July 20, 2008

Egypt Negotiates Troubled Waters

By Golia, Maria

Maria Golia reports from Cairo WHEN WINTER COMES to the northern lands, people steel themselves for long months of darkness, damp and bitter cold. The challenges of conducting one's business in the midst of irritating drizzle or pelting rain include sickness, depression and stiffheating bills. The sun's first springtime appearance is greeted with joyous relief and a great deal of disrobing in public parks, as vitamin-D deprived city-dwellers attempt to soak up the precious rays.

In places like Egypt, the situation is just the opposite. It is summer that tests people's health and endurance; inescapable heat, water shortages, and these days, unaffordable basic food commodities, make for a scenario reminiscent of science fiction films about survival on an arid, post-apocalypse planet.

For the wealthier countries of the north, the hardships predicted to accrue from global warming and the consumption patterns that brought it about, belong to a disquieting but somehow remote future era. In Egypt, a desert country short of land and water, where too many people are obliged to compete for the same meagre resources, that future has already arrived.

Egypt's water problem cuts two ways: on the one hand a scarcity of fresh water to drink and irrigate crops, on the other, an overabundance of salt water, already rendering farmlands barren, and threatening to drown the low-lying areas along the Mediterranean coast. Coastal erosion, a consequence of both the Aswan High Dam and global warming-related sea rises, is readily observable in Egypt. The beaches of Alexandria, where millions of Egyptians once spent a modest semi-urban summer holiday, have all but disappeared.

A United Nations Environment Programme report suggests that 8m Egyptians would be displaced by a one metre sea rise, which is expected within this century, including the entire population of Alexandria, and the urban clusters surrounding Rosetta, Damietta and Port Said. The first 30cm of sea rise, predicted within a mere 13 years by the Climate Change Division of Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency, will displace at least a half a million Egyptians, and cause the loss through inundation of 200km of coastal land.

Prior to the building of the Aswan High Dam, inaugurated in 1971, the Nile's annual floods deposited between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of rich silt in the delta, reinforcing the coastline. Without these deposits, the coastline is receding, the loss of land accelerated by urban and industrial expansions that have replaced the formerly fertile wetlands and fish-filled coastal lakes.

Bread, fuel, water and other basic foodstuffs are subsidised in Egypt, but as worldwide prices skyrocket, the state's budget is increasingly strained. Foodstuff prices increased last year by 70% and again by 30% during the first two months of this year. Cereal prices jumped by 200%. Even with $2.74bn budgeted for bread subsidies, supply has fallen short of demand as people increasingly rely on bread to replace expensive products, like rice and meat. By March this year, 10 so-called 'bread martyrs' had lost their lives fighting for governmentsubsidised loaves.

Over the Labour Day weekend, the Egyptian authorities were both scrambling to appease the people and reduce their budget deficit. Announcements of an increase in civil servants' salaries (by 30%), and a few days later, of a major fuel price hike (40%) amounted to the state giving with one hand and taking away with the other. While several small protests took place, large demonstrations are not tolerated by Egypt's security forces, and people know they have little choice but to somehow absorb the blow.

Social tensions tend to peak in summer, as they did last year in Cairo, when several high-density neighbourhoods deprived of water gathered to protest in large enough numbers to attract the state's attention. Egypt's minister of water and irrigation, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, admits that only 10% of Egypt's inhabitants enjoy adequate sewage and sanitary water, a situation that diminishes health and productivity nationwide, especially when compounded by relentless heat and other hardships.

In summertime, Cairo acquires its distinctive warm weather parfum, something between sock and tuna casserole. People grow wearier and more irritable as the weeks wear on and some of the very old and very young will simply not survive. According to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, 15,000 to 20,000 deaths per year in Cairo are attributable to pollution-related causes. It's a safe guess that the figure is higher, and that many lives end in the summer, when not only shortages, but poor ventilation in overcrowded housing, in addition to inadequate healthcare, likewise conspires to cull the weak.

Minister Abu Zeid is aware of the exceptional water-related challenges facing Egypt, as the most populous of 10 Nile sharing countries, the greatest consumer but the farthest from the river's sources. Egypt's population of 75m relies exclusively on the Nile for survival. Consequently, water management has been the cornerstone of political legitimacy and national stability since the reign of the pharaons. So how will Egypt's administration, in power for the last 26 years, handle the ongoing environmental crises? One solution to the water shortages, Minister Abu Zeid suggests, is tapping the massive Nubian Aquifer, a fresh water source lying deep underground. But the Nubian Aquifer, like oil, is a limited resource, irreplaceable fossil water that has gathered underground over the course of millennia, and is shared with Libya, Chad and Sudan. While Egypt is engaged in water diplomacy, managing water resources on a regional scale will demand a level of agreement difficult to achieve amongst thirsty populations striving for development.

At a March Arab Water Council meeting in Istanbul, the major topic for discussion was how to deal with rising coastal waters. The following month in Alexandria, cement breakwater blocks were being installed along the centre city waterfront. But just 220km away, the government-approved construction of a massive fertiliser plant in Damietta threatened inhabitants and local tourism with even greater levels of industrial pollution and coastal damage.

In countries like Egypt choices between long-term environmental safeguards and short-term developmental goals usually favour the latter, especially when the industrial projects have powerful political backers.

At the start of yet another summer, many Egyptians with empty pockets and failing confidence in the government are wondering how much longer they can stand the heat.

Egyptians increasingly rely on bread to replace expensive products like rice and meat

Egypt's coastline is receding, accelerated by urban and industrial expansion that has replaced the fish-filled lakes

Some 75% of Lake Maryut has been lost to urban encroachment and waste dumping from Alexandria. Likewise, the adjacent Lake Burullus has lost at least 85% of its marsh and 40% of its open water. Further east is Lake Manzala, destination for raw and treated sewage from nearby cities; it now occupies less than a third of the area it did in the early 1900s and what remains is toxic. All the lakes suffer the additional burden of fertiliser run-off from surrounding farmland. Fishing communities have disappeared, and despite a trend to develop fish farms (also threatened by diminished water quality) Egypt is still obliged to import at least 17% of its annual consumption.

Before the dam was built, Egypt's 1960 population of around 26m was self-sufficient in almost all basic foods, except wheat, of which it had a self-sufficiency ratio (domestic production in relation to consumption) of 70%. Despite the dam, which was designed in part to boost agricultural output, food self-sufficiency declined during the 1970s and 1980s, and has never managed to catch up with a burgeoning population's demands. Egypt is now one of the world's largest importers of wheat, mostly used for bread, a mainstay of the Egyptian diet.

Copyright International Communications Jul 2008

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