GREENING THE DESERT TO FEED EGYPTIANS

``A year ago this was all desert.'' Mohammad Abu-Shadi, an Egyptian government economist, points to patches of green - neatly planted rows of wheat and clover - that break the endless brown of the desert.

Here, in one of the world's most inhospitable climates, far from the bulging cities along the Nile, Egypt is trying to provide a solution to the pressing problem of overpopulation.

Since late President Anwar Sadat launched the ``Green Revolution'' in 1980, the government has tried to attract city-dwellers to reclaim more than 1 million acres of desert land.

The program offers skilled university graduates 10 acres and a house for the cut-rate price of $10,000. In return, they invest labor and know-how to make the desert bloom with crops of vegetables, barley, and watermelon.

``We came here to overcome the main problem in Egypt: to produce our own food by ourselves. We have a sense of being part of a cause,'' says a young veterinarian, who says he chose the hardship of desert life over that of a faceless bureaucrat in Cairo.

In the past nine years, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars rechanneling Nile waters into irrigation ditches and creating the infrastructure for farm settlements. The program that began with 500 graduates in 1980 aims at thousands more each year.

But hopes of finding answers to the problems of urban growth and food imports have sagged under the withering desert sun. Inadequate technology and marketing are two reasons why some reclaimed farms have failed to make a profit. Although expanding, the program draws far fewer recruits than hoped.

Ironically, the know-how and technology needed could come from Israel, thanks to cooperation since the 1979 Camp David peace treaty. Using the latest in irrigation techniques, fertilizers, and seed hybrids, small teams of Egyptian and Israeli scientists in Nubaria and elsewhere have produced bumper crops of melons and garden vegetables.

The joint venture - although a well-kept secret in Egypt because of its political sensitivity - has provided techniques that could yet help Egypt feed itself.

``The lesson is that you can green the desert,'' says a Western diplomat in Cairo.

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