Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mustafa Tolba

That sinking feeling

The scale of the threat of climate change is such that if action is not taken today, tomorrow is not assured, writes Mustafa Tolba*

Climate change is currently the most serious global environmental problem. While a "natural" problem, what is happening over the past few decades is human induced accelerated change. This human interference comes essentially through power generation, industry, transportation, agriculture and waste, all of which produce greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have the potential to increase average global temperatures.

The main GHGs are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and substitutes of ozone depleting substances. These GHGs result from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), rice paddies, animal production, and production and use of fertilisers.

Between 1990 and 2000, GHG emissions in Egypt increased by around five per cent annually. More annual increase is expected during the current decade until 2010. In the meantime, GHG emissions per $1,000 of Egypt gross domestic product (GDP) went down, indicating the use of environmentally sound, economically viable low carbon activities in the Egyptian economy.

The share of Egypt in total world emissions in 1990 was 0.4 per cent and was still limited to 0.58 per cent in 2000. The whole Arab world emits less than five per cent of global GHGs. Yet there is no way to even vaguely estimate what will happen in 2020. All that is known is that the average global temperature will surely increase during the next 20 years. Most GHGs that are already there have lifetimes of 20 years or more.

VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTATION TO CHANGE: Despite the very low contribution of Egypt to global GHG emissions, Egypt is considered one of a very small number of highly vulnerable countries to climate change. The following are just three examples of these negative impacts:

- Water resources: Egypt's share of Nile water is 55.5 billion cubic metres per year, safe abstraction from deep aquifers may reach 1.0 billion cubic metres per year and rainfall is about 1.2 billion cubic metres per year. Thus the total budget of fresh water is about 58 billion cubic metres per year. Total yearly water consumption in Egypt is about 78 billion cubic metres. Agriculture consumes 80 per cent with municipal drinking water and industry consuming each 10 per cent. The difference between the water budget and the amounts consumed yearly amounts to about 20 billion cubic metres. This is covered by recycling agricultural drainage, blending it with Nile fresh water, abstraction from shallow aquifers (which is actually dissipated water from the Nile), and treatment of municipal sewage.

The current population of Egypt is about 80 million. So the annual share per capita is 700 cubic metres of fresh water per year. By 2040, with expected population growth, the per capita share of fresh water will go down to 350 cubic metres per year -- far below the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres. These are the facts without considering climate change impacts on Egypt's water resources, which are very vulnerable to this change. Nile water flow is uncertain due to significant differences in global models of Nile output, some showing increases of up to 30 per cent while others show decreases of up to 70 per cent. Both have serious negative effects. Increases would cause devastating floods. Decreases would negatively impact all development activities, particularly food production.

Rainfall will possibly move north causing a reduction of rain on Egypt's north coast by 50 per cent. Ground water in Egypt is limited and non-renewable. It is also expected to suffer from increased salinity due to sea level rise and consequent seawater intrusion. Egypt is considering adaptation to water resource problems resulting from climate change in different directions: dealing with the uncertainty of water flows into the Nile by keeping water levels in Lake Nasser low; increased storage capacity; improved irrigation systems; resolution of conflicts; weed control; reducing surface water evaporation; drainage improvement; change of cropping patterns and stakeholder participation. The Ministry of Water Resources is working with the British Meteorological Office to develop a regional model of the Nile Basin expected to be ready within less than two years. This new model will give a better view of what is most likely to happen in the future -- an increase or a decrease. It will be the government's responsibility to take the appropriate decisions.

Other directions include development of new water resources through Upper Nile projects; development of groundwater; rain harvesting; desalination; recycling of treated domestic and industrial effluent and reuse of land drainage, along with soft interventions through increasing public awareness of the need for rationed use of water and the exchange of information and networking with other Nile Valley countries.

- Agriculture: Climate change and global warming are expected to have a serious negative impact on all sources of food production in Egypt. Studies predicted a reduction in the productivity of two major crops in Egypt -- wheat and maize -- by 15 and 19 per cent respectively by 2050. The on- farm irrigation system in Egypt is highly vulnerable to climate change because of low irrigation system efficacy and irrigation management patterns. An additional factor is the inundation and salinisation of 12-15 per cent of the most fertile arable land in the Egyptian Delta as a result of sea level rises and salt water intrusion, both driven by projected temperature increases, crop-water stress, pests and disease.

For livestock, current evidence shows that increases in temperature induce harmful heat stress on animals. New animal diseases emerged in Egypt -- the blue tongue disease and rift valley fever that have a strong and negative impact on livestock production. The availability of fodder is subject to scarcity due to high competition on land and water resources. Climate change is also expected to increase sea temperature, causing fish distribution to shift northwards and to go deeper into fishing waters. The increased salinity of water in coastal lakes is expected to gradually reduce the existence of fresh water fish and increase the portion of saline water fish that are more sensitive to environmental changes.

Modest efforts in scientific research, in the field of mitigating and adapting to climate change, are taking place in the agriculture sector in Egypt. The most promising adaptation measures under consideration now include: changing sowing dates; changing cultivars to those tolerant to heat, salinity and pests; changing crop patterns; and using different combinations of different levels of improved surface irrigation system efficiencies and applying deficit irrigation. For livestock, improving current low productivity cattle and buffalo breeds and feeding programmes, to be better adapted to warmer climate conditions, are being considered. No clear adaptation options have been defined for fisheries. Further studies on the impact, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change are still needed in the agriculture sector.

- Loss of coastal areas and land in the Nile Delta: The most serious of all impacts of climate change is the inundation of coastal areas and Nile Delta. The north coast of the Delta and some governorates in the Delta that are very vulnerable to sea level rises are host of a number of large cities with very dense populations: Alexandria, Port Said, Rosetta and the cities of the governorates of Beheira and Kafr Al-Sheikh, for example. Alexandria alone is host to almost 40 per cent of Egyptian industrial production. Much of the land of the two governorates of Beheira and Kafr Al-Sheikh are below sea level, with parts of Alexandria, Port Said and Rosetta also below sea level.

What adds to the problem is land subsidence in these areas. Studies in Egypt based on satellite images show that the Delta will lose 12 to 15 per cent of its land with a sea level rise of half a metre by the end of this century. However, recent estimates that consider a possible increase of 1.5 to two metres could make that loss happen within the next 20 to 30 years. Loss of land in the Delta will take place through inundation by rising sea levels and by intrusion of salt water into the soil rendering it almost useless. Such loss of land in the Delta will seriously affect food production in Egypt. Millions of inhabitants of the Delta and coastal areas will lose their jobs as a result of sea level rises and will be forced to move away from where they live, looking for jobs in other parts of Egypt, which are already overcrowded. This will naturally lead to conflicts with existing inhabitants and social instability.

Low line coastal areas in other Arab states, particularly Qatar and Lebanon, are also vulnerable to inundation. However, Egypt, with only Bangladesh and Vietnam worse, is categorised as among the most seriously affected countries by sea level rises. The River Nile is one of 10 rivers in the world classified at high risk. Meanwhile, no real concrete, all encompassing plans are yet in place on how to deal with this major problem. We certainly need very strict regulations on investment in coastal areas and low elevations in the Delta. We need clear, doable action plans on what to do with vulnerable existing properties and populations. We need plans also for the protection of weak areas of the coastal line. Each of these low-lying areas will need its own methods of protection based on the size, level and nature of the land exposed.

OTHER IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE: Other sectors that will be equally seriously impacted by climate change include tourism, urban areas, roads and human health. All these serious negative impacts will not happen overnight, or with a regular yearly percentage increase. The impacts are already here. And they will increase in severity every decade with accelerated increasing temperatures. Sea levels have risen by 18 centimetres over the past century. They are expected to increase by more than half a metre by the end of this century. The increase could be much more if polar ice caps continue to melt at the current rate. Then, sea level rise could be 1.5 to two metres. It could happen within the next 30-40 years. A recent study by the US Naval Research Institute estimates that all ice in the North Pole would melt within the next seven years.

Global temperature is expected to further increase by two degrees centigrade by 2050, or even by 2035 -- 25 years from today. This is serious. There was no life on Earth 10,000 years ago; it was all ice, because the average global temperature was five degrees centigrade below that of today. The change took thousands of years to adapt to. We are now faced with major changes in temperature in 100 or 200 years. We cannot wait for 20 or 30 years and then start to act. That will not do. It will be too late. We need to plan today, not tomorrow.

I have raised concerns over the negative impacts of climate change on Egypt and how to deal with them in tens of conferences, and lately with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. I suggested to him the establishment of a ministerial committee chaired by him and that includes all relevant ministries (agriculture, water resources, health, energy, tourism, transport and housing). This committee would be assisted by a high level technical committee established by the prime minister, chaired by one of its members, and that would report directly to him. This technical committee would collect information about climate change, including Egypt's vulnerability, and mitigation and adaptation efforts carried out. This information would form the basis for identifying gaps and setting forth a national policy to be translated into a series of five-year plans to adapt to negative change. The prime minister was very receptive but concrete action remains to come.

Any attenuated form of this structure will not do. We are already too late. We cannot afford further delay.

* President of the International Centre for Environment and Development and former secretary-general of the UN Environment Programme.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 979 Front Page
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map