Egypt fights climate change as the eyes of the world turn to COP27

Saied Aboul Souod, a farmer from the Nile Delta in Egypt, scooped up a handful of mud and squeezed it between his fingers. “I haven’t watered here in over a month, but look how wet it is,” he said.

Rising groundwater levels at his farm in the village of Kafr al-Batikh, near the Mediterranean coast, had forced him to uproot 80 damaged guava trees and kill the young palms he sought to cultivate instead.

Climate change is partly to blame for the problems faced by Aboul Souod and many of his neighbors in the Delta, Egypt’s richest agricultural region and home to 40 million people, experts say.

Egypt, this year’s host of COP27, the United Nations conference aimed at limiting global warming, is “extremely vulnerable” to climate change, according to reports cited by the World Bank. The arid country is home to 110 million people and, depending mainly on the Nile for water, already struggles with an insufficient water supply.

A fifth of Egypt’s workforce works in agriculture, a sector expected to bear the brunt of global warming as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion into the aquifer below the delta exacerbate drainage problems and the land and water degradation, say officials and scientists.

“Climate change could lead to a decline in agricultural yields in Egypt by 15 to 20 percent by 2050,” said Ali Abousabaa, director general of the International Center for Dryland Agricultural Research, a research group.

“This is mainly due to a potential increase in temperatures and similarly to potential land degradation due to degradation of water quality.” Such a decline would impact both food security and export crops, experts say. Agriculture accounts for about 11.3 percent of gross domestic product.

Sea level rise was predicted to lead to the loss of a sizable portion of the Nile Delta, the World Bank said.

Egypt is already suffering from more frequent heatwaves and dust storms are expected to worsen as global temperatures rise, according to Mohamed Ali Fahim, head of climate change at Egypt’s agriculture ministry.

As he and others point out, the per capita share of water is 560 cubic meters, below the internationally defined water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per person.

Egypt has sought to maximize its scarce water resources by treating and reusing agricultural drainage water and even domestic wastewater for irrigation. Agriculture accounts for about 80% of water use, and as the country gets hotter due to climate change, its water needs are expected to increase.

A farmer opens an irrigation pipe from the River Nile to a canal. Egypt has tried to maximize its scarce water resources © Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

“There will be more evaporation from the Nile and more water will be needed for irrigation because there will be more evapotranspiration from plants,” said Atika Ben Maid, head of natural resources, environment and sustainable finance at the French development agency. development in Cairo. The agency is funding part of the expansion of the Gabal Asfar domestic wastewater treatment plant, already the largest in Africa.

The Nile has been at the center of a dispute with Ethiopia, where most of the river’s waters originate. The upstream state is constructing the huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), to generate hydroelectricity.

Addis Ababa has rejected calls from Cairo for a legally binding agreement to regulate the discharge of water from the dam, especially during drought years.

“With or without the GERD, Egypt will need to undertake major and systemic reforms in its agricultural sector, and the biggest challenge for the government will be what happens to small farmers and their livelihoods,” said Ana Elisa Cascão, co-author of the book The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin.

Little egrets stand on a field as an Egyptian farmer plants seedlings
Little egrets stand on a field as an Egyptian farmer plants seedlings. Sea level rise is expected to lead to the loss of a considerable part of the Nile Delta © Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The government has already made low-interest loans to small farmers to help them install modern irrigation systems and move away from the traditional flood style where the entire surface of a field is flooded with water. He also lined the channels with concrete to prevent seepage and worked on introducing seed varieties that were more tolerant of heat and arid conditions.

In the northern delta, smallholders complain about declining crop yields and the cost of fresh soil and fertilizers to counteract salinity and high groundwater levels. “There are people who have stopped farming,” said Rafiq al-Gogary, a farmer.

“The costs are high and there is no profit margin. We were the number one guava region here 10 years ago, but now far fewer people grow it.”

Fahim says spells of unseasonable heat have caused damage to crops such as olives, mangos and sometimes even wheat and vegetables. “Over the past 10 years we seem to have a major problem every year or two, and the recurrence rate of these phenomena has increased,” he said.

Khalil Nasrallah, director of Wadi Food Industries, grows mostly olives on his 4,500-acre farm on reclaimed desert land on the western edge of the delta. Unseasonable weather in April means the yield will be about a third of what it should be this year. This is the second consecutive year of low performance.

The outage meant that the company had failed to ship goods on time and “didn’t get the quality and price right”. “The real new normal now is unpredictable weather,” she said.

Climate capital

Where climate change meets business, markets and politics. Explore the coverage of the FT here.

Are you curious about the FT’s environmental sustainability commitments? Learn more about our science goals here

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: