Climate change threatens Egyptian delta

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Climate change and rising sea levels are a growing threats to Egypt's fertile Nile delta. Some Egyptians are pushing for drastic action to protect the delta, but the government doesn't seem interested. Correspondent Ursula Lindsay reports from Alexandria.

MARCO WERMAN: You've likely heard the cliche "denial isn't a river in Egypt". Well when it comes to climate change, denial may in fact be a river Egypt. That's at least what some Egyptians are saying about their government's attitude toward protecting the fertile Nile Delta from the threat of rising sea levels. The Nile Delta has been one of Egypt's heavily cultivated and populated regions since ancient times. Farmers there have always struggled to protect their land from the sea, but a warming climate and rising seas are raising the stakes and some in Egypt are saying their government is failing to rise to the challenge. Ursula Lindsey has our report.

URSULA LINDSEY: The coastal road east of Alexandria, Egypt runs through the green fields and date palm groves of the Nile Delta. The Mediterranean flickers in the distance. This is Egypt's bread basket and as he drives through it, Mohammed Youssef says climate change isn't really on the minds of farmers here. The problem isn't visible, Youssef says. Changes haven't happened yet. But changes likely are coming. Youssef is a coastal engineer. He pulls over to search for signs of what the future here might look like. We walk into an empty field close to the sea. Dry branches snap underfoot. Thin crusts of salt cover the bare ground. We're afraid the whole area will become like this, Youssef says. Now it's just a small percentage, but it could grow and then how will Egypt feed itself? The problem here is that salt water from the Mediterranean is seeping in under this ground and poisoning the soil. Nothing can grow. It's long been a problem in the delta, but it seems to be getting worse. Abdel Rahman Shaaban owns this field. Shaaban says farmers here respond to the growing salinity by covering their fields with a layer of sand to leach out the salt. But that increases another threat to the fields. Shaaban and other farmers get the sand from nearby dunes and that destroys an important natural barrier, explains Alexandria environmental researcher Salah Soliman.

SALAH SOLIMAN: We know that the sand dunes are a kind of protection for the Delta from being flooded with water from the sea.

LINDSEY: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, predicted several years ago that global sea levels will rise between 30 centimeters and one meter between 2100. Other reports since then suggest that prediction was too conservative. But even a small increase in sea level would mean many more fields damaged by underground salt water. And by the end of the century, a quarter of the Nile Delta could actually be under water. Egypt, which is 95% desert, would lose a huge chunk of its precious fields and much more.

MAMDOUH HAMZA: This area is not only just agriculture land. It has hospitals, schools, factories, governmental buildings. At the moment it is inhabited by about three and half million people.

LINDSEY: Mamdouh Hamza heads the firm that engineer Mohammed Youssef works for. Hamza is proposing drastic measures to protect the Nile Delta. He wants to dredge sand from the sea to raise the beaches along the Delta and build a 240 kilometer underground barrier to stop sea water seeping under the fields. The plan would cost seven billion dollars. The government hasn't embraced it.

IBRAHIM EL-SHINNAWY: It costs too much money without any benefit to the country.

LINDSEY: Ibrahim el-Shinnawy heads the Egyptian government's Coastal Research Institute. He says his research shows the IPCC's predictions are exaggerated. And even if sea levels do rise dramatically, El-Shinnawy says, Egypt's coast will be mostly protected by sand dunes and existing man-made barriers. Mamdouh Hamza responds that the government just doesn't want to face the problem.

HAMZA: They will tell you there is no sea water rise. We have many authorities working on that topic. We don't have government in this country. Nobody thinks of the long term interest of Egypt.

LINDSEY: The government is taking the matter seriously, Ibrahim El-Shinnawy says. But it doesn't see it as an emergency.

EL-SHINNAWY: It's a long term problem. It's not like a hurricane. It's not like an earthquake. We can deal with this and if we need some funds, we have to ask our friends over the world to help.

LINDSEY: The Egyptian government and the United Nations have just started a 16 million dollar project to protect the Delta's sand dunes. In the long term, El-Shinnawy acknowledges that Egypt may well have to build much more extensive coastal protection systems. And farmers may have to find crops that can withstand a saltier soil. All of this would be expensive, though. It costs a million dollars to protect one kilometer of sand dunes and it's unclear whether the Egyptian government, or any of its friends, will be ready to pay the price. For The World, I'm Ursula Lindsey, Alexandria, Egypt.