In Egypt, Climate Change Affects Water, Air, and People’s Destinies

Short and erratic, winter comes along with unusual weather patterns that add to the burdens of the inadequate roads and their dire conditions, the misery of the homeless on the streets, and the vulnerability of the dwellers of shoddy homes. During the winter of 2010, temperatures plunged below freezing, leading to 18 fatalities and 59 injuries in traffic accidents caused by bad weather, and closing several seaports and airports and disrupting traffic in the Suez Canal.
2022-12-19

Safaa Ashour

Journalist from Egypt


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"Egypt's climate is no longer characterized by hot, dry summers and warm, rainy winters." The official spokesperson for the Egyptian Meteorological Authority (EMA) made that statement in the fall of 2019, announcing that Egypt's traditional climate description, which has been deeply rooted in the Egyptian conscience for generations, no longer reflects the new reality due to successive climate changes. He also mentioned that a group of EMA scientists has been working for years on preparing studies to deduce a new description compatible with Egypt's vulnerability to climate change.

Citizens feel the magnitude of climate change from year to year in the form of temperature variation. The summer is long, swelteringly hot, and humid, and its early onset renders the spring songs meaningless. With the slow end of summer comes autumn, always with a faint presence. Winter, short and erratic, comes along with unusual "European" weather patterns, which reveal the extent to which roads are not qualified to receive rain and wind, the misery of the homeless on the streets, and the vulnerability of the dwellers of shoddy homes whose design fails to consider severe climate conditions. This was the case in the winter of 2010, when temperatures plunged below freezing, leading to 18 fatalities and 59 injuries in traffic accidents associated with bad weather, closing several seaports and airports and disrupting traffic in the Suez Canal.

In its executive summary, Egypt’s first 2018 Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stated that a gradual temperature rise had been observed over the past 25 years, adding that a rise in extreme weather events over the last ten years had “caused casualties and economic losses.”

Although Egypt's contribution to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions does not exceed 0.71%, it is one of the most vulnerable places affected by climate change as one of the developing countries that lacks the necessary resources to offset the damage.

Domestic factors

The Biennial Update Report stated that the local environment was generally affected by emissions from four key sources: energy, industry, agriculture, and waste. It is based on the percentage of the total national GHG emissions and removals associated with human activities across Egypt, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydro-fluorocarbons, per-fluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and others.

According to the report, energy is the highest GHG-emitting sector, as the combustion of fossil fuels generates 64.5% of the total emissions into Egyptian airspace. Meanwhile, transportation alone generates 23% of the energy sector's emissions.

The agriculture sector comes in second place, contributing 14.9% of national GHG emissions, which result from enteric fermentation, manure processing, rice cultivation by immersion, crop residue burning, and agriculture soil management.

In the third place are industrial processes and product use, contributing 12.5% of national GHG emissions, followed by the waste sector which contributes 8.1% of these emission, resulting from solid waste disposal and the treatment of domestic and industrial wastewater.

GHG emissions are primarily responsible for global warming, which, in turn, leads to climate change. The signs of climate change have gone beyond high temperatures to a rise in sea levels and the frequency of extreme weather events, as well as changing the environmental conditions of living organisms, including plants, which has adverse impacts on food security.

The Biennial Update Report stated that the local environment was generally affected by emissions from four key sources: energy, industry, agriculture, and waste. It is based on the percentage of the total national GHG emissions associated with human activity across Egypt, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydro-fluorocarbons, per-fluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride, and others.

In this regard, during the 1990-2015 period, Egypt’s Central Laboratory for Agricultural Climate monitored several extreme weather events affecting food security in 11 governorates, which included many staple crops. Due to a 2.2°C increase in mean annual temperature in 2010, the wheat yield in Egypt decreased, especially in Upper Egypt governorates. It is worth noting that wheat production is entirely directed to domestic consumption; it contributes to self-sufficiency by more than 54% of the total consumption. Prior to that, a cold wave of below average temperatures in January 2008 had caused damage to numerous crops, the most important of which were citrus fruits, beans, bananas, and tomatoes.

The Agricultural Research Center announced a decrease in olive yield in Egypt during crop season 2021 by a rate ranging between 60 to 80% due to climate change, according to a research paper issued by the Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue (FDHRD) (1). The production decreased from 690 tons to somewhere between 100-200 tons, costing Egypt its competitive advantage as a key exporter of olives. Potato yield also dropped during crop season 2021 by 30 to 40%, while the wheat yield dropped by 40 to 50%.

The mango yield was also affected in 2021, decreasing by 25% due to an increase in temperatures during February and March. It is a crop of great local importance, and it ranks eighth on the agricultural exports list.

 Mango cultivation is a source of livelihood for thousands of farmers in areas with few other opportunities, such as the city of Ismailia, where the mango crop makes up 28% of the cultivated lands.

The decline in the productivity of staple crops due to climate change means an increase in their prices, thereby straining the budget of the middle and poor classes. This coincides with the fact that “two-thirds of child mortalities in Egypt are attributable to malnutrition,” according to UNICEF estimates (2).

UNICEF's data has also indicated that Egypt stands as one of the 36 countries where 90 percent of the global burden of malnutrition falls and where stunting among under-five children stood at 21% in 2014.

According to the report, energy is the highest GHG-emitting sector, as the combustion of fossil fuels generates 64.5% of the total emissions into Egyptian airspace. Meanwhile, transportation alone generates 23% of the energy sector's emissions.

Climate change has also negatively affected wildlife in Egypt. The Egyptian Ministry of Environment (3)  has documented that living and plant organisms on the peaks of St. Catherine Mountain were negatively affected by the high temperatures, as was the flowering rate of the Sinai thyme plant - on which the small Sinai blue butterfly, the smallest endangered butterfly in the world, feeds - which dropped by 40%, “Taking into account the effectiveness of the network of natural reserves in Egypt in preserving biodiversity” is one of the factors influencing the results of studies conducted by the ministry linking high temperature with the condition of mammals and insects, including antelopes, Nubian ibex, and Egyptian gazelles. The results have indicated that 80% of the animals studied will lose their current habitats, and some species will become extinct (4).

The fishermen’s losses

The impact of climate change has adversely affected marine life in Egypt as well. One of its disturbing signs is “coral bleaching” in the Red Sea, which means the disappearance of the colors of the coral reefs, a phenomenon directly linked to the rise in temperature. These changes threaten scuba diving tourism in that region, which contains more than 200 species of coral reefs - a major tourist attraction.

In a study (5) conducted to monitor this phenomenon and study its relation to the heat stress of the summer of 2020, researchers have surveyed several marine colonies along the coasts of the Red Sea, about 37% of the total coral cover. The study revealed that the rate of coral bleaching reached 32.7%, even though coral reefs in the Red Sea are generally resistant to high temperatures, according to the description of the study.

During the 1990-2015 period, Egypt’s Central Laboratory for Agricultural Climate monitored several extreme weather events affecting food security in 11 governorates, which included many staple crops.

Naturally, fishing was among the professions directly affected by climate changes that reduced fish productivity, especially in lakes. It is worth noting that the fishing profession in Egypt does not enjoy any legal or social protection. Its members are low-income earners with non-fixed income; they merely live by what their nets find every day.

From year to year, Lake Bardawil in the Sinai Peninsula has been recording a consistent decrease in the number of fish. Simultaneously, many fishermen have been abandoning the profession they have inherited across generations, to escape the loss of their livelihood. These facts are documented by a study (6) issued in 2020 by the Desert Research Center, which focused on climate change and its social and economic impacts on Lake Bardawil.

With a sample comprising 339 fishermen, the study stated that more than three-quarters of the fishermen were economically affected by the depletion of fish in the lake. Fifty percent of the surveyed sample expressed that their lives had been severely affected.

The diminishment of financial income has led the fishermen to abandon their profession, and their numbers around Lake Bardawil decreased from 3,841 in 2008 to 2,396 in 2017, while the share of one fishing boat declined from 4.39 tons of fish per year to 3 tons in the same period. Furthermore, the study has found a direct correlation between the rise in humidity and average temperatures and the decrease in fish production in the lake from 3,860 tons in 2000 to 2,160 tons in 2018.

In other regions, several fishermen have also complained about the increasing number of what is known as the Takifugu (or rabbitfish). The poisonous fish, which the government warned against eating or catching, eats other fish and attacks the modest boats and nets, causing damages that increase the fishermen’s financial burdens. In fact, the Egyptian proverb “it does no good and spares no man” applies to this kind of fish, whose presence itself is a consequence of climate change, as it has come to Egypt from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, reaching the waters of the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, according to previous statements (7)  by Dr Adel Shaheen, professor of aquatic animal diseases and aquaculture at Benha University.

Water poverty

Egypt almost entirely depends on the Nile River for its water needs, by about 97%. Even before the construction of the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Egypt was suffering from water poverty as a result of the steady population increase and urbanization, in addition to the symptoms of climate change such as higher temperatures, frequent droughts, and the fluctuation of the amount of precipitation in the Nile Basin region. A study issued by the American Geophysical Union has proved that Egypt is one of the countries vulnerable to the impact of the climate change factors, along with northern Sudan.

Due to a 2.2°C increase in the mean annual temperature in 2010, the wheat yield in Egypt has decreased, especially in Upper Egypt governorates. It is worth noting that wheat production is entirely directed to local consumption; it contributes to self-sufficiency by more than 54% of the total consumption.

Issued by the Ministry of Planning, the Egypt Human Development Report 2021 stated that the per capita share of freshwater declined from 900 m3 per year in 2000 to 640 m3 in 2015. In addition to the effects of climate change, the report attributed the decline to the increase in the population growth rate that reached 1.9%, leading to pressure on the country's natural resources, including water.

Egypt’s annual per capita share of water is expected to decline to 500 m3 by 2030, bringing it to half of the appropriate per capita share as estimated by the United Nations. It will be hard to deal with this decline if the government does not reduce the annual wastage of water and find alternative water sources. Furthermore, after withdrawing from the Nile Basin Initiative in 2010, the Egyptian government needs to reach an understanding with the ten African countries through which the Nile runs.

In 2017, the World Bank estimated the number of deaths in Egypt due to the lack of access to safe water and proper sanitation facilities at 8,000 cases caused by diarrhea, typhoid, bilharzia, and other diseases.

Water scarcity will necessarily reduce the cultivated area for many crops, especially rice. Compared to other crops, rice, irrigated by immersion, consumes enormous amounts of water, which reached in 2018 around 0.88 billion m3.

Although Egypt's export of rice reached 625,000 tons, farmers were surprised by the decisions made by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation and the Ministry of Agriculture to reduce the rice cultivated areas in some governorates and ban its cultivation in others. In 2018, the ban extended to 18 governorates, including Cairo, Giza, and some in Upper Egypt.

Rice is a staple of the Egyptian diet; the frequent increases in its price have added to the burden on poor and middle-class households. In response, MP Tamer Abdel Qader submitted a request to parliament to allow the people of the New Valley Governorate - one of the governorates banned from cultivating rice - to grow rice irrigated by groundwater to provide for the governorate's rice needs.

The decline in the productivity of staple crops due to climate change means an increase in their prices, thereby straining the buying power of the poor and middle classes. This coincides with the fact that “two-thirds of child mortality in Egypt are attributable to malnutrition,” according to UNICEF estimates.

Perhaps the coming years will bring a solution to re-allowing rice cultivation in Egypt. In earlier statements, the head of the National Rice Development Project at the Ministry of Agriculture stated that Egypt had recently devised the new “Sakha Super 300” rice variety, which is irrigated in ways other than the water-wasting immersion method (8).

Flash floods

Compared to its neighboring African countries, Egypt does not have a permanent problem of flash floods. However, these floods recur from year to year, affecting specific areas without prior warning. This extreme weather event is caused by high temperatures, and is one of the clear signs of climate change, according to Egypt's first Biennial Update Report to the UNFCCC (9).

With the failure to take appropriate precautions and the unpreparedness of the floodplains, the result is catastrophic. The Safaga area of the Red Sea Governorate has experienced the full weight of the disaster in 1977, 1994, and 1997. The worst flash floods struck in 1994, destroying 5,000 houses, internally displacing 406 families, blocking roads, and halting work in mines and quarries.

UNICEF's data has also indicated that Egypt is one of the 36 countries where 90% of the global burden of malnutrition falls and where stunting among under-five children stood at 21% in 2014.

In 2010, unprecedented torrential rains led to flash floods in the Sinai Peninsula, Red Sea coast, and Aswan Governorate in Upper Egypt, killing 10 persons, internally displacing 3,500 people, and causing material losses estimated at $25 million.

Fine particles: A public health hazard

This is Cairo… one of the world’s most polluted cities. In fact, some reports have even classified it as “the most polluted city in the world”, taking the top spot from Delhi, as one 2018 study by Eco Experts (10)  confirms. However, Egypt’s Ministry of Environment has categorically denied this claim and questioned the study’s criteria.

For its part, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) argued that the Egyptian government’s skepticism is unjustified and stated that report's information had been collected from reliable sources, including the WHO air quality database, the artificial light pollution map, and the Mimi world hearing index.

An EIPR research paper (11)  reported that air pollution has led to the death of 67,000 Egyptians in 2016 alone and that Egyptians would live on average two years less due to illnesses and health impairments related to pollution. In its latest report issued in 2019, the World Bank estimated that the economic cost of health effects and premature deaths resulting from air pollution amounted to about 47 billion EGP (about $1.9 billion) in Greater Cairo, equivalent to 1.35% of Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016 and 2017.

According to the Human Development Report 2021, heart diseases are the leading cause of deaths associated with factors stemming from Cairo air pollution, estimated at 7,000 cases, equivalent to 59% of the total pollution-related deaths.

Egypt ranked 94th on the 2020 Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 world countries according to their commitment to developing and implementing environmental plans and moving towards adopting clean energy sources. Indeed, addressing climate change has recently been on the Egyptian government's agenda - something whose seriousness needs to be examined to make sure it aligns with the required courses of action.

Evidently, the impacts of climate change on Egypt are due to cumulative factors over the past decades. However, government programs must address climate change immediately, mitigate its current effects, and develop plans and precautions, or otherwise expect catastrophic scenarios, the worst of which is the flooding and disappearance of parts of the Nile Delta. 

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabry Zaki
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 13/10/2022

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1- A research paper entitled “The Impact of Climate Change on Public Health in Egypt,” issued by the Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue in 2022. https://bit.ly/3RQ8J5H  
2- Egypt's page on the UNICEF website: https://www.unicef.org/egypt/ar/nutrition
3- Climate change page on the Egyptian Ministry of Environment website: https://bit.ly/3ew0b6p
4- Ibid.    
5- A study on coral bleaching along the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea during the heat stress period in summer 2020, which was published in the Egyptian Journal of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries Journal of the Department of Zoology, Ain Shams University. https://ejabf.journals.ekb.eg/article_196904.html
6- An economic and social study on the impact of climate change on fish production in Lake Bardawil in North Sinai Governorate. https://journals.ekb.eg/article_192045.html   
7- Dr Adel Shaheen's statements about Takifugu to the Egyptian TV Channel 1 in May 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgw1bTG1J88    
8- Statements by the head of the National Rice Development Project at the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, Hamdi Al-Mawwafi, about the improved rice strains. https://bit.ly/3T84NP6
9- https://bit.ly/3T2xFZq    
10- Eco Experts report published by Forbes. https://bit.ly/3EyIMEQ
11- Research paper titled "Air Pollution: An Increasing Health Burden on Egyptians. https://bit.ly/3TdCLRZ  

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