It's No Mirage: Egyptian Oases Vanishing Fast Oases Spawned a Way of Life - and a Hollywood Image. Now They Must Battle Misuse, Modernity

Article excerpt

Isolated by hundreds of miles of desert and without modern conveniences, the people of Egypt's oases led a simple life for generations.

Men rose at daybreak to tend the lush, tree-lined fields. They bartered for food and services and gathered in the evening for a game of el siga, moving stone pieces in the sand. The women baked bread or wove palm-leaf mats, the only furniture in their cool, mudbrick homes.

Today, with paved roads, television, and other trappings of modern life, the past is vanishing. Many people have left mud-brick homes for concrete high-rises. While people from around the world lament that their picture-book image of an oasis is fast disappearing, the new developments could have more serious consequences. Desperate to relocate some of Egypt's 62 million people from the jam-packed sliver of green along the Nile River, the government has been selling large chunks of oasis land to Nile Valley farmers, whose irrigation methods and heavy-water-use crops could completely deplete the underground aquifer and, some experts worry, dry up the oases themselves over time. In Siwa, arguably the most unusual and beautiful oasis, this influx of farmers, who are drilling wells and forcing more and more water to the surface, could, in the short term, completely drown the oasis. "You can't go ahead with any agricultural scheme at any cost," says Aldo Biondi, an Italian agricultural expert working in Siwa. "The oasis will be destroyed." Remnants of grasslands Egypt has five major oases, all located in the expansive Western Desert, west of the Nile River Valley. Inhabited since prehistoric times, the area was a sprawling savannah with lions, zebras, and giraffes before it slowly transformed into what is now one of the world's most arid regions. The pharaohs sent exiles to the oases and the Romans built roads, fortresses, and villages there as stops along their caravan routes. In the Middle Ages the oaseans, as they are often called, erected fortified mud-brick villages to protect themselves against invaders. To this day, pharoanic temples, Roman castles, and Islamic mud- brick towns remain. While the oases have always been evolving, the speed and severity of change have increased dramatically in the past few decades, with enormous developments in recent years. In Farafra, the smallest oasis, for example, the population has increased from 5,000 to 14,000 since 1995. Agricultural land has grown more than sevenfold from 3,000 acres to 22,000. Five years ago, the oasis didn't have electricity, roads, telephones, or a hospital. Today it has all of these. While some of these changes brought welcome amenities, others had a less desirable effect. The government's New Valley Project, beginning in the 1960s, brought a huge influx of Nile Valley farmers to the formerly picturesque Kharga oasis. They used traditional flood irrigation to cultivate heavily water-dependent crops, like rice, practically depleting Kharga's aquifer and leaving the once- rich soil salty and useless, environmentalists say. …