How climate change threatens Egypt’s future

How climate change threatens Egypt’s future

Floodwaters in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP Photo)

We are all, in many ways, children of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. These three early civilizations began to demonstrate what we are capable of as human beings. The men and women of those lands created the first towns, built trading networks, tamed animals, grew their own food, built towering structures, and gave us writing. Our known world sprouted from these early civilizations.

All three had one thing in common: Mighty rivers. Egypt had the Nile, Mesopotamia had the Tigris and the Euphrates, and there was, of course, the Indus. The rivers literally gave birth to those worlds — and ours.

It is important to remember this history as we think of climate change in today’s Middle East and North Africa region. One country in the crosshairs of climate change and rising seas is the one that hosts one of the most glorious rivers in history: Egypt.

Global climate change is raising sea levels and warming waters. For Egypt, this means that sea water from the Mediterranean is making its way into the Nile Delta, eroding river banks and pouring salt water into crops. This is reducing agricultural output in the Nile Delta, the breadbasket of Egypt.

Sea water from the Mediterranean is making its way into the Nile Delta, eroding river banks and pouring salt water into crops.

Afshin Molavi

As one Egyptian farmer told US National Public Radio: “If you water (the crops) with salty water, they die immediately.” Lamenting the rising sea levels, he said, “If I had proper water, I could grow rice, clover, cotton. I could grow anything.”

Rising temperatures and lower rainfall are also hitting Egyptian agricultural productivity. More frequent droughts are hurting the bottom line of farmers and putting stresses on Egyptian society.

Indeed, there is a line of argument that suggests climate change played a significant role in the Arab uprisings. Troy Sternberg, a geographer at Oxford University, has argued that a major winter drought in China, coupled with heat waves and floods in major wheat-producing countries, led to a sudden, sharp spike in prices in 2010. Inevitably, Egypt — the largest wheat importer — felt the sting.

“Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food,” Sternberg wrote. Global food prices were hitting all-time highs on the eve of the uprisings. Remember the Egyptian chant: “Bread, freedom, social justice.”

Climate change is also hitting Egypt in surprising ways. One of the reasons sea levels are rising is because of melting glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic region. This has a second-order effect on Egypt — it threatens the Suez Canal route. While this may not seem intuitive, think of it this way: When glaciers melt and ice sheets subside, the Arctic Ocean suddenly becomes a viable shipping route in the summer months. 

So, why would that hurt the Suez Canal? Ships from China headed to Europe can cut their travel time by avoiding the Suez route in favor of the Arctic. Liquefied natural gas from Russia headed to China also need not go through Suez, as it could take the Northern Sea Route. A new polar silk road is forming, and this will hit the Suez and other traditional shipping routes.

Egypt also faces tensions along the Nile owing to water-sharing issues with Sudan and Ethiopia. In a recent World Resources Institute (WRI) report, Egypt ranked among the “High Baseline Water Stress” countries, one rung better than the “Extremely High Baseline Water Stress” countries. In fact, of the 17 most water-stressed countries in the world, 12 are in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the WRI.

Ancient Egyptians understood the power of the Nile. A chant they often sung, according to the author E.H. Gombrich, goes like this: “Glory be to thee, O Nile. You rise out of the earth and come to nourish Egypt. You water the plains and have the power to feed all cattle. You quench the thirsty desert, far from any water. You bring forth the barley, you create the wheat. You fill the granaries and storehouses, not forgetting the poor. For you we pluck our harps, for you we sing.”

Long-time observers of the Egyptian economy are familiar with the quartet of indicators associated with the North African country’s health: Tourism receipts, Suez Canal earnings, remittances, and oil and gas exports. Maintaining strength in each of these four areas is vital for Egypt to fully realize its enormous potential.

By and large, Egypt underperforms its economic potential. With a large population of nearly 100 million people, enviable commercial geography at the nexus of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, straddling two seas — the Mediterranean and the Red — and with tourism treasures and a well-educated middle class, Egypt should be at the top of the table of all emerging markets. Instead, Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) is roughly on par with Finland, a country with only a 20th of Egypt’s population, and its per capita GDP ranks among the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa. 

I have long argued that the region needs a thriving Egypt. A thriving and prosperous Egypt will feed the Mediterranean region, the Red Sea region, the Arab world, Africa, and even Europe, in much the same way the Nile River feeds Egypt. It is time to face the challenge of climate change in Egypt — both for Egyptians and the broader world.

  • Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor.
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