KAHA Egypt (Reuters) - In the Nile Delta province of Qalubiya, lifelong residents remember the days when lush farmland stretched as far as the eye could see.
Today, their view is marred by unfinished brick tenement buildings with metal rods jutting into the sky - signs of the growing problem of illegal construction in Egypt’s agricultural heartland.
The unlicensed building is more than an eyesore - it threatens plans by the world’s top wheat importer to cut its costly imports bill by growing more locally.
Scarce farmland has been eroded for decades by relentless population growth and urban sprawl, and the pace of unlicensed building exploded since 2011 when the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak led to a security vacuum.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that some 30,000 feddans (acres) have been lost each year to unlicensed construction in the past three years, up from 10,000 feddans before the revolt.
Around the Qalubiya town of Kaha, about 50 km (30 miles) north of Cairo, residents are building new homes on farmland on the outskirts of town in areas where crops such as wheat and corn or fruits and vegetables used to be grown.
Farmers like Omar Mahmoud saw an opportunity in the breakdown of law and order after Mubarak was toppled to build an enclosed pen for his livestock on his own land without interference from police or the local government.
Although he now faces a lawsuit and the threat of fines, he says he is considering building a larger structure for his family on the land.
Local farmers eke out a subsistence living on land they inherited from their fathers, but some are fed up with the ever-rising costs - and diminishing returns - of their trade.
“Farming no longer helps me get by,” said Mahmoud, standing amid the rice patties he just planted after harvesting his wheat crop last month. “I’d rather build on it, or sell it off if someone offered me a good price.”
Pressure on the land was noted by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during his election campaign last month, when he proposed that the state build cities in the desert, relieving demand on the thin ribbon of farmland which runs alongside the River Nile and the Delta north of the capital.
The Nile Delta is the one of the most densely populated parts of the country of 86 million people, and Egypt’s breadbasket. The vast majority of Egypt’s wheat production comes from the Nile Delta and Valley.
Landowners in the Delta are not just building for themselves. Some families moving out of the increasingly expensive cities are buying new homes on converted farmland for less than the price of a small flat in town.
Near Mahmoud’s freshly harvested wheat fields, a new neighborhood of recently built mud brick homes is further evidence of the influx of residents from the towns.
Abdel Latif Sabr, 65, was living in a small flat with his three sons and their growing families before he moved to a four-room home in a district that was, until two years ago, a fruit farm on the edge of wheat fields.
“God blessed us and gave us this complete life,” he said as proudly gestured to the bedroom where some of his 12 grandchildren sleep.
Sabr fears fines from the local government and possibility of eviction, but says there has been no word from the authorities since six months ago when he was told by the city council that it was bringing a lawsuit against him.
Authorities in the Delta provinces where lush fields hug the Nile river have stepped up efforts to confront the illegal buildings, but have struggled to keep up with the pace.
New neighborhoods spring up as others lie in ruins, evidence of a dynamiting campaign that has intensified in recent months, according to Abdul-Mohsen Al-Essily, the top local official in the town of Kaha.
“The extent of infringement (on farmland) since the (2011) revolution exceeds the total amount during the 30 years of Mubarak, given the lack of police presence,” he said.
“There must be a deterrent to building on agricultural land through punishment,” he said, flipping through a notebook with handwritten destruction orders.
While it is unclear if the public demolitions and the sight of whole neighborhoods lying in ruin is deterring further construction, experts say the process could prevent efforts to reclaim farmland.
Between the clearing of land for building, the construction of brick and cement structures and their subsequent destruction, the land loses its agricultural value, says Cairo University agronomist Gamal Siam. Restoring it for agricultural use is difficult and takes years, he said.
“If the current rate of farmland loss continues, in 50 years or so, we will have lost every piece of our agricultural land.”
Editing by Dominic Evans