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Egypt Is Extremely Vulnerable to Climate Changes: Could a New Government Help the Country Adapt?

Politics aside, Egypt is the one of the world's countries most vulnerable to climate change. What would adaptation efforts look like post-Mubarak?


Editor's note: Michael Cote, the author of this piece, is a climate adaptation and urban planning expert (and once-upon-a-time newspaper reporter) who I first met in Copenhagen before the COP15 climate talks. Over the past few weeks, I've been working with Cote to develop a regular feature for GOOD's environment hub on climate adaptation solutions from around the world. In the meantime, the uprising in Egypt happened, and Cote asked if he could comment. Of course he can. Be forewarned: it's awfully long. But you'll learn an incredible amount about Egypt's vulnerable position, and how the country can hope to deal with climate change. —Ben Jervey

Egypt's Climate Policy Void in a Post-Mubarak World


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Egypt is already suffering from the effects of climate change. In September 2010, Dr. Mohamed El Raey of Egypt's Alexandria University described the situation in what is probably the most comprehensive study (PDF) ever published on Arab climate impacts. Dr. El Raey declares that Egypt is the most vulnerable of the Arab states because of comparatively large concentrations of populations, industry, trading, farming, and harbors along the vulnerable coastline.

He writes that the

Coastal zones of Egypt host a major part of the industrial activities including petroleum, chemicals and tourism distributed among a large number of highly populated economic centers such as the cities of Alexandria, Rosetta, Damietta, Port Said, Suez and Hurghada. Trading and transportation centers are also distributed among a large number of harbors which are considered highly attractive to employment from all over the country.

The low-lying coastal and delta regions host one third of Egypt's population, and include the arable land for the majority of the country's crops. Salt is infiltrating soils and eroding the foundations of ancient buildings, as well as untold thousands of buried artifacts and undiscovered antiquities. Homes, some a thousand years old, are eroding from underneath, with no government system in place to help them.

The culprit is sea level rise. As the Mediterranean rises (and it is rising), salt water creeps up the Nile spoiling the only source of fresh water used for drinking and growing crops. Salt is leaching into the soil, spoiling groundwater, damaging foundations of buildings, and causing crop failure. The delta is home to thousands of farms, producing sugar cane, dates, and tomatoes, and ranging in size from huge factory farms to small, boutique organics. The water used for irrigation is becoming more saline, killing the roots of date trees and nearly every crop that has historically grown here.

Exacerbating this problem is erosion and sinking land.

Northern Egyptian cities have built protective sea walls to hold back the Mediterranean. They've been particularly useful during storms and floods, protecting hundreds of rural towns and large, infrastructure-heavy cities dotted along the northern coast.


The Nile River delta with a "modest" two meter rise in sea level, a low range scenario for sea level rise by 2100 according to recent science. Map by "Flood Maps" mashup.

But today, the Mediterranean is starting to top over these walls. As the water rises, it covers land that both erodes and sinks from the weight. It's sort of like sitting on a cushion—as the water comes and goes the soil compacts and releases in similar fashion.

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The impacts on Egyptians will be disproportionately hard compared to residents of Western cities, where resources are more abundant and resiliency professionals like me are often employed.

Egypt's Climate “Plan”

In addition to these climate impacts, the Nile Delta region is subject to an incredible array of land-use management problems, from rapid, unplanned growth to massive pollution from cities, industry, and agriculture to wetland destruction. The biggest problem, therefore, is the baffling lack of coherent institutional and governmental systems.

To build resilience in the coastal zones, the United Nations provides several layers of technical assistance to Egypt. The central coordinating body is the United Nations' International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. The ISDR's Arab State's office has, since 2007, been providing partnership guidance between a kaleidoscope of regional governments and regional development organizations, from the League of Arab States, WHO, World Bank, UNICEF, and countless others.

There are ad hoc agricultural projects, as well. With assistance from the United States and others, Nile farmers are being encouraged to switch to crops that require less water—changing from growing sugar cane to beans, for example. Using less water means less runoff of toxic pesticides into the ground water and the Nile.

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But what Egypt still lacks—and desperately needs—is a coherent climate strategy for the nation as a whole.

Solutions Going Forward

The momentum for climate solutions in the region will probably slow while Egypt transitions to a new government. It is unknown what will become of all the external technical, financial, and scientific climate assistance from various governments and institutions. There will be setbacks, but it seems that with all this support, coupled with the reality of measurable climate impacts, Egypt must continue to cooperate.

Whatever the next government brings, it's clear it has to side with the people's demands for a stable, democratic system. As of this writing, news outlets are reporting that a new post-Mubarak Egyptian government will most likely comprise a hybrid of democratic nationalism and conservative Islamic rule, melded with conflicting elements of free market capitalism and strong, potentially oppressive militarism.

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Hosni Mubarak's regime was not doing enough to protect the country in a changing climate. Let's hope Egyptians win this fight for a new government. It will be the only way they can win the longer-term fight against the rising sea.

Photo: NASA Earth Observatory


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