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.
Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited 2009
Homepage image from World Bank