How to save an oasis

CAIRO — “An oasis, by definition, is a sensitive ecosystem,” said Mounir Neamatalla, who as an Egyptian environmental consultant shares something in common with his pet cause, the Siwa Oasis: Each is a rarity.

While most known oases on the planet have dried up or otherwise been destroyed, he said, "Siwa was an exception.”

But recently, Egypt’s most enchanting and remote oasis has found itself in serious trouble. And Neamatalla, president and founder of Environmental Quality International (EQI), is on a one-man mission to save it.

For the leader of an uphill — some would say futile — battle, Neamatalla is always quick to cede the spotlight, arguing that he’s just a well-intentioned entrepreneur generating interest in the oasis.

But with the forces of profiteering and capitalism working against him, Neamatalla finds himself in a pitched battle best waged, he believes, through education and collaboration.

Few had heard of Siwa before Neamatalla decided to begin investing there in the mid-1990s. The oasis is a nine-hour slog from Cairo in the middle of the western desert, a stone’s throw from the Libyan border.

Siwa is widely considered Egypt’s most alluring oasis, with sparkling azure lakes, lush palm groves and traditional mud houses dotting the landscape.

The oasis has a population that now tops 20,000. Its inhabitants, historically isolated from the outside world, speak a unique Berber language, celebrate a culture unique from any in north Africa, and enjoy significant autonomy under Egypt’s autocratic government system.

But in 1980, all that began to change. In an effort to bring Siwa into Egypt’s commercial fold, the government built a road to the oasis, opening up the door for commerce and trade — but also for degradation of the land and the traditional culture. Today, there is talk of building a commercial airport in the oasis.

Laborers, businessmen and tourists began to pour in and eat away at the pristine ecosystem and distinct culture.

Five water companies currently operate out of Siwa, pumping water from its underground aquifers and using Siwa’s remoteness as a marketing tool. This, said Neamatalla, is one of the greatest threats to the oasis today.

Since the water companies began mining these non-renewable water sources, Neamatalla argued, the oasis has had drainage issues, the companies have had to drill deeper and deeper for water, and the natural springs around the oasis have become increasingly saline.

In 1995, Neamatalla dedicated himself to changing the life trajectory of the oasis and expanded the scope of his environmental consulting business by building the first of what would become three world-class lodges meant to encourage eco-tourism, education and awareness about the oasis.

“In 1995, we decided to begin investing in accordance with the principles on which we founded our business,” he said.

Adrere Amellal is Neamatalla’s masterpiece. It’s an eco-lodge built with traditional Siwan methods. It has no electricity, serves food cooked the traditional Siwan way and gets its water strictly from natural springs.

Adrere Amellal has only 40 rooms, noted Neamatalla, because that’s all the on-site natural spring would support.

“What is unique about our enterprise,” he said, “is that it’s an enterprise in sustainable living. If enterprises are as open and as committed as we are, I think this can be a fantastic example of taking poor and dormant economies and making them alive and wealthier and durable.”

And there are signs of a greater sea change in Egypt today.

Lynn Freiji is the founder and president of The Wadi Environment Science Center, an NGO dedicated to championing environmental causes around Egypt. According to Freiji, Neamatalla's efforts represent just a part of a broader movement towards sustainable living.

“I believe there is a strong momentum happening over the last several years,” she said, arguing that as environmental standards in the country bottomed out, education and awareness on the issues edged upwards.

Through its three lodges, EQI has managed to increase awareness of the oasis and of the importance of preservation. Eminent academics and environmentalists have begun visiting and showing more interest in the cause, Neamatalla said.

But EQI’s efforts haven’t stopped with education. By committing to traditional Siwan building styles, Neamatalla is trying to combat the trend of Siwans flocking to cheaper modern styles that incorporate cement.

EQI involves — either informally or through employment — between 12 percent and 15 percent of the Siwan families in its projects. As a result, a renaissance in the construction of traditional buildings is now underway. "Today, a lot of the Siwans, even as they build in the non-traditional way, incorporate traditional methods,” Neamatalla said.

The company has also invested in the production of olive oil and handicrafts. They do all of this, Neamatalla said, by encouraging and sponsoring local production rather than by bringing in outside labor. And thanks largely to EQI, traditional Siwan products are now sold around Cairo.

But there are signs that saving the oasis may be too big a task for any one man. And Neamatalla seems to know it.

“We are not in a position to manage the evolution of the oasis, but we can show what responsible private investment can do,” he said, adding that preserving the Siwan culture and environment would take the efforts of more private investors and international environmental groups, as well as the local Siwan government and the Egyptian national government.

This attitude is representative of a frustration held by many in the environmental community: that the government lacks either the will or the ability to take on this challenge by itself.

“I think what we're lacking is a centralization of the process,” Freiji said, noting that with more than 18 million people in Cairo, no one group has been capable of affecting broad mobilization and social change on the environmental front.

Neamatalla is pressing onward. And his vision doesn’t end at Siwa’s eroding edges. “We have the opportunity to create a world-class example of sustainable living,” he said.

After allowing himself a moment of wistfulness, he added, “How deeply contributing Egypt could be to a world renaissance.”

More GlobalPost Dispatches by Theodore May:

What to do with Egypt's wanderers

Trash or treasure: Egypt's poorest decide

Cairo on $2 a day