January 2022, Marsa Matrouh Governor Khaled Shoaib laid the cornerstone of the project that stretches over 41km east of the oasis to transfer the surplus of water in the western lakes.
The project aims to save agriculture and reuse water after undergoing a purification process to reclaim around 100,000 feddans in the eastern part of the oasis.
“The project along with the other measures the irrigation ministry is conducting aim to balance the ecosystem of the oasis,” Abdel-Zaher said.
“There is an urgent need for agricultural land expansion in the oasis due to the growing population and economic return,” Abdel-Zaher added.
The project – which is scheduled to be finalised by 2023 – is being implemented in cooperation between the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources, according to Abdel-Zaher.