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Dual Threats: Water Scarcity and Rising Sea Levels in Egypt


The impacts of climate change are increasingly evident with each year: hotter weather, higher sea levels, deadlier storms—reminders of the existential nature of the climate crisis. As global temperatures rise, spurred on by human activity, an environmental crisis has emerged with severe repercussions across the Middle East and North Africa. 

Egypt is an important case study for climate change vulnerabilities. The country has few internal renewable freshwater resources beyond the Nile River. Over 95 percent of the country’s water resources originate beyond its borders, with about 90 percent generated by the Nile, which flows north into the country. As climate change becomes increasingly severe, Egypt could experience a water crisis. Specifically, the country may see a loss to water quality caused by salt water inundation and a decline to water quantity caused by hotter temperatures. 

Egypt has already passed the internationally defined threshold for water scarcity and edges dangerously close to “absolute water scarcity,” defined by the United Nations as less than 500 cubic meters of water per person per year. Estimates place Egypt’s current water resources at 560 m3 per person per year.

Villages across the country are already plagued by water shortages and rising global temperatures will only lead to worse drought and competition for water resources. Sarah, an artist and environmental activist based in Cairo, pointed out that the water crisis in Egypt isn’t new. Speaking to TIMEP, Sarah recalled shortages while in Fayum, where limited water supplies caused distribution lines to shut down. During a 2010 shortage, some villages received running water for as little as two hours a day.

Sea level rise further complicates this crisis, as salt water is expected to be pushed further inland from the Mediterranean Sea, contaminating water and soil. The Nile Delta is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change named the Delta one of the world’s three “extreme” vulnerability hotspots for this issue. Rising tides of seawater have the capacity to flood Egypt’s arable land and displace the populations currently living there. A 2018 study predicts that over 280 square miles of the Nile Delta could be inundated by 2050. Others predict that flooding, soil salinity, and water scarcity could make parts of Egypt uninhabitable in the future. 

Of the many sectors that feel the repercussions of freshwater scarcity and rising sea levels, agriculture is one of the most vulnerable. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) named agriculture as Egypt’s greatest vulnerability in terms of the “severity and certainty” of detriment in the face of climate change, and the International Society of City and Regional Planners has stated that agricultural adaptations must be a top priority. Fertile agricultural land around the Nile is incredibly valuable, as only about 3 percent of Egypt’s land is actually arable. Over 80 percent of Egypt’s water supply goes towards agriculture and irrigation, and as such, water scarcity represents a dire threat for Egyptian farmers. Some scientists have predicted that changes in weather patterns may actually increase water flow in the Nile in the approaching decades, but climate change threatens to cause fluctuations between periods of extreme drought and extreme flooding and make it difficult to maintain agricultural lands.

Water scarcity and salt water intrusion, compounded by other climate change indicators, threaten to have a catastrophic impact on Egypt’s agricultural output, soil quality, and water supply. Desalination processes are expensive to build, further complicated by toxic pollutants dumped into the Nile. This year, mango farmers in Ismailia lost over 80 percent of their crops as unusually high temperatures and water shortages devastated the area. Loss of water resources, flooding, and temperature changes may cause a decrease in wheat and corn output by 15 and 19 percent respectively by 2050. 

Some estimates predict that Egypt will witness anywhere from an eight to 47 percent decrease in overall agricultural output by 2060, coupled with higher food prices. Egypt is already heavily reliant on food imports and subsidies, and this crisis would only exacerbate the existing pressure to feed the country’s growing population

Currently, 97 percent of Egypt’s population live on just eight percent of the land along the Nile River. By 2050, an estimated 5.7 million people will live in flood zones. In Alexandria, residents are already highly aware of the rising tides: every winter, homes flood with seawater. A 2015 flood in Alexandria caused at least six deaths and the collapse of dozens of homes.

As beaches erode and seawater continues its encroachment, climate change threatens cultural, historical, and archaeological sites. Efforts to combat these losses are already underway. For instance, in 2019 the Ministry of Environment launched a $14 million project to protect the 500-year-old Citadel of Qaitbay in Alexandria against erosion caused by sea level rise. 

Egypt has begun to assess the impacts of climate change on its domestic industries and environment and build a policy framework through documents like its National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change And Disaster Risk Reduction. In 2016, the country launched “Vision 2030,” a longer-term strategic plan to achieve eight sustainability goals which include environmental preservation actions. Egypt has ramped up production of desalination plants, placed protective barriers against floodwaters, and instituted initiatives to help farmers adopt more sustainable irrigation practices. The Green Climate Fund and the UNDP work closely with the government to develop climate change responses, such as funding a $31.4 million project to build dikes along the Nile Delta.

Civil society actors are also essential to these efforts, fostering community-based solutions and education regarding climate change. There are a variety of groups in Egypt that advocate for more sustainable environmental practices and new legal frameworks including the Arab Youth Climate Movement and the Arab Network for Environment and DevelopmentNawaya is an organization that works directly with farmers to develop a bottom-up approach to sustainable agriculture. Another initiative, Greenish, connects and trains students to address environmental issues within their own communities. 

Sarah emphasized that although climate adaptation efforts are underway, the response to the climate crisis is fundamentally inequitable. Already-vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by climate change but do not necessarily receive enough support. Sarah highlighted these inequities by recalling how a woman living in a small village on the north coast was forced to move farther inland because of rising sea levels—“houses were flooded overnight.” Meanwhile, a developer constructing a luxury hotel nearby received state funding for barriers to protect his building against seawater encroachment.

“There’s a gap in the participation of communities that are directly impacted,” said Sarah. “There are all these projects, and there are big agencies that come in and focus on an area, and there’s some collaboration with the government, but it’s not a cohesive national plan that is communicated to everyone in the same way.” Sarah emphasized that an effective, cooperative plan must be participatory, centering impacted communities. Solutions must integrate the knowledge of local communities in addition to scientific research and new technologies.

Water scarcity and rising sea levels implicate a number of other issues in Egypt including pollution, the growing population, and geopolitical dynamics. Water access is already a contentious issue for Egypt (as evidenced by the complex negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), and the increasing scarcity of potable water will only make the situation more competitive and more dire. Many of the ongoing initiatives to combat climate change in Egypt are in partnership between the Egyptian government and international organizations such as the UNDP. In addition to these measures, cooperative action that includes civil society and works with the most vulnerable populations is essential to implement more sustainable irrigation processes with farmers, develop new desalination technology,equitably distribute clean water, and protect against rising tides. Consistent access to freshwater will be critical for the Egyptian agricultural industry and the quality of life for all those living in the country.

“We need to plan for the future, as opposed to just being reactive to a crisis,” Sarah said. “When you’re reactive, you don’t really have the option of sustainably creating solutions or thinking through and testing out ideas. If people are not reacting and actually planning, you have a better chance of adapting in a way that is fair and effective.”

Eliora Goodman

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