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Aswan, Egypt © alexerich

Climate Change in Egypt: Death on the Nile

Climate change is creating preconditions in Egypt that precipitated the Syrian Civil War.

The Nile Delta, home to 40 million people and source of two-thirds of Egypt’s food production, is disappearing. This is a direct result of climate change and rising sea levels. The Delta, about the size of Delaware, is almost completely flat and at most only one or two meters above sea level. The land itself is sinking and so the relative sea level is rising even more quickly at about seven millimeters a year.

Before the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1970, the Nile used to deposit about 100 million tons of new sediment in the Delta each year, which compensated for the sinking land. The dam has also prevented the replenishment of the fast-eroding protective sand belts off the coast.

The Nile’s problems do not stop there. The Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam, a massive hydroelectric dam due for completion in 2017, will further reduce the flow of the Nile by a quarter for between up to 15 years while the reservoir fills. Egyptian farmers who no longer have enough fresh water for irrigation directly from the Nile are already supplementing with well water from the underground Delta aquifer. The result is that the sea and salt water are intruding further and further inland. In some areas as much as 30 kilometers inland, the water from the aquifer is already too saline to drink. In as little as 10 years the coastal regions will no longer be able to sustain either agriculture or human habitation.

Egypt currently imports half of all the wheat it needs for its booming population, which is around 90 million today and is projected to be 140-160 million by 2050. When Egypt loses the first 10% of the Delta as a source of food and human habitation, this alone will be a disaster of gigantic proportions. Millions of people will be forced out of their homes and off their farms to look for new places to live and for new jobs.

This is not something that could or might happen in the distant future: This catastrophe has already begun to unfold. Moreover, some of Egypt’s biggest cities in the Delta – for example Alexandria, with a population of 5 million – are also losing the battle of keep the sea out. When the sea level rises just one meter, which is at the low end of the range predicted by the year 2100, most of the city will be uninhabitable.

Climate change was one of the contributing causes of the Syrian Civil War. The prolonged drought caused three quarters of Syria’s farms to fail between 2006 and 2011. This forced over 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to the towns. Their plight and protests combined with President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian response was a major factor if not the primary cause of the uprising and the subsequent civil war.

The same set of preconditions in Egypt exist on a far larger scale. As in Syria, the disconnect between the heavily armed government elite and the poverty stricken masses is stark. When millions of displaced Egyptians find a leader and a purpose it will be too late. The authoritarian and unsympathetic regime of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is unlikely to defuse this explosive situation. The result will almost certainly be bloody and destructive.

The Syrian experience tells us that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of displaced Egyptians will attempt to cross the Mediterranean and come to Europe. Many will die in the attempt. Europe is barely coping with the Syrian situation and is completely unprepared for this coming onslaught of refugees.

Donald Trump’s denial of climate change and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement are not only willfully ignorant but are an abdication of leadership in the face of these challenges. Moreover, in view of the likely civil unrest caused by the looming crisis, Trump’s encouragement of President Sisi to use whatever force is necessary to curtail popular dissent is myopic, if not criminal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: alexerich