Nile Delta vulnerable to sea level rise

watery tales A 1m rise in the sea level, which many experts think likely within the next 100 years, will cause 20 pc of the Delta to go under water. Getty Images

Maged Shamdy’s ancestors arrived on the shores of Lake Burrulus in the mid-19th century. At the time, French industrialists were rounding up forced labour squads to help build the Suez Canal.

 Like countless other Egyptians, the Shamdys abandoned their family home and fled north into the Nile Delta, where they could hide within the swamplands that fanned out from the great river’s edge.
The Shamdys stayed on, carving out a new life as farmers and fishermen on one of the most fertile tracts of land in the world. A century and a half later, Maged is still farming his family’s fields. He must contemplate a new threat to his family and livelihood, one that may well prove more deadly than any of Egypt’s previous invaders. “We are going underwater,” he says.

Maged understands the menace of coastal erosion, which is ingesting the edge of Egypt in some places at a rate of 100m a year. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared Egypt’s Nile Delta to be among the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to a rise in sea levels, and even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

The Delta spills out from the northern stretches of the capital into 10,000 square miles of farmland fed by the Nile’s branches. It is home to two-thirds of the country’s rapidly growing population, and responsible for more than 60 per cent of its food supply. But with its 270km of coastline lying at a dangerously low elevation (large parts are between zero and 1m above sea level, with some areas lying below it), any melting of the polar ice caps could see its farmland and cities – including the historical port of Alexandria – transformed into an ocean floor.

Delta will go underwater
A 1m rise in the sea level, which many experts think likely within the next 100 years, will cause 20 per cent of the Delta to go underwater. At the other extreme, the 14m rise that would result from the disappearance of Greenland and western Antarctica would leave the Mediterranean lapping at the northern suburbs of Cairo, with practically all of the Delta underwater.  Already, a series of environmental crises are harming the Nile. Some are subtle, like the river’s vanishing act in the Delta’s northern fields; others, like the dramatic collapse of coastal lands into the ocean, are more striking. Major flooding is yet to become a reality but, from industrial pollution to soil salinity, a whole new set of interconnected green concerns is now forcing its way into Egyptian public discourse for the first time.

“The Delta is a kind of Bangladesh story,” says Rick Tutwiler, director of the American University in Cairo’s Desert Development Centre. There are more than 4,000 people per square mile in the Delta; it’s hard to think of any other place where humans and the environment around them are more closely intertwined.

Will there be enough freshwater?
The freshwater of the Nile – which has enabled Egypt to survive as a unified state longer than any other territory on earth – is creaking under the strain of the population boom. The rich brown soil has greyed out, leaving a barren salt-encrustation on the surface.

The cause is underground saltwater intrusion from the nearby coast, which pushes up through the soil and kills off roots. Coastal farmland has always been threatened by saltwater, but salinity has traditionally been kept at bay by fresh water gushing over the soil and flushing out the salt. It used to happen naturally with the Nile’s seasonal floods; after the construction of Egypt’s High Dam in the 70s, these floods came to an end, but a network of irrigation canals continued to bring gallons of fresh water, ensuring salinity levels remained low.

Today, however, Nile water barely reaches this corner of the Delta. Population growth has sapped its energy upstream, and what “freshwater” does make it downriver is increasingly awash with toxins and other impurities.
Experts believe the problem is only going to get worse. “We currently have a major water deficit in Egypt, with only 700 cubic metres of freshwater per person,” explains Professor Salah Soliman of Alexandria University. “That’s already short of the 1,000 cubic metres per person the UN believes is the minimum needed for water security.”

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