Feature: Chinese firm drills wells in Egyptian desert to help reclaim land for world’s largest sugar plant

Water runs out from a well dug by the Chinese international drilling firm ZPEC in a desert west of Upper Egypt's Minya Province, on Sept. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)
Water runs out from a well dug by the Chinese international drilling firm ZPEC in a desert west of Upper Egypt’s Minya Province, on Sept. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

A giant drilling rig can be seen from a distance in the heart of the desert west of Upper Egypt’s Minya Province, surrounded by heavy equipment as well as energetic engineers and workers in red overalls, white helmets and face masks.

It is one of the three rigs belonging to the Chinese international drilling firm ZPEC, which has so far drilled 120 out of the 300 water wells for Canal Sugar, a 1-billion-U.S.-dollar joint venture between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, to reclaim land for one of the largest farms in the Middle East and establish the largest beet sugar factory in the world.

Li Wei, general manager of ZPEC branch in Egypt, said most of the branch’s team members are Egyptian engineers and workers who work with the support of a few Chinese technicians to turn the Egyptian desert into green lands by bringing underground water to the surface.

“We have brought our equipment, technology and expertise to Egypt since we came here in 2016. We provide training for our Egyptian team and work opportunities for locals. We share our experiences and cultures in an atmosphere of cooperation,” Li told Xinhua.

“These are all parts of cooperation between China and Egypt under the umbrella of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative for common development,” the Chinese manager said.

On the rig floor, ZPEC engineers and workers were busy drilling until they reach the limestone zone where water is located.

Alaa al-Gammal, one of ZPEC’s Egyptian drilling engineers, said it takes them from nine to 15 days to complete the drilling of a well, depending on the challenges they may face.

“I have been working with ZPEC for three years now. It’s very beneficial for my career because ZPEC is very professional. I learned a lot in ZPEC and its new technology in this field,” the young man noted.

ZPEC uses three 40-meter-tall drilling rigs, each with a 650-horsepower engine, and other heavy equipment including rig carriers, cranes, power generators, trucks and vehicles for the Canal Sugar project.

“We have five rigs for this project … The fourth will be back to work within days and the fifth may join them later,” Amir Mohamed, one of ZPEC’s operation managers, told Xinhua near the rig.

ZPEC had challenges when it first started the project because the area was untouched. While the dilling of the first well took nearly two months, ZPEC team now completes a well drilling within 10 to 15 days.

A few kilometers away from the rig, also in the desert, a group of engineers from ZPEC and their client Canal Sugar had smiles on their faces when seeing water gush into a sand pool during a pump test of a newly-drilled well.

“We’re currently conducting a pump test, where we test the well production zone, the amount of water produced, the flow rate and the drawdown to determine the well efficiency,” said Abu Musallam Mohamed Gouda, another operation manager at ZPEC.

The flow rate of the wells in the would-be huge farm generally varies between 250 and 1,000 cubic meters per hour, while the pumps used for the wells vary between 185 and 500 horsepower, depending on the flow rate.

The owners of the Canal Sugar project also expressed satisfaction with the performance of ZPEC which helped them reclaim a large portion of the project’s 76,000-hectare land, on which about 21,000 hectares of sugar beets are expected to be planted in the next six months.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with ZPEC and they have been involved with us more as a partnership over the past two and a half years. Our relationship with ZPEC is quite strong and continues to develop daily,” Aaron Baldwin, Canal Sugar’s agriculture project director, told Xinhua.