A future under water?
Global warming seems finally to be getting the attention it deserves in Egypt, particularly in Alexandria which may be threatened by rising sea levels
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WILL IT DISAPPEAR? Egypt's Delta might drown as a result of the alarming rise of sea level caused by global warming
Where the ancient Library of Alexandria once stood 18 centuries ago, Egyptian and Arab scientists convened last week to discuss the environmental challenges of water shortages in the Arab region and global warming.
The event, which took place at the new library constructed in 2002, left participants puzzled as to whether the Nile Delta will be submerged by rising sea water as a result of global warming, as scientific reports have suggested.
Is the state-of-the-art Bibliotheca Alexandrina itself under threat of a second annihilation, together with large swathes of the Mediterranean city, this time as a result of global warming?
The mainstream view is that Egypt's Delta, already below sea level, faces a serious threat of inundation as a result of rising sea levels caused by the melting of the polar ice caps.
However, this was disputed at last week's meeting, when a number of Egyptian scientists suggested that, in addition to the flawed statistics and maps on which the drowning scenario is based, the future impact of global warming cannot be entirely predicted, given the other environmental changes that could occur.
The meeting, organised by the Cairo-based monthly review Weghat Nazar and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), also discussed water scarcity in the Arab world and left participants apprehensive about the spectre of droughts, desertification and possibly water wars.
The population of the Arab world constitutes five per cent of the world's population, but its share of the world's water is only one per cent. This small fraction is threatened by population growth that is the highest in the world, as well as pollution and the "failure", in the words of the UNDP's 2009 Arab Human Development Report, of the region to establish proper water management.
According to UNDP estimates, Arab countries will be home to some 385 million people in 2015, compared to about 331 million in 2007. However, there have been few indications that Arab governments are developing the means to increase the region's already shrinking one per cent share of the world's water resources.
As Essam Heggy, an Egyptian scientist working for NASA in the US, noted ironically, the Arab world is the largest oil producer in the world, but the poorest investor in water exploration.
"While there are alternative sources of energy," he told participants at the conference, "there is no alternative to water."
According to the Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Ismail Serageldin, Egypt is among the countries in the world likely to suffer significantly from global warming.
There is no exaggerating the frightening climatic changes that could occur, he said, showing a satellite image of Egypt that displayed a dark triangle of sand west of the Nile Delta. "The triangle was once another delta [in ancient Egypt], but it disappeared," Serageldin explained.
One piece of good news reported at the conference is that below this ancient site there may be significant amounts of groundwater that have not yet been exploited. NASA, Heggy said, is currently investing significant time and effort into the search for such water resources, employing technology called radar subsurface imaging that accurately detects the location of groundwater in desert areas.
Using this technology, Heggy and a team of experts from NASA had discovered groundwater in Egypt's desert oases, and the same technology had been used in the search for water on Mars, a "blue planet like earth" three million years ago.
Heggy shocked those attending the conference when he suggested that if global warming continues it could cost Egypt more than the Delta.
If the Arctic ice caps continue to melt, then a new route will be opened up for shipping, making the Suez Canal redundant. "A new route of this sort would be much shorter and cheaper and could be realised in approximately five years," Heggy said, "and it could divert two thirds of the Suez Canal's traffic."
The Suez Canal is Egypt's second source of revenue, generating approximately $6-7 billion in revenues annually.
Heggy took the view that the Delta "would definitely drown" as a result of rising sea levels, and proponents have argued that were this to happen it would displace approximately six million people and submerge 4,500 km2 of land.
Even before that happened, salt water would infiltrate deep into the Delta's agricultural areas, rendering them infertile, Heggy said.
So, how high is global warming on the Egyptian or Arab agenda?
None of the scientists present at the conference were aware of plans to address water scarcity, global warming or desertification, though many participants offered their own ideas to address these threats.
One compelling idea brought up by many speakers was to use the Arab world's solar energy as a cheap source of power to desalinate seawater.
This technology could be ideal for a country like Egypt, which is bordered in the north by the Mediterranean and in the east by the Red Sea and has expansive desert areas.
It is already employed by developed countries, but remains just a topic of discussion in Arab countrie and the conference.
The question is, says Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of Weghat Nazar : are the Arab governments a source of security for their peoples or are they a source of threat?