Climate change and rising seas threaten Egypt’s breadbasket

By Samy Magdy
Associated Press

ROSETTA, Egypt (AP) — Sayed Abuel-Ezz has seen his crops wither from seawater before. As the Nile Delta farmer walks among his mango trees on his land not far from the Mediterranean Sea , he fears it could happen again despite spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars to prevent it.

“If it goes up, the trees will die,” Abuel-Ezz said, looking out to sea.

Here, the impact of climate change has long been evident to farmers, in creeping salt eating away at roots and hardening their fields, rendering them barren. They pay a fortune to bring in dirt trucks to try to raise their crops above the salt pushed into the ground by rising sea levels. But they say it’s getting worse and worse.

Bus drivers can also see the changes, how the sea is pouring more and more easily onto the land. Now, every winter, parts of the vital international highway that runs along the Egyptian coast are flooded, drivers on the road say.

Located on the northern coast of Egypt on the Mediterranean, the Nile Delta is one of the world’s three most vulnerable hotspots to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, according to a report. of the 2007 United Nations-supported Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. .

As Egypt hosts the UN’s COP27 global climate summit this month, the country’s leaders said the plight of the delta, known for millennia for its fertile soil, was at the forefront of their concerns. concerns. Residents are hoping for help to deal with the consequences of global warming.

The delta covers about 240 square kilometers (93 square miles), starting just north of the capital Cairo, where the Nile unfolds. The branches of the rivers created the rich and fertile land by depositing silt as they flowed out to sea. Since ancient times, the region has been the breadbasket of empires.

It is densely populated, home to some 40% of Egypt’s 104 million people and accounts for half of the country’s economy, according to the UN food agency. The farms and fisheries along the two arms of the Nile, Rosetta in the west and Damietta in the east, help feed the country and provide products for export.

All of this is increasingly threatened by climate change and rising seas. A quarter of the delta is at or below sea level. A rise of between 0.5 and 1 meter (1.6 to 3.2 feet) – which could occur by 2100 in one of the UN-backed panel’s worst-case scenarios – will shift the coastline inland of several kilometres, submerging large areas and making it more barren with salt. This is according to a recent report by an international group of scientists overseen by the Center for Climate and Atmospheric Research of the Cyprus Institute and the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry.

“This would entail serious challenges for coastal infrastructure and agriculture, and could lead to the salinization of coastal aquifers, including the densely populated and cultivated Nile Delta,” said report co-author George Zittis.

The scenario deemed most likely by the panel is that the sea will rise 0.3 to 0.6 meters by 2100. This will still make thousands of acres unsuitable for agriculture or habitation.

The Associated Press spoke with more than three dozen farmers, fishermen and other residents of several villages and towns along the Mediterranean coast, across the width of the delta.

Spanning generations, they said they have been feeling the effects of climate change for years, particularly sea level rise. They have seen greater shoreline erosion and salt-contaminated groundwater. Salt water intrudes as pressure increases due to rising seawater, and freshwater backpressure has decreased.

Saltwater intrusion is the most difficult threat to the delta, said Mohamed Abdel Monem, senior adviser on land and climate change with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“That means less productivity and in many cases crop death and therefore food insecurity,” he said.

Hamdy Salah, a 26-year-old farmer outside the town of Rosetta in the West Delta, says planting practices have changed dramatically. In the past, they grew a variety: tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and other vegetables. Now they mainly grow mangoes and citrus fruits, which are less vulnerable to salt.

“We tried other crops like apple, but the salt water also killed its roots,” he said.

Abuel-Ezz’s family has farmed in Rosetta for generations, and he and his two brothers farm two mango and citrus farms of five acres each.

Ten years ago, they raised their farmland, one field 1 meter (3.3 feet) and the second 2 meters (6.6 feet), to combat rising saline waters in the bodies of their farms. It cost them about 2 million pounds ($101,700) at today’s prices, said Sayed’s brother Saber Abuel-Ezz.

The elevation, along with a government-built trickle system to reduce salt in the ground, saved them time.

“It was expensive but there was no alternative,” said Sayed, a 36-year-old father of two.

In addition to bringing in tons of soil, many grow plants in raised beds and use whatever natural or chemical fertilizers they can afford to counter salinity.

Without these measures, the land quickly becomes desolate. Across the river from the town of Rosetta, sheets of dried salt cover former farmland outside the town of Mutubas.

On a September afternoon, half a dozen farmers sat by a machine pumping water from an irrigation canal to raised beds on a mango farm in Mutubas. The trees have just started to flower, next year could be their first harvest.

Ouf el-Zoughby, one of the farmers, said it was the third time he had tried to grow mangoes. Past attempts have been thwarted by salt.

“You see the tree dying right before your eyes,” the 47-year-old farmer said, remembering he had to tear off the pods one by one. Its fields are less than 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Mediterranean.

This time, he hopes newly raised farmland and a government-built runoff system will help them survive, along with expensive chemical fertilizers. He’s not sure what he’ll do if the harvest fails again. He fears that without more help from the government, thousands of people could abandon their farms.

The region has always been exposed to the nearby sea, but the ancients say the salinity was controlled by the fresh water and silt supplies of the Nile. Even after the construction of the Aswan High Dam more than 50 years ago put an end to the seasonal flooding, fresh water still reached the fields through the canals. But even that has declined, as the government has rationed agricultural water use, to account for the country’s growing population. There is not enough left to eliminate the salt.

Further up the coast, on the eastern side of the delta, concrete barriers have been laid just outside the town of Port Said, in an effort to hold back rising waves.

Abdel-Wahab Ramadan, a 61-year-old retired engineer, remembers spending summer vacations on white sand beaches here 30 years ago. Now her grandchildren play next to the huge wave breakers in the muddy shallows.

“We realize this is necessary, but there are better methods of protection than this,” he said.

They are still only a half measure. They weren’t enough to stop waves from inundating beachside restaurants and cafes in the town of Ras el-Bar in recent winters. Many now close during the winter months.

“Last year we spent a week fixing the place, but unfortunately the water flooded it again,” said Abd Allah Gareib, who runs a cafe near the beach. It has suffered water damage for the past two years. This year, the sea has already crossed the first two breakwater lines in October.

Barriers and runoff systems are part of the government’s efforts to protect the delta from the effects of climate change.

Egypt’s former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Abdel-Atty, said in January that the government had installed concrete barriers 120 kilometers (74 miles) along the Mediterranean coast, intended to shelter 17 million people. This equates to approximately half of the coastline of the delta and the city of Alexandria. The entire Mediterranean coast of Egypt stretches for 990 kilometers (615 miles). Abdel-Atty said they were also working on building a warning system to alert of any climate change like sea level rise.

At the same time, the authorities are trying to put an end to highly polluting practices, such as brick-making and an ancient agricultural custom, the burning of rice straw, which coats the delta’s sky in smoke every year after harvest.

But Egyptians understand that this is a small step in solving a global problem.

“Although Egypt contributes 0.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions, it is one of the most vulnerable (countries) to the impacts of climate change, and the agricultural sector and food production are the most affected,” said FAO expert Abdel Monem. .