SIWA: Gazing out from the picturesque viewing platform on Fatnis Island, my cart driver Goma’a brings me a warming cup of karkaday. The sun is setting on the horizon and with about 20 other tourists – mostly French, Spanish and Italian – I am admiring the view. But some people fear that the sun may also be setting on Siwa’s idyllic landscape, and that both environmental developments and swelling tourist numbers may be to blame.
Fatnis Island is no longer an island but a rocky mass overlooking a muddy marsh covered in reeds and dried up salt beds. Dead palm trees frame the island’s gradual shift to bog.
Potential mismanagement of Siwa’s water resources are a growing concern among residents. Siwa sits on a huge salt water well and attempts to minimize flooding have led to the drying out of some areas, such as the near side of Fatnis Island.
Everyone acknowledges that it is difficult to strike a balance between flooding protection and maintaining a consistent water supply, particularly when many local residents rely on plentiful wells to irrigate their crops. The harvesting of olives and dates is still the main livelihood for this agricultural community.
However, visitors to Fatnis Island fear that the delicate water balances needed to sustain such fragile ecosystems are not being met.
An engineering expert working for Siwa’s Administration of Drainage and Irrigation Office explained that the government has an effective system for minimizing flood dangers while catering for local needs. A huge lake with fortified walls provides a drainage basin for excess water brought up from the wells and carried along the traditional series of channels that irrigate the oasis. A system of pumps carries water from the channels to the lake whose wide surface area allows for rapid evaporation of excess water.
Not only are locals skeptical that the government will fund and carry out the necessary maintenance work to keep the lake fully functional, but they are also concerned about the fate of areas such as Fatnis Island and, more importantly, local agricultural areas which seem to be out of this irrigation loop.
While I spoke to the engineer at the local administration, I was also confronted by an angry local farmer who did not feel that his water provisions matched the needs of his crops.
It seems apocalyptic fears that all of Siwa oasis will be swallowed up by a huge salt lake are far-fetched but the guidelines on digging new wells and irrigation techniques set down by the administration to avoid such an eventuality are not helping the farmers.
With pressures on agricultural production and with Siwa’s inherent natural beauty and archeological treasures Siwans, Egyptians and international development experts are looking to tourism as Siwa’s economic future.
Siwa, perhaps the most beautiful of Egypt’s oases, plays host to an ancient mud brick town, numerous Greek and Roman tombs and the ruins of the famous Oracle. Even if claims by Greek amateur archeologist Liana Souvaltzi that she had found the lost tomb of Alexander the Great seem to have been widely disproved, it is clear that Siwa has much to offer the tourist.
A historically isolated and culturally unique town, Siwa is a fragile community where 25,000 residents of Berber and Bedouin origin farm and make handicrafts.
Mahdi Huweiti, head of the local tourist information office, fears that growing tourist numbers could have a disastrous impact on both the community and the landscape. He particularly fears the possible construction of an airport. Siwa is a small town, and the streets are narrow.
“Fifty tourists are ok, but we could not handle 200 a day coming by the bus load, he told Daily News Egypt.
Last year Walid, an entrepreneur from Alexandria, opened up a very comfortable and chic cafe and restaurant complete with a fruit juice bar and a roof terrace by the local attraction of Cleopatra’s spring.
But as Walid says, “In 10 years this will all be changed. It will be like Dahab, with Hilton hotels and many tourists.
In this climate, local entrepreneurs and international NGOs have been quick to understand and encourage the development of an ecologically responsible tourism.
Cairo-based architect Mounir Nematalla has spearheaded this campaign. His three hotels include Babinshal, a hotel constructed in the traditional mud brick style and sympathetically incorporated into the ruins of the old town; Shali Lodge, a beautiful hotel built with locally sourced materials, and the world famous Adrere Amellal Ecolodge.
Popularized by such visiting luminaries as Prince Charles, the ecolodge is a huge complex resembling a medieval palace constructed out of mud brick with the walls engrained with natural salts to allow for a sparkling fantastical shimmering when the hotel is lit up by candles.
With no electricity and set by a remote lake and mountain 15 km from Siwa, this is certainly not the place for the businessman who needs to be in constant contact with his email. For those wishing to relax in utopian surrounds, and able to pay the whopping $400 a night for the privilege, this is a hotel that has put Siwa firmly on the world eco tourism map.
Arguments abound about how much of that $400 a night fee percolate into the local community, and whether the tourists who specifically fly in for a luxury stay outside Siwa are not necessarily those that the Siwan community needs.
But if Siwa is to manage both its ecosystem and its tourism industry effectively, such creative responses as provided by the Ecolodge will certainly be needed.