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Story Publication logo October 27, 2022

The Nile Delta Isn’t Ready for Climate Change



Egypt is facing heightened scrutiny of its handling of climate challenges within its borders.

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Egypt has an $8 billion adaptation plan, but for now its agricultural economy is at risk from climate change, water scarcity, inflation, and urbanization.

Adel Abdullah's farm is vulnerable to sea level rise, and because of the high cost of fertilizers and other inputs he hasn't turned a profit in a decade. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

Egypt’s first line of defense against climate change is a 22-mile row of shoulder-high, star-shaped concrete blocks piled along the beach outside the ancient Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.

The blocks, which counteract erosion, are meant to protect a precious landscape from the crush of sea level rise: The Nile Delta, one of the most fertile and densely populated rural areas on Earth, which reaches from the shore down to Cairo in a V shape the size of Wales. Here, the world’s second-longest river completes its 4,100-mile journey that begins in east Africa’s Lake Victoria.

But these barriers aren’t doing enough to save the farmer who lives immediately behind them.

Adel Abdullah cultivates a subsistence living off of six acres of peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, tomatoes, wheat, corn, and pomegranates. He is one of millions of smallholder farmers working in the Delta. He walks barefoot in his farm as a show of reverence to the land. The soil is pale and thin, almost as sandy as the beach, and choked by mounting concentrations of salt, left behind by periodic coastal flooding and pushed into underground aquifers by the rising sea.

“This is the first place to be affected by climate change,” Abdullah says. “The barriers help a bit with flooding, but the salty soil is still really killing us.”

Some farms in the northern part of the Delta source most of their water from the polluted Kitchener Drain, a branch of which is shown here. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

Sea level rise isn’t Abdullah’s only problem. Because his farm is at the coastal end of the network of canals that deliver irrigation water from the Nile, he sometimes goes weeks or, in the summer, months without fresh water. Instead, he takes irrigation water from the nearby Kitchener Drain, one of the largest and most polluted canals in Egypt that aggregates wastewater from the farms, businesses, and households of an estimated 11 million people in the Delta. By the time water reaches Abdullah’s farm, it may have been reused half a dozen times since entering Egypt in the Nile, each time accumulating more salts and pollutants and losing beneficial nutrients.

To counteract the poor water quality, Abdullah is forced to douse the farm in fertilizers, pesticides, and salt-suppressing chemicals, all of which further degrade the soil. Those inputs, on top of the rising costs of irrigation systems and machinery, eat up any potential income Abdullah might earn. Fertilizer prices have jumped 50% in the last year as Egypt has rolled back subsidies and the war in Ukraine driven up the cost of raw materials. Squeezed between higher prices and deteriorating environmental conditions, Abdullah hasn’t turned a profit in a decade.

“This should be some of the most fertile land in Egypt,” he says. “But instead we’re barely making it.”

Ahead of COP27, Egypt is responding slowly to climate risk

Egypt is building up a defensive line against sea level rise with concrete barriers like these, fences, and natural sand dunes. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

As Egypt prepares to host the COP27 global climate summit in November, the country’s own climate vulnerabilities are coming into focus. The Nile Delta—where agriculture employs one-fifth of the country’s workforce and is responsible for 12% of its GDP and much of its food supply—is being hammered by rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and a growing shortage of water.

The Delta also faces other social and economic challenges that increase farmers’ vulnerability to climate impacts. Like Abdullah, many are hemmed in by rapid urbanization and population growth, burdened by debt and soaring inflation, and cut off from adequate subsidies and infrastructure, modern farming equipment and methods, market and weather data, and social services.

Climate adaptation solutions that could keep environmental problems from turning existential—fixing the battered and wasteful irrigation network, expanding affordable access to improved seeds and climate-smart farming technologies, and more effective and equitable regulation of urban development on agricultural land—are being rolled out by the government and research groups, but often slower than the pace of climate impacts. That’s left Egypt’s economy and food security exposed to growing risk.

Cotton farmers near the town of El-Hamoul said they only had access to low-quality seeds and water, and that fertilizer had become almost unaffordable. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

In interviews, farmers, entrepreneurs, and researchers across the Delta described a region in which necessary equipment is unaffordable, technical guidance from the government is outdated, soil and water quality are declining, water is routinely wasted, and farms are forced to compete for land and water resources with urban development.

“We’re really squeezed and marginalized here, and the government isn’t helping,” said one farmer down the road from Abdullah, who requested anonymity to speak frankly (with tens of thousands of political prisoners, Egypt’s restrictions on free speech are also gaining prominence ahead of COP27). Even though, with a rising population and global supply chains disrupted by war and the pandemic, Egypt has never had a greater need to increase its domestic food supply, the farmer said he is barely solvent, and his children see no future in agriculture: “Every year it gets worse and worse,” he said. “My head feels like it’s about to explode.”

Egypt’s water crisis is getting worse

Started about 200 years ago, Egypt’s modern irrigation network is long enough to wrap around the globe. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

The Nile Delta originated around 10 million years ago. As it approached the sea, the river split into seven branches, which flooded once a year after the rainy season in the highlands of Ethiopia. The floods left behind a thick layer of rich silt, ideal for farming. That soil, and the natural flood irrigation cycle, were the basis of civilization in the Delta, starting some 7,000 years ago in the late Neolithic period, through 3,000 years of the pharaohs, and through nearly 2,000 years of occupations by Greeks, Romans, and conquerors from what are now Turkey and the Middle East.

Around 1805, an Ottoman general named Muhammad Ali took control of the country, and founded the dynasty of kings that would rule—eventually under British colonial supervision—for 150 years. One of Ali’s most enduring marks on the country was the establishment of the first modern network of dams and irrigation canals in the Delta, which allowed tens of thousands of new acres to come under cultivation.

In 1953, the last king, the infant Fuad, was deposed following a coup by army officers. One of these, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took office as president in 1956 and laid the groundwork for the modern Egyptian state. Again, water and land played a crucial role in Nasser’s legacy. 12% of the country’s arable land was owned by the aristocracy; Nasser nationalized this land and distributed it to about 340,000 impoverished rural families. He also further extended Ali’s irrigation network and oversaw construction of the Aswan High Dam, which brought an end to the Nile’s ancient seasonal flooding and fixed the river in its present position, with just two remaining branches forking through the Delta.

Egypt’s population has since more than quadrupled, to 104 million. Yet the flow of the Nile, which supplies more than 95% of the country’s water, has remained more or less constant. In the 1990s water availability fell below the international “water poverty” benchmark of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.

Egypt has managed that scarcity by meticulously recycling agricultural water and, in recent years, curtailing the production of water-intensive crops like cotton and rice and importing 40% of its wheat and other food staples. In the last few decades, “Egypt has had the same amount of water, the same amount of land,” says Aly Abousabaa, director of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. “So the country’s productivity gains, in terms of being able to squeeze more from the existing resources, are really a big success story.”

But threats to the water supply are mounting. The population is still growing quickly and could reach 160 million by 2050. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that is nearing completion upstream could cut the flow of Nile water into Egypt by a quarter during the as-yet-unknown number of years it will take to fill its reservoir. By 2100, climate change-related heat waves upstream could reduce the Nile’s flow by 75%, Abousabaa said.

Meanwhile, rising temperatures and falling rainfall mean crops—which consume 86% of Egypt’s water supply—will require more irrigation to survive. Without additional climate adaptation measures, crop yields in Egypt could fall 10% on average by 2050, resulting in an economic loss of nearly $2 billion, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Eman Sayed, a senior planning official in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, said current annual demand for water is about 35% higher than what the country receives from the Nile, groundwater, and a very small amount of rain—a deficit of about 20 billion cubic meters. To cover it, she said, Egypt will need to use every drop multiple times, aggressively minimize wastage, and boost the supply by investing $2.8 billion in dozens of new desalination plants with the aim to produce 5 billion cubic meters annually by 2050.

“We are surrounded with a lot of pressures,” she said. “It’s a very huge challenge.”

Farmers are moving into the desert

Fruit cultivation consultant Marius Bouwman demonstrates how sunlight reaches the inside of a mango tree, which can burn it. “Go against nature and you’re fighting a losing battle that will cost you a lot of money,” he says. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

The highway that connects Cairo to Alexandria through the desert is bordered by fruit and olive farms, and Marius Bouwman has worked on nearly every one of them. Since moving to Egypt from South Africa in 2014, Bouwman has become one of the country’s leading fruit consultants, renowned as a mango whisperer with an uncanny ability to coax more cash from farms that have been decimated by heat waves and chronic water scarcity.

On the western fringe of the Delta, farms and suburbs are gradually overtaking the desert as the central Delta grows more crowded. Here, water is even scarcer and the impacts of climate change are more pronounced. But in this and a few other desert areas around Egypt, the government is working to link more than 1.5 million acres to groundwater irrigation, and says it is about one-third of the way there. Land reclamation could take some pressure off the Delta, and sandy soils are well-suited for the production of citrus fruits that are one of Egypt’s most lucrative exports.

But farms here—which tend to be large commercial operations, rather than small private farms like Abdullah’s—are also struggling to break even. In the last ten years, Bouwman says, weather conditions in Egypt’s northern deserts, which have historically been mild and consistent, have become increasingly unpredictable and dangerous for fruits.

“Every year is different, but it’s getting more and more difficult,” he says. “Unless you grow pure gold it has become very hard to make money.”

One of Bouwman’s clients is Rehim Salah, who operates a 300-acre mango and citrus farm near the town of Nubariyah. This year, the winter was exceptionally long and cold, followed by an early summer heat wave. 20% of her fruits were killed, which essentially erased her profit margin for the year. But in other recent years, she has had the opposite weather problem, with winter temperatures too high to activate the fruits’ growing cycle. The unpredictability makes it difficult to identify solutions, Salah says: “Climate change is like a big black box.”

Erratic weather decimated about 20% of Rehim Salah’s crop this year, most of which was mangoes. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

One of Bouwman’s fixes is about the shape of the trees. Ducking under the canopy of one of the mango trees that stand in orderly rows on Salah’s farm, Bouwman explains that historically farmers here have pruned trees in a bowl shape, such that the interior of the tree gets plenty of sunlight. But in the new climate conditions, that approach just leaves the interior exposed to burning.

“It’s like turning the bottom of your arm to the sun,” he says, pointing to patches of green bark that have turned crusted and brown. Instead, he advocates pruning the tree in a familiar shape: A pyramid, which keeps more fruit sheltered inside. Salah’s staff have also started wrapping each individual mango on the tree in paper—torn from fashion magazines, English homework, multiplication tables, and receipts—to keep away insects. At this point she’s willing to try anything.

“Sometimes you throw money at things that have no impact, but you have to try,” she says. “If you do nothing, you definitely won’t survive.”

Rehim Salah, right, operates a mango and citrus farm in the desert just outside the Delta with her husband Amer. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

Along the same highway, Khalil Nasrallah manages Wadi Farms, one of Egypt’s largest producers of olives and olive oil. Like Salah, he has had a difficult few years. During a visit in September, with the olive harvest about to begin, many of the trees were empty.

“We are suffering from climate change big-time,” he says. “For the last two years, with heat wave after heat wave, we lost more than half the crop. It’s really sad.”

Nasrallah’s other problem is the crush of suburbs—malls and gated neighborhoods of single-family homes for middle-class professionals—that have encircled the farm as Cairo, with a population of 22 million, bursts at the seams. The farm relies on groundwater brought up from wells on the property, and Nasrallah says the suburbs are draining the aquifer. In the last four years he has had to dig an extra thirty meters to find water—and deeper wells mean higher electricity bills for pumping. Some wells have dried up altogether. Recently, government officials told him he had to stop watering the grass on a soccer field he built for his workers.

“I have no idea how to manage the water situation or what will happen,” he says. “Our future is really up in the air.”

Urbanization puts Egypt’s food security at risk

Many farms in the Delta are bordered by similar red-brick apartment buildings, some of which were built on farmland illegally. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

Urbanization is also spreading in the inner Delta, as many farmers decide that constructing housing is more profitable than growing crops. Since the 1970s, about 14% of the Delta’s arable land has been converted to urban development, according to Cairo University agronomist Nader Noureldeen. Multistory red brick and concrete apartment buildings are now ubiquitous throughout the Delta, bordering nearly every patch of farmland.

Individual farms are also becoming smaller with each generation as, in keeping with longstanding Egyptian custom, land is divided among a father’s heirs (with sons traditionally taking a larger share than daughters). Urban development degrades the Delta’s soil and drives more farming into the desert, leaving the entire food system more vulnerable to climate impacts. Land fragmentation leads to the inefficient use of water and other resources and raises the costs of distribution for farmers.

“Everyone has to add his own pipes, his own pumps,” said Hani Sewilam, the former head of climate change research at the American University of Cairo who was named Minister of Irrigation in August. “It makes the entire farming business model unprofitable, and it’s a limitation on any development or climate adaptation you want to do.”

In the Nile Delta, 14% of land has been converted from agriculture to urban development since the 1970s. Video by NASA/In-House Art. Egypt, 2022.

Delta residents say the government has begun to police development on agricultural land more aggressively, and earlier this year approved fines of up to $500,000 for illegal construction. But in some cases, the government’s own plans are responsible, most recently in August when thousands of people living on a Nile island near Cairo that was primarily used for farming were evicted to make way for a state-sanctioned development project.

Urbanization has also turned many of the Delta’s irrigation canals into landfills. The network started by Muhammed Ali now includes about 33,000 miles of delivery and drainage canals across the country, enough to wrap around the globe, that range in size from small rivers to something a child could hop over. Delta residents say they used to bathe in these canals, drink from them, and raise fish in them. Now many of them, especially at the ends of the network, are polluted with farming chemicals and sewage, and choked with trash.

Many of the Delta’s irrigation and drainage canals are clogged by waste and weeds, which farmers say are expensive and sometimes dangerous to clear out. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

Low-quality water has become a major burden, said Aida Abdel Hamid, as she plucked a meager harvest of cotton on a farm near the town of El-Hamoul. “It exhausts the soil, and then all our hard work doesn’t lead to any revenue.”

The canals are also mostly not lined with cement, such that water tends to seep into the ground before reaching the ends of the network. Between seepage, evaporation, and water wasted by farmers who flood their fields instead of using controlled irrigation hoses, nearly one-third of the country’s water is lost in the irrigation system between the Aswan High Dam and the sea, Noureldeen said.

Around 40% of Egypt’s soils are affected by high concentrations of salt, visible in a crust on the surface here, either because of sea level rise or the low quality and quantity of irrigation water. Image by Tim McDonnell. Egypt, 2022.

Mohamed Kamal Ramadan, a farmer near the Delta town of Quesna, says the sorry state of the drainage canals surrounding his farm causes the fields to become waterlogged and to accumulate salt that comes in the low-quality irrigation water and can’t be flushed out. The narrow drains that are meant to bring excess water back into the system for farmers further downstream are clogged with plastic water bottles, chip bags, corn husks, algae, burlap sacks, and cast-off clothing including blue jeans and flip flops. The soil is dark and appears rich, but is crusted with a visible layer of salt, a problem that affects up to 40% of Egypt’s arable soil.

Ramadan says that the land is in a precarious state without drains, adding that “farming has become unprofitable, especially in the last few years, because the salt eats up all the crops. No one is listening to us.”

Egypt’s climate strategy depends on overseas finance

A major part of Egypt’s water strategy is to renovate thousands of miles of irrigation canals. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

Fixing the irrigation network is a priority for the government. Eman Sayed from the Irrigation Ministry said her agency has lined about 3,700 miles of canals with concrete in the last two years and is aiming to finish another 12,400 in the next few years. The ministry is also helping farmers cover the cost of installing drip irrigation systems, which researchers at AUC found can cut farmers’ water consumption 61% per year; today such systems cover only one-sixth of arable land in Egypt. The Agricultural Bank of Egypt, a state institution, now offers loans to install drip irrigation with no interest for ten years.

Authorities have also begun to restrict production of water-intensive crops like rice and bananas, although farmers say there is little enforcement of these rules, and both crops are still widely cultivated throughout the Delta.

Egypt’s national climate strategy, which was updated in May in preparation for COP27, also calls for more protective infrastructure along the shoreline and the dissemination of heat-tolerant seeds, among other measures. Overall, the strategy lists the cost of climate adaptation for Egypt at $8.3 billion, mostly from private investors and overseas donors. Egypt has made clear that COP27 will focus primarily on wringing climate finance out of the rich countries that are most responsible for climate change.

Because of the Delta’s natural fertility, basic measures to upgrade seeds, restore soil health, and improve irrigation efficiency could be enough to counteract many climate damages, Abousabaa said. But for Egypt, climate adaptation also requires more comprehensive reform of the agricultural market, including increased subsidies for essential equipment and trade protections for domestic producers of wheat and other commodity crops, so that farming remains a viable livelihood and its practitioners aren’t forever one bad season away from destitution.

Adel Abdullah has no intention to quit farming, even though some of his neighbors have. Image by Sima Diab. Egypt, 2022.

In the meantime, the sea outside Adel Abdullah’s farm continues to rise. On the horizon, an offshore natural gas platform is visible. Egypt, which seized the disruption of Russian energy supplies to Europe because of the Ukraine war as an opening to boost its own exports of natural gas, is now contributing more to the problem than ever before; an independent review of its new climate strategy ranked it “highly insufficient” for averting disastrous levels of carbon emissions.

By 2100, Noureldeen says, sea level rise could inundate nearly 700 square miles of the coastal Delta and displace four million people. But standing in his field behind the sea barriers, Abdullah says he has no intention of leaving, no matter what climate change brings his way.

“We have nothing else to do,” he says. “What else can a farmer do, but farm?”


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