05 June 2024

How a warming planet threatens the Nile Delta

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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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. Desalination, meanwhile, could potentially alleviate water scarcity issues. However, it is an energy intensive “solution”.

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. 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.

These are extracts from an article published in June 2024 on the Arab News, authored by Hafed Al-Ghwell. The full article can be accessed through the link here.

Photo credit: NASA Johnson/Flickr