How a warming planet threatens the Nile Delta

How a warming planet threatens the Nile Delta

Nile Delta is on the cusp of an ecological disaster largely driven by climate change. (Reuters)
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The Nile Delta, the cradle of historical, agricultural, and cultural heritage for Egypt, is on the cusp of an ecological disaster largely driven by climate change.
The Delta that has nourished Egyptian civilization for millennia is now gravitating toward becoming an epicenter for some of the most consequential effects of climate change within the region.
The Delta has long been flagged as a zone of high vulnerability, with forecasts of alarming scenarios resulting from rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
The densely populated Delta is home to half of Egypt’s population, close to 50 million people. The demographic densification of the region underpins not only the socioeconomic fabric of Egypt but also previews the scale at which climate change could propagate human and economic devastation.
Notably, the region’s coastline is acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels, particularly in areas around Alexandria, one of the largest cities on the Mediterranean. Predictive models suggest a grim future; projections indicate that 25 percent of the Delta could be submerged within a few decades if the current trajectory continues.
The socioeconomic ramifications of this are profound. Alexandria’s proximity to the sea places a significant proportion of its infrastructure and population at direct risk. Even a small rise in sea level could displace two million people and annihilate more than 200,000 jobs.
The situation gets even worse when we consider the Delta’s rural expanses, where population density has reached staggering levels, and agriculture, the backbone of local economies, is already facing grave threats. Irregular weather patterns have led to unpredictable water availability, marked by spells of drought interspersed with record floods, both of which take their toll on agriculture. The sector provides employment for a large proportion of the population in the Nile Delta, so the effects of such dramatic variations have far-reaching socioeconomic consequences.
As noted, the Delta’s proximity to the Mediterranean Sea leaves it extremely vulnerable to predicted rises in sea levels, which not only threaten to inundate vast tracts of arable land but also cause the displacement of millions of people. As the sea encroaches on land, saltwater intrusion results in the salinization of soil, with severe effects on crop yields and the livelihoods of farming communities.
Unchecked, these debilitating effects will aggravate existing challenges, such as ensuring food and water security not only for local communities but also for the wider population of Egypt, given the reliance on the Delta region as the nation’s breadbasket.
Moreover, environmental stressors can act as catalysts for secondary or follow-on issues, such as irregular migration, as those who can no longer sustain traditional ways of life are forced to move to already overcrowded urban centers, placing further strain on resources and services.
The resultant socioeconomic pressures can quickly escalate into prolonged periods of unrest, episodic violence, and even all-out conflict. As such, the Nile Delta has become a microcosm for the adverse effects of climate change, as well as a stark reminder of the increasingly urgent need for local, national, and global action to mitigate impending catastrophes.

Farming in desert areas requires a significant rethinking of traditional cultivation methods due to the vast differences in soil and climate conditions. 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

In response, the Egyptian government is implementing a multifaceted adaptation plan, the estimated cost of which is $8 billion. The first line of defense consists of a 35 km barricade of star-shaped concrete blocks along the shore near Alexandria, to combat erosion and protect against rising sea levels. However, the effectiveness of such barriers is limited as the farmers who cultivate the land immediately behind them are still left to struggle with the increased salinity of the soil and water scarcity.
In addressing the challenges arising from shortages of water specifically, the government has acknowledged the need for comprehensive water management strategies, including planned investments of nearly $3 billion in desalination plants designed to produce 5 billion cubic meters of water annually by 2050.
Such investments will likely go a long way to reducing the severity of enduring water insecurity issues. At present, the demand for water is about 35 percent higher than supply, and the population is projected to grow by 30-40 million in the next 25 years.
Additionally, the state is working to encourage agricultural expansions into desert areas by connecting more than 1.5 million acres of land to the Nile’s waters through expansive irrigation projects. This aims to alleviate some of the pressure on the Delta while tapping into previously under-utilized land for food production. It also anticipates that soil fertility in areas closest to the Mediterranean might be lost permanently as a result of increased salinity.
While the government’s actions are notable for their ambition and scale, there are drawbacks and challenges to these approaches. The seawall barriers are a highly visible form of action but offer only temporary relief against the steady encroachment of the sea and do not address the deeper issues of soil degradation inland.
Desalination, meanwhile, could potentially alleviate water scarcity issues. However, it is an energy intensive “solution” which, unless renewable energy sources are used to power it, might contribute to further emissions that exacerbate climate impacts in the quest for adaptation.
Besides, farming in desert areas requires a significant rethinking of traditional cultivation methods due to the vast differences in soil and climate conditions.
A surprising, yet little discussed, type of intervention offers a much more promising adaptation mechanism that can complement the proposed actions to reduce the growing pressure on the Delta. Historically, circular migration has served as a way to cope with a range of threats for the inhabitants of the area. As the threat of runaway warming continues to loom, this adaptive strategy can serve as the means through which we can glimpse the possibilities for sustaining livelihoods under threat.
By temporarily relocating, migrant populations can diversify and mitigate the risks to their livelihoods, thereby reducing their levels of vulnerability. Relocations of populations during periods of acute environmental stress also provide temporary relief to the ecosystems in origin areas, giving overexploited natural resources a chance to recover and thereby contributing, indirectly, to their sustainability and resilience.
When migrants settle in destination communities they can take advantage of the opportunities available in more economically stable regions, and the resulting remittances they send home also ultimately contribute to a more stable life for those unable to migrate, by funding essential needs and, potentially, through investment in adaptive capacities.
Moreover, the resultant skills and knowledge transfers arising from circular migration help to improve the adaptive capacities of origin communities, including new forms of income generation that are less dependent on climate vulnerable resources.
Once established, and carefully managed, periodic migration will facilitate extensive social networks spanning several regions that will be crucial during times of inevitable crises, in terms of providing support and serving as channels for the flow of much-needed assistance.
However, while circular migration is an effective adaptation strategy, its success hinges on how it is implemented. Issues such as the rights and welfare of migrants, social inclusion in host communities, job creation, and the long-term sustainability of such arrangements need careful consideration and management.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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