Climate change and rising seas threaten Egypt’s granary

ROSETTA, Egypt (AP) – Sayed Abuel-Ezz has already seen his crops wither from seawater. As the Nile Delta farmer walks among his mango trees on his land not far from the Mediterranean Sea, he fears it will happen again despite having spent the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars to prevent it.

“If it gets up, the trees will die,” Abuel-Ezz said, looking out to sea.

Here, the impact of climate change has long been evident to farmers, in the creeping salt that devours the roots and softens their fields, rendering them sterile. They pay a fortune to haul trucks loaded with earth to try to raise their crops above the salt pushed into the ground by rising sea levels. But they say it’s getting worse.

Bus drivers can also see the changes, as the sea more and more easily spills over to the mainland. Now, every winter, parts of the vital international highway that runs along the Egyptian coast get flooded, drivers say along the way.

Located on the northern coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean, the Nile River Delta is one of the three most vulnerable hotspots in the world for the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change supported by the United Nations.

As Egypt hosts the COP27 UN Global Climate Summit this month, the country’s leaders said the plight of the Delta, known for millennia for its fertile soil, was a major concern. Residents are hoping for help to deal with the consequences of global warming.

The delta covers approximately 240 square kilometers (93 square miles), starting just north of the capital city of Cairo, where the River Nile fans out. The branches of the rivers created the rich and fertile land by depositing silt as they made their way to the sea. Since ancient times, the area has been the food basket of empires.

It is densely populated, home to about 40 percent of the 104 million Egyptians, and accounts for half of the country’s economy, according to the UN food agency. Farms and fisheries along the two branches of the Nile, Rosetta in the west and Damietta in the east, help feed the country and provide products for export.

All of this is increasingly threatened by climate change and rising seas. A quarter of the Delta is at or below sea level. An increase of between 0.5 and 1 meter (1.6 to 3.2 feet) – which could occur by 2100 in one of the worst-case scenarios of the UN-backed panel – will move the coast inland by several kilometers, submerging large areas and making them more sterile with salt. This is according to a recent report by an international group of scientists supervised by the Cyprus Institute of Climate and Atmospheric Research Center and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

“This would imply serious challenges to coastal infrastructure and agriculture and can lead to salinization of coastal aquifers, including the densely populated and cultivated Nile Delta,” said George Zittis, co-author of the report.

The scenario considered most likely by the jury is that the sea will increase by 0.3-0.6 meters by 2100. This will still make thousands of acres unsuitable for agriculture or housing.

The Associated Press spoke to more than three dozen farmers, fishermen and other residents in different villages and towns along the Mediterranean coast, the width of the Delta.

Over the span of several generations, they claimed to have felt the effects of climate change for years, particularly sea level rise. They saw greater coastal erosion and salt-contaminated groundwater. Salt water gets in the way when pressure builds from rising sea water and fresh water back pressure is decreased.

Saltwater intrusion is the biggest threat to the Delta, said Mohamed Abdel Monem, senior advisor for land and climate change at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“This means less productivity and in many cases the death of crops and therefore food insecurity,” he said.

Hamdy Salah, a 26-year-old farmer outside the western Delta town of Rosetta, says planting practices have changed dramatically. They once grew a variety: tomatoes, eggplants, pumpkins and other vegetables. Now mainly mangoes and citrus fruits grow, which are less vulnerable to salt.

“We tried other crops like apple, but salt water also killed its roots,” he said.

Abuel-Ezz’s family has been farming in Rosetta for generations, and he and his two brothers grow two mango and citrus farms, five acres each.

A decade ago, they elevated their farmland, one field by 1 meter (3.3 feet) and the second by 2 meters (6.6 feet), to combat the rise of saline water in the body of their farms. It cost them around £ 2 million ($ 101,700) at today’s prices, said Sayed’s brother, Saber Abuel-Ezz.

The elevation, coupled with a government-built drainage system intended to reduce salt in the soil, bought them time.

“It was expensive, but there was no alternative,” said Sayed, a 36-year-old father of two.

In addition to carrying tons of land, many grow plants in raised beds and use any natural or chemical fertilizers they can afford to counter the saline.

Without these measures, the land quickly becomes desolate. Across the river from the town of Rosetta, dried salt sheets cover former farmland outside the town of Mutubas.

On a September afternoon, half a dozen farmers sat next to a machine pumping water from an irrigation canal onto raised beds on a mango farm in Mutubas. The trees have just begun to bloom, next year may be their first harvest.

Ouf el-Zoughby, one of the farmers, said this is the third time he has tried growing mangoes. Past attempts have been thwarted by the salt.

“See the tree die before your eyes,” said the 47-year-old farmer, recalling how he had to take out the shells one by one. He fields are located within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of the Mediterranean.

This time, he hopes the newly elevated farmland and a government-built drainage system will help them survive, as well as expensive chemical fertilizers. He is not sure what he will do if the harvest fails again. He worries that without further government help, thousands of people could abandon their farms.

The area has always been exposed to the nearby sea, but the first claim that the salinity has been kept in check by the supplies of fresh water and silt from the Nile. Even after the construction of the the High Dam of Aswan in more than 50 years ago the seasonal floods ceased, fresh water still reached the fields through the canals. But that too has declined, as the government rationed the use of agricultural water to account for the country’s population growth. There is no longer enough to wash off the salt.

Further down the coast, on the eastern side of the Delta, concrete barriers have been pulled down just outside the town of Port Said, with the aim of holding back the rising waves.

Abdel-Wahab Ramadan, a 61-year-old retired engineer, remembers spending his summer holidays here on white-sand beaches 30 years ago. Now, his grandchildren play alongside the huge wave breakers in the muddy shallows.

“We know this is necessary, but there are better methods of protection than this ugly,” he said.

I’m still only half a size. That wasn’t enough to stop the waves from flooding beachfront restaurants and cafes in the town of Ras el-Bar over the past few winters. Many now close during the winter months.

“Last year, we spent a week repairing the place, but unfortunately the water flooded it again,” said Abd Allah Gareib, who runs a beach bar. He has suffered water damage in the past two years. This year the sea has already crossed the first two breakwater lines in October.

Barriers and drainage systems are part of the government’s efforts to protect the Delta from the effects of climate change.

Former Egyptian minister of water and irrigation, Mohamed Abdel-Atty, said the government installed concrete barriers 120 kilometers (74 miles) along the Mediterranean coast in January, intended to accommodate 17 million people. This is equivalent to about half of the Delta coast and the city of Alexandria. The entire Mediterranean coast of Egypt stretches for 990 kilometers (615 miles). Abdel-Atty said they were also working to build a warning system to warn of any climate changes such as rising sea levels.

At the same time, authorities are trying to end highly polluting practices, such as brick-making and an ancient agricultural custom, the burning of rice straw, which envelops the Delta skies in smoke every year after harvest.

But the Egyptians understand that this is a small step in addressing a global problem.

“Although Egypt contributes 0.6% to global carbon dioxide emissions, it is one of the (countries) most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the agricultural sector and food production are the most affected,” said Abdel Monem. , FAO expert.

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