The truly barren "barari" land of the northern border of the delta is a broad belt occupying somewhat more than a fourth of the delta, twenty-five miles wide at its eastern end at Lake Manzala and decreasing in width westward to about ten miles at its western end. With an area of 21.10 square miles (5465 sq. km.), or 1.3 million feddans, it is about twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. The salinity and generally water-logged condition of its soil and the lack of natural drainage keeps most of this area of potential farm land beyond the present limits of cultivation. The salt content is everywhere high; in places near Lakes Burullus and Idku it is as much as 14 per cent. Only along the courses of the Damietta and Rosetta branches is the barari land high enough for good drainage. Here, on strips bordering both sides of these branches, the cultivated land of the delta continues to the sea.
Few roads of any kind cross this dreary, inhospitable region of grayish soil, marshes, lagoons, and dense reed growth; wide tracts are completely without human habitation. During the summer and autumn flood of the Nile it is everywhere difficult of access, and even the scanty winter rains turn it into a muddy morass. The transition from arable land is, however, gradual; patches of alkaline soil appear, the areas under cultivation grow progressively smaller and less productive, and signs of human habitation become more and more sparse. Rice is the principal crop of the transition zone, owing to its tolerance of soil salinity and its high water requirement.
Reclamation of the barari, to which Egyptians look hopefully for a major addition to their arable land, has been undertaken on any large scale only within the last thirty or forty years. Its ultimate success depends on complete control of the Nile flood. The task of reclamation is so costly and must be on such a large scale to be successful that it can be undertaken only by big landowners, land companies, or the government. Recruitment of the large labor force required is in itself a problem, because the region is so sparsely populated that most of the workers must be brought in from considerable distances. Under present conditions, reclamation is a highly speculative venture at best. Even when the land is brought to crop-producing condition, constant attention is necessary to keep it so.
Ten to fifteen years of continuous work are required to prepare the land for cultivation. The reclamation process involves elaborate drainage works in which recourse to pumping is commonly necessary. Natural growth must be cleared, salt washed out by repeated flooding, and drainage canals and ditches systematically maintained. Cultivation begins with one or more plantings of a highly salt-tolerant crop (usually berseem, the quick-growing Egyptian clover) before other crops are attempted.
In addition to the obvious benefit derived from the increase in cultivable land, large-scale reclamation projects in the barari belt have introduced a superior type of rural settlement, quite different from the usual hamlet of the Egyptian farmer -- with well-planned compounds with houses for the workers, offices for the management, stables, and workshops for implement repair. The workers' houses, built of baked brick, cementroofed, and with windows and sanitary facilities, have little in common with the primitive, mud-walled shelters of the great majority of rural Egyptians.