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Death of the Nile (2)

For Egypt, the scale of the climate crisis is overwhelming, infecting all discussion with cynicism and fatalism. The delta’s death warrant may have been signed already, writes Jack Shenker.

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Ras el-Bar is a small holiday resort at the mouth of the Nile’s Damietta branch. This was the summer paradise that Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s well-heeled characters would escape to when the heat of the capital became unbearable; today its squat pink lighthouse and endless boulevards of deserted, low-rise holiday homes have the faded feel of a 1950s Disneyland.

Although still popular in July and August, Ras el-Bar has been overtaken as a seaside destination by the brash consumerism of a new generation of towns: Sharm el-Sheikh, Marina, Hurghada. In place of tourists, however, new factories have arrived here in abundance, including some that nearby residents believe are poisoning the air. The arrival of one industrial plant in Damietta, which coincided with the ministry of environment’s last-minute decision not to designate the area a protected nature reserve, is a familiar story of shady backdoor deals, public outrage and the studious disregard of local opinions.

In this case, the locals managed to postpone the factory’s construction, but other plants remain. “In the morning here, you can see nothing but smoke,” says Mohammed Fawzia, who is fishing in a canal down by the side of an industrial complex run by the state-owned company Mopco. “Take photos of it for us so we can show who is killing our children. We want the factories gone.”

Many Cairo-based experts, however, insist that the task of coping with the dramatic ecological changes faced by the Nile Delta is made harder by the ignorance of people such as Mohammed. They claim the fellahin are too uneducated to change their ways. But they are wrong: while farmers in the southern delta, where Nile water is still relatively plentiful, have little knowledge of climate change, those in the north are painfully aware of the science behind the death of their land.

However, they also have little time to listen to the harrying of a government that is widely seen to preach green rhetoric on the one hand but is only too willing to sell out the environment on the other, along with the local people.

Money talks in Egypt, and sustainable development is forgotten when the interests of the rich and powerful – such as the industrial plants in Damietta or the influential Badrawi clan in Daqahliyah – are at stake. The repression and self-interest of president Hosni Mubarak’s inner circle have left them bereft of any moral authority on environmental issues.

And while scientists, academics and community organisers are making a concerted effort to educate Egyptians about the dangers of climate change, there is confusion over whether the focus of all these programmes should be on promoting ways to combat climate change, or on accepting climate change as inevitable and instead encouraging new forms of adaptation to the nation’s uncertain ecological future.

Efforts are further hampered by a popular feeling that this is a crisis made by the west. “We’re not responsible for climate change,” says Alexandria University’s professor Salah Soliman, pointing out that Egypt’s contribution to global carbon emissions is an underwhelming 0.5%, nine times less per capita than the United States. “But unfortunately the consequence of climate change is no respecter of national borders.”

The scale of the crisis – more people, less land, less water, less food – is overwhelming, and has infected discussion of climate change with a toxic combination of cynicism and fatalism at every level. There are senior environmental officials in top scientific jobs here who do not believe climate change is real; others are convinced the problem is so great that human intervention is useless. “It’s down to God”, one environmental officer for a major delta town tells me. “If the delta goes, we’ll find new places to live. If Egypt was big enough for Mary and Joseph, then it will be big enough for all of us.”

Of course, if sea levels do rise significantly, “then the debate is over”, says Rick Tutwiler of the American University in Cairo. “The land will be underwater and crop production will be over."

As a result, many now believe that Egypt’s future lies far away from the delta, in land newly reclaimed from the desert. Since the time of the pharaohs, when the delta was first farmed, Egypt’s political leaders have rested their legitimacy on their ability to feed it by taming the Nile. Mohammed Ali, Lord Cromer and Gamal Abdel Nasser all launched major projects to control and harness the river’s seasonal floods; now Mubarak is following in their footsteps – not by saving the delta, but by creating a bewildering array of canals and pumping stations that draw water out from the Nile into sandy valleys to the east and west, where the desert is slowly being turned green.

You can see evidence of these new lands on the delta’s fringes; mile upon mile of agribusiness-owned fields peeking out behind the advertising billboards of the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. The billboards depict gated compounds and luxury second homes, escapist dreams for the Egyptian upper-middle class.

The new lands behind them are another sort of escape, this time for the whole country. Their very water-intensive existence is, though, only hastening the demise of the delta; once the glittering jewel of Egypt and bedrock of its survival, but now a region for which a death warrant may already have been signed.


www.guardian.co.uk/

Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited 2009

Homepage image from World Bank

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

外国援助能停止这场灾难吗?

比起尼罗河三角洲来,没有多少人能生活在沙漠之中——那里的水少之又少。剩下的人能去哪里呢?作为气候变化的难民,前往欧洲吗?

正如文中所说的那样,三角洲地区的灾难尤其应归因于腐败。也许有人想问,美国——埃及的重要的援助来源——是否试图以此要求埃及提高政府治理水平。不幸的是,正如在巴勒斯坦、伊拉克、巴基斯坦和阿富汗的情形,外国援助加重了政府的治理不善和不平等,这当然会引发暴力和原教旨主义。
田亮翻译

Can foreign aid be used to stop this disaster?

Far fewer people will be able to live in the desert than in the Nile delta - there is much too little water. Where will the rest go? Europe, as climate change refugees?

Given that the disaster in the delta is, as the article implies, attributable particularly to corruption, one might wonder whether the USA - on whose financial assistance Egypt is heavily dependent - has tried to use its leverage so as to improve governance in Egypt. Unfortunately, as in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, foreign assistance tends to promote poor governance and inequity - which of course leads to violence and fundamentalism.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

亲身的感受

关于三角洲地区的变化,那些生活在这块土地上的普通老百姓是最有发言权的人了。也许他们不会用“科学”的语言将这一切表达出来,但他们的切身感受比起任何专家的话都更有说服力。那种认为农民们难以理解的观点显然是错误的,那些所谓的“专家”缺乏真正的专业精神去和农民们沟通。

A Personal Experience

About the changing of the Delta region, the lives of the ordinary peoples on this land have the most say in the matter. Maybe they won't be able to use "scientific knowledge" in their language to express their understanding, but their first-hand experience compared with any other experience is much more persuasive. The sort of belief that peasants have a hard time understanding the obvious point-of-view is completely mistaken, these so called "experts" lack genuine expertise and need to go talk with the peasants.
(Translated by Braden Latham-Jones.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关乎生死的水权

用水的权利对生活,商业和经济都至关重要,埃及向世界展示了尼罗河水多么重要,对于其他国家来说,用水浪费还被认为是理所当然的。中国到2020年的时候,河流将严重缺水,因为没有冰雪剩下来融化成水,13亿人没水将无法生存!

Water rights are a matter of life and death

Water rights are vital to life, business and the economy. Egypt is an example for the world, showing how important water in the Nile River is. But the rest of the world takes wasteful water usage practices for granted. In 2020, the rivers in China will be almost completely depleted of water, since there will be no ice or snow left to melt. 1.3 billion people will not survive without water!