Analyzing and managing human settlement growth in the Nile Valley, Egypt

M. Abdelkader*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: ThesisPhD Thesis - Research UT, graduation UT

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Since the 1950s, Egypt's Nile Valley has faced accelerated settlement growth accompanied by relatively weak governance and coordination. Despite numerous spatial planning schemes aimed at controlling this rapid growth and preserving agricultural land, many urban and rural settlements have spread at the expense of the best fertile soils in the Nile Valley and Delta. With 98% of the population living in the Nile Valley and Delta (104 million inhabitants in 2022), more than one million acres of agricultural land have been lost to settlement growth between 1984 and 2004. Due to the decline in agricultural land, many problems, such as food insecurity, have arisen. , Staple foods, such as wheat which was once an export product, are now imported. Settlement growth has also had socioeconomic consequences, such as unemployment: it is estimated that the loss of one acre can lead to the loss of one direct job and 0.7 indirect jobs.
Though many studies have addressed settlement growth on agricultural land in Egypt, there is a lack of studies that: (1) analyze the types and patterns of settlement growth in the Nile Valley; (2) analyze the policies that affect settlement growth in the Nile Valley; (3) examine the prevailing driving forces and causal mechanisms of settlement growth from a multidimensional perspective; and (4) simulate future spatial settlement growth in the Nile Valley considering current policies and alternative policy directions. Therefore, this research sought to develop a methodology that provides insight into the phenomenon of unplanned settlement growth in the Nile Valley and addresses the aforementioned gaps. This Nile Valley Region is approximately 1,000 km (in length) with an average width of 12 km, and it encompasses eight governorates, of which Assiut Governorate was chosen as a case study. The research was based on three objectives.
First, the physical aspects of Assiut's expansion of human settlements were examined. Initially, the impact of the 2005 land use plan and the political upheaval in 2011 were assessed through the analysis of settlement expansion during the period 2005 to 2020 (the plan's lifespan). The time frame was then extended to include 1999 in order to compare the situation before and after the 2005 land development plan’s implementation. The built-up area was extracted from four LANDSAT TM images (2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020) using symbolic machine learning. A QGIS Growth Classifier was then applied to identify settlement growth types, starting from a land use map of 1999 that was created in preparation for the 2005 plan. The results quantify eight
different kinds of human settlement growth over four time periods (from 1999:2005; 2005:2010; 2010:2015; and 2015:2020) and show that administration approaches and spatial designs to manage unplanned development on agrarian land have been ineffective. All time periods saw significant unplanned growth, albeit with some variations. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the general political instability brought about by the Arab Spring in 2011 resulted in a higher rate of unplanned growth in the 2010:2015 period, as landowners took the power vacuum as an opportunity to build with little regard for possible sanctions.
Second, the research identified why and how unplanned settlement growth occurs in the study area. It was necessary to identify and analyse the institutional and policy frameworks for managing settlement growth, highlight the main driving forces and derive the causal mechanisms linking these forces. In-depth interviews, conducted with local stakeholders, were the primary data source for this objective. First, based on previous studies, the actors influencing unplanned settlement growth were identified. Second, the interview guide was designed and 12 government and 42 civil society stakeholders were interviewed to identify the driving forces for unplanned settlement growth. The interview transcripts were analysed using Template Analysis, to extract 26 driving forces. for unplanned settlement growth in Assiut. These forces are related to three main dimensions: institutional and political (15 forces); cultural (3 forces); and economic (8 forces). Several of these institutional and political forces are related to poor governance (e.g., top-down decision-making process, lack of transparency, low capacity of local public servants, administrative fragmentation, corruption, and weak law enforcement). Land fragmentation, return on agricultural investment, and land market were the main economic themes. While the Ezwah concept, ensuring the future of family successors, and the social stigmatization of renting (in) were the main cultural forces.
Meanwhile, the land policy was analysed to assess the impact of formal institutions. The Institutional Resource Regime framework (IRR) was used to analyse property rights and public policies related to land. In light of the internal assessment of property rights and public policy towards land ownership and use, housing, and agriculture, it was concluded that the land system in the Nile Valley developed from a relatively simple regime to a complex regime. This increasing complexity, with the division of commands and obligations among numerous agencies and several levels of administration, has led to unsustainable land use practices.
Based on the stakeholder interviews and the IRR results, a causal mechanism for unplanned growth was derived. The IRR was used to identify the role of formal institutions in this mechanism, while the in-depth interviews revealed the informal institutions that contribute to unplanned growth and, accordingly, the causal mechanism. The incoherent land regime is a significant factor in unplanned settlement growth, as it cannot meet the high demand for land for housing in the Nile Valley. Land scarcity, lack of enforcement capacity, informal institutions such as the Kahoul (a stand-in for illegal landowners who accepts criminal prosecution in exchange for payment), and widespread corruption amongst land officials, result in legal restrictions on settlement growth being overridden.
The third research objective was to develop scenario-based spatial simulations to provide insight into potential future settlement growth patterns. Six scenarios for the future settlement growth in Assiut up until 2030 were simulated using Spatial Logitsic Regression and Cellular Automata using six main driving forces. The six scenarios demonstrate that settlement growth patterns would be influenced by the degree of law enforcement and the annual growth rate of settlement growth. The amount of settlement growth on agricultural land simulated ranges from: 9.2 km2 (1% p.a. growth); 46 km2 (5 % p.a.); and 101.2 km2 (11% p.a.).
The research has some general methodological contributions as well as specific contributions for the Egyptian context. From a methodological perspective, this study bridges the gap between qualitative and quantitative approaches for analysing unplanned settlement growth; it demonstrates the practical value of open-source data and software by tuning JRC’s global human settlement layer (GHSL) data with their source software (MASADA 1.3) to the specific context (Assiut Governorate); and combining several different methods to explore formal and informal land institutions. Specific contributions for the Egyptian context are enhancing the understanding of the phenomenon of unplanned human settlement growth in the Nile Valley from a multidimensional perspective, considering the questions of where, when, why, and how unplanned human settlement growth occurs there. The results of this study can be considered as a warning sign for the developers of the 2052 vision for land development in Egypt, that informal settlement development in the Nile Valley will be difficult to regulate.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Twente
  • Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation
  • Sliuzas, Richard, Supervisor
  • Zevenbergen, Jaap , Supervisor
  • Boerboom, Luc, Co-Supervisor
Award date8 Jun 2023
Place of PublicationEnschede
Print ISBNs978-90-365-5656-9
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2023


  • human settlements
  • Growth
  • Driving forces
  • Modeling future growth
  • Egypt
  • Nile Valley
  • Spatio-temporal dynamics
  • Causal mechanisms


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