January 28, 2010

Climate Change Affecting Egypt’s Lush Nile Delta

Egypt's rich and agriculturally fertile Nile Delta is being threatened by rising sea waters, forcing farmers to take actions to save their lands.

Global warming is having a major impact on the delta region and is putting a huge strain on agriculture, resources, tourism, human migration, and is threatening the fabric of the delta's already fragile ecosystem.

Climate changes over the last one hundred years have caused the Mediterranean Sea, which borders the Nile Delta, to rise 6 inches. The intrusion of saltwater on the lush terrain has created a major challenge, according to experts. Those who cannot fight back are fleeing.

A government study of the coast of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, revealed that the waters are continuing to rise and many parts of the region will be flooded within a few decades. The sea is expected to continue to rise another 12 inches in the next 15 years, which will flood a 77 square mile area. "As a result, over half a million inhabitants may be displaced and approximately 70,000 jobs could be lost," the study said.

Though environmental damage is not one of Egypt's top priorities, experts believe that if the situation continues to deteriorate, it will cause massive food shortages that could affect as many as seven million people by the end of the century.

The Nile Delta provides about one-third of the produce for Egypt's 80 million residents. A large portion of the crop is exported which in turn provides an important source of revenue for the country. Some farmers have been forced to abandon their lands due to the rising tides. Others are fighting back by covering their land with sand beds to isolate it from seawater intrusion.

ElSayed Saad, a local farmer, told teh AFP news agency, "We buy these sacks of sand which cost a lot of money and use them to make a bed on which to grow crops so we can get by." Farmers, like Saad, must repeat the procedure every ten years in order to stay productive. And even that is no guarantee.

Engineering firms that specialize in underwater projects have been toying with the idea to come up with some long-term solutions for these issues. Mamduh Hamza, of Hamza Associates, has discussed a plan to build a waterproof barrier that would separate the sea from the land and raise the shoreline by as much as 6 feet.

"The wall will prevent flooding as well as underground infiltration," Hamza told AFP. The plan was submitted to government officials in 2007 but has not been approved as of yet. Egypt's popular Mediterranean beach resorts are big tourist destinations and there are fears that this type of structure would undermine that economic sector.

Many feel that Egypt, like other developing countries, is suffering from mistakes made by the industrialized nations of the West. According to Mohammed al-Raey of the Regional Disaster Response Centre, "Egypt is only responsible for 0.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions." Raey and other experts have expressed fears that the rising sea levels will also affect the quality of fresh water, as it seeps into groundwater.

The rising tides will no doubt cause a snowball effect as people in areas affected by the sea will leave to find work elsewhere. This will cause unemployment to rise, which in turn will lead to crime, which threatens general security. The breakdown of a nation begins. "So we consider this a matter of national security," said Raey.

Raey believes the Delta farming industry needs to be restructured to take on the effects climate change. "For example, if there are areas that will be flooded, we should use them for fish farms. If there are areas that must be protected, we should protect them with walls," he said.

The region has already been affected within the last 60 years due to the construction of the High Dam in the southern city of Aswan. It was built to regulate the disruptive effect of the Nile's yearly floods, however, it has also robbed the lands of crucial nutrients and minerals it so much needs to thrive.

Image Courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC