Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

16 October 2024

World Food Day

Atef Swelam

“The sustainability of water resources, now and in the future, can be achieved through efficient water use”


When it comes to trying new things, Nile Delta farmers can be a bit reluctant, Atef Swelam knows too well. After all, he grew up among them. So when the irrigation engineer from Egypt had an idea for a new technique that would save water, he thought it’s wise to start the project in his home village of Sharkia, “where farmers know and trust me”. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t count on his own father initially leading a resistance. “He didn’t believe it would work and even tried hard to convince the neighbors not to follow my approach,” he recalls.   

It was the first time local farmers were advised to grow wheat in raised beds instead of on flat flooded land, which is the traditional way. The latter requires a lot of water and money for pumping and labour. Plus, some wheat varieties are sensitive to over-irrigation. 

As a child, Atef saw what inefficient water use did to the larger Nile Delta communities, especially downstream farmers, like his father. He remembers getting up at 2 a.m. before school to help his father irrigate the fields, because it was the only time of day the water was good enough. 

Instead, with the mechanized raised-bed technique (MRB) he developed, upstream farmers use less water to irrigate, leaving more water for others downstream. This is thanks to perfectly spaced trenches between the beds that hold exactly the amount of water needed to feed the adjacent crops. 

Mechanized raised-bed planting, has proven so successful that it’s now promoted across Egypt and about 1.2 million farmers in the country are using it, says Atef, who led several MRB projects at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and recently worked at FAO’s Office of Innovation. 

Because it is expensive and tricky to build these beds by hand, Atef developed a machine that builds them with the right spacing. Importantly, the made-in-Egypt technology is “affordable and convenient for resource-poor smallholders in the Nile Delta”.  

“The machine has enabled farmers to achieve remarkable results”, he says, “including about 25 percent saving in applied water and an average 30 percent increase in crops yields.” 

His research won the 2015 ‘Japan International Award for Young Agricultural Researchers’, and several agencies and countries in the region are now using the technology.  

But perhaps most importantly, it won him the admiration of his late father, who proudly advocated for the technique on radio and TV.   

For agriculture, Atef says, “the sustainability of water resources, now and in the future, can be achieved through efficient water use”.