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The oasis of Siwa, Egypt

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Egypt
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Prince Charles
Water Supply

SIWA, Egypt (CNN) -- A remote Egyptian oasis, one of the least polluted places on Earth, has introduced a leading proponent of organic farming to its unique ecosystem and to some of the problems that confront even the most environmentally aware communities.

As part of the official royal visit to Egypt, Britain's Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited Siwa, a patch of green at the heart of the Sahara desert.

What undoubtedly interested the prince most is that no pesticides or artificial fertilizer have ever been used in the oasis. It is that purity that is Siwa's chief advantage and its greatest problem.

The royal visitors drew huge attention to the oasis, which lies less that 20 miles from the Libyan border. As they toured the crumbling fortress city of Shali and dropped in on an embroidery workshop on the outskirts of town, the couple were given a snapshot of local culture.

But it was at the Adrere Amellal, the eco-lodge at the foot of the white mountain, where the prince spent two nights, that he was able to see many of his cherished ideas about sustainable development and the environment in practice.

Mounir Neamatallah, the country's leading environmentalist, has built a sand castle fantasy, an electricity-free luxury resort that has encouraged a resurgence in traditional building methods.

He feels that the prince is in tune with the opportunities while grasping many of the challenges facing the oasis. "There was an instinctive understanding of what we are trying to do here," he said. "The prince is concerned with conserving tradition but realizes the difficulties of harmonizing the ways of the past with modern demands."

The oasis developed largely independently of Egypt. With no proper road from the main coastal town until about 20 years ago, both visitors and Siwans needed permits to leave and enter the oasis. Siwa's two main exports, dates and olives, are its traditional economic mainstay. They also exemplify how contact with the outside world could improve living standards.

Both crops, grown on countless small allotments throughout the oasis and irrigated by the mineral water springs that bubble up from the earth, would earn the Siwans far more money if instead of just selling locally they could be marketed in Europe as organic, a topic that Prince Charles is passionate about.

But while the European certification process is lengthy, the water supply which enables the Siwans to produce an abundance of dates and olives is under threat because of poor management of this most basic of resources.

After lunch the prince strolled along the edge of one of the larger salt lakes that surround Siwa spotting a couple of flamingos in the distance. It is a breathtaking view with the undulating dunes of the desert in the distance.

But the water level of lakes is rising as more deep wells are drilled into the aquifer and the run-off drains into the saline lakes.

The Egyptian government's answer to the problem has been to pump the water from one lake to another. But according to Mounir Neamatallah this is illogical. "With the pumps comes noise and pollution," he explains. "The pumps have been switched off for the prince's visit let's hope they remain off."

The official royal visit ended with a trip to the temple of the oracle of Am un, the religious center where the ancient Greek hero Alexander the Great sought confirmation of his destiny.

While it is tempting to speculate on the sort of question the prince might have asked, local people are hoping that the royal couple will alert the outside world to the problems their oasis faces.

"We love our way of life," said Soleiman, who manages a hotel. "And we know we are lucky because most other oases are dead because of lack of water. What we need is international pressure to keep our oasis alive."

And so as the prince continues his tour of an ever-drier Middle East, the question of water remains as the heart of social, economic as well as environmental concerns.

Siwa may be struggling to come to terms with the 21st century, but local people in the oasis are wondering if this royal advocate of green living will be the catalyst that brings about a solution to their dilemma.

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