Death of the Nile (1) - China Dialogue
Climate

Death of the Nile (1)

The ancient river delta is under threat from rising sea levels resulting from climate change. Without the food the fertile region produces, Egypt faces catastrophe, Jack Shenker reports.

Maged Shamdy’s ancestors arrived on the shores of Lake Burullus in the mid-19th century. In the dusty heat of Cairo at the time, French industrialists were rounding up forced labour squads to help build the Suez Canal, back-breaking labour from which thousands did not return. Like countless other Egyptians, the Shamdys abandoned their family home and fled north into the Nile Delta, where they could hide within the marshy swamplands that fanned out from the great river’s edge.

As the years passed, colonial rulers came and went. But the Shamdys stayed, carving out a new life as farmers and fishermen on one of the most fertile tracts of land in the world. A century and a half later, Maged is still farming his family’s fields. In between taking up the rice harvest and dredging his irrigation canals, however, he must contemplate a new threat to his family and livelihood, one that may well prove more deadly than any of Egypt’s previous invaders. “We are going underwater,” the 34-year-old says simply. “It’s like an occupation: the rising sea will conquer our lands.”

Maged understands better than most the menace of coastal erosion, which is steadily ingesting the edge of Egypt in some places at an astonishing rate of almost 100 metres a year. Just a few kilometres from his home lies Lake Burullus itself, where Nile flower spreads all the way out to trees on the horizon. Those trunks used to be on land; now they stand knee-deep in water.

Maged’s imperial imagery may sound overblown, but travel around Egypt’s vast, overcrowded delta region and you hear the same terms used time and again to describe the impact climate change is having on these ancient lands. Egypt’s breadbasket is littered with the remnants of old colonisers, from the Romans to the Germans, and today its 50 million inhabitants jostle for space among the crumbling forts and cemeteries of those who sought to subjugate them in the past.

On the delta’s eastern border, in Port Said, an empty stone plinth is all that remains of a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal; somewhere along the delta’s westernmost reaches, the long-lost tomb of Cleopatra lies buried. With such a rich history of foreign rule, it’s only natural that the latest hostile force knocking at the gates should be couched in the language of occupation.

“Egypt is a graveyard for occupiers,” observes Ramadan el-Atr, a fruit farmer near the town of Rosetta, where authorities have contracted a Chinese company to build a huge wall of concrete blocks in the ocean to try to save any more land from melting away. “Just like the others, the sea will come and go – but we will always survive.”

Scientists aren’t so sure. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared Egypt’s Nile Delta to be among the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to a rise in sea levels, and even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

The delta spills out from the northern stretches of the capital, Cairo, into 25,900 square kilometers of farmland fed by the Nile’s branches. It is home to two-thirds of the country’s rapidly growing population, and responsible for more than 60% of its food supply. Egypt relies unconditionally on it for survival. But with its 270 kilometres of coastline lying at a dangerously low elevation (large parts are between zero and one metre above sea level, with some areas lying below it), any melting of the polar ice caps could see its farmland and cities – including the historical port of Alexandria – transformed into an ocean floor.

A one-metre rise in the sea level, which many experts think likely within the next 100 years, will cause 20% of the delta to go underwater. At the other extreme, the 14-metre rise that would result from the disappearance of glaciers in Greenland and western Antarctica would leave the Mediterranean Sea lapping at the northern suburbs of Cairo, with practically all of the delta underwater.

Already, a series of environmental crises are parking themselves on the banks of the Nile. Some are subtle, like the river’s quiet vanishing act in the delta’s northern fields; others, like the dramatic collapse of coastal lands into the ocean, are more striking. Major flooding is yet to become a reality but, from industrial pollution to soil salinity, a whole new set of interconnected green concerns is now forcing its way into Egyptian public discourse for the first time.

“The delta is a kind of Bangladesh story,” says Dr Rick Tutwiler, director of the American University in Cairo’s Desert Development Center. “You’ve got a massive population, overcrowding, a threat to all natural resources from the pressure of all the people, production, pollution, cars and agricultural chemicals. And on top of all that, there’s the rising sea. It’s the perfect storm.”

Follow the Nile north out of Cairo on the old agricultural road, and you find it hard to pinpoint where the city ends and the lotus-shaped delta begins. Carpeted with red brick apartment blocks and spliced with streets in every direction, the lush greenery of the Nile’s splintered arteries is almost impossible to appreciate in isolation. This is where the urban and the rural get lost in each other, with livestock living in doorways and workers camping out in fields. In the past, literary giants venerated the delta’s wild marshlands; today, any clear-cut divisions between the metropolis and the countryside have long faded away.

Urban encroachment – the steady chipping away at arable land through unauthorised construction – haunts the delta everywhere you look. Despite a web of legislation outlawing illegal building practices and theoretically “fencing off” agricultural land, in every direction the sweeping vista of wheat fields and rice paddies always ends abruptly in a cluster of half-built homes. There are more than 4,000 people per square mile [2.59 square kilometers] in the delta; it’s hard to think of any other place where humans and the environment around them are more closely intertwined.

With Egypt’s present-day population of 83 million set to increase to more than 110 million in the next two decades, the seemingly unstoppable spread of bricks and mortar over the soil is both the most visible symptom of the country’s demographic time-bomb and an inevitable response to it.

More people in the delta means more cars, more pollution and less land to feed them all on, just at a time when increased crop production is needed most. Yet the desertification of land through human habitation is, worryingly, only the beginning of the problem. Although few in the delta have noticed it yet, the freshwater of the Nile – which has enabled Egypt to survive as a unified state longer than any other territory on earth – is creaking under the strain of this population boom. The world’s most famous river has provided the backdrop to all manner of dramas throughout history, real and fictional. Now, around its northernmost branches where the minarets and pylons thin out and the landscape becomes more windswept, another is playing out to devastating effect.

The villain is salinity. I visit one of the worst-affected regions, Kafr el-Sheikh, on a Friday morning when the fields have emptied out for the noon prayer. The streets are eerily silent; with its people gone, the area takes on the appearance of one of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino’s fantastical string cities, chock-a-block with the shells of human habitation but no living souls remaining. The exception is Maged, who owns six feddan (about 2.5 hectares) of land near the village of el-Hadadi.

Maged is halfway down a hole when I approach his house. Clambering out apologetically, he explains that German experts visited this area last year and declared that the freshwater being pumped to local villages “wasn’t fit for a dog to drink”. After months of phone calls to the national water company, none of which were answered, Maged decided to lay down a new set of pipes himself in the hope it would improve the quality of drinking water for his two young daughters. It’s hot, exhausting work, which he fits in between his farming duties and a new part-time job as an accountant in a local alfalfa plant. “We don’t have much time on our hands at the moment,” Maged says, dusting himself off and gulping down some fresh melon juice. “Nobody can make a living solely off the land any more.”

On a tour of his fields, I see why. The rich brown soil has greyed out in recent years, leaving a barren salt-encrustation on the surface. The cause is underground saltwater intrusion from the nearby coast, which pushes up through the soil and kills off roots. Coastal farmland has always been threatened by saltwater, but salinity has traditionally been kept at bay by plentiful supplies of freshwater gushing over the soil and flushing out the salt. It used to happen naturally with the Nile’s seasonal floods; after the completion of Egypt’s High Dam in 1970 (one of the most ambitious engineering projects on earth), these seasonal floods came to an end, but a vast network of irrigation canals continued to bring gallons of freshwater to the people who worked the land, the fellahin, ensuring salinity levels remained low.

Today, however, Nile water barely reaches this corner of the delta. Population growth has sapped its energy upstream, and what “freshwater” does make it downriver is increasingly awash with toxins and other impurities. Farmers such as Maged now essentially rely on waste water – a mix of agricultural drainage and sewage – from the nearby town of Sidi Salim.

The result is plummeting fertility; local farmers say that whereas their fathers spent just a handful of Egyptian pounds on chemicals to keep the harvests bountiful, they now have to put aside between 25% and 80% of their profits for fertilisers just to keep their crops alive.

“We can see with our own eyes that the water is no good; it’s less and less pure,” Maged says. He points out huge swathes of neighbouring land that once glimmered with rice paddies. Recently they have been dug up and replaced by fish farms, the ground too barren for crop cultivation. Further out, in the village of Damru, the green fields of 10 years ago are cracked and brown, now put into service as informal football pitches and rubbish dumps.

Experts believe the problem is only going to get worse. “We currently have a major water deficit in Egypt, with only 700 cubic metres of freshwater per person,” explains professor Salah Soliman of Alexandria University. “That’s already short of the 1,000 cubic metres per person the United Nations believes is the minimum needed for water security. Now, with the population increase, it will drop to 450 cubic metres per person – and this is all before we take into account the impact of climate change.”

That impact is likely to be a 70% drop in the amount of Nile water reaching the delta over the next 50 years, due to increased evaporation and heavier demands on water use upstream. The consequences of all these ecological changes on food production are staggering: experts at Egypt’s Soils, Water and Environment Research Institute predict that wheat and maize yields could be down 40% and 50% respectively in the next 30 years, and that farmers who make a living off the land will lose around US$1,000 per hectare for each degree-rise in the average temperature.

The farmers here feel abandoned by the state; there are regular dismissive references to the “New Age”, a euphemism for the much-hated regime of president Hosni Mubarak, whose neoliberal reform programmes and widespread corruption scandals have provoked a wave of popular discontent across the country. This disconnect between the state and its people has led to distrust of government scientists who think coastal erosion, rather than freshwater scarcity, is the main reason for the farmers’ problems. And, in a worrying twist for Egypt’s creaking economy, the erosion isn’t only affecting farmers. “Unfortunately, most of our industry and investment has been built on sites very close to the shore,” says Soliman. “There’s only so much water we can hold back.”

NEXT: Cynicism and fatalism

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