Chapter 2: Alexandria is Dying of Salt

Suleyman Abdezalam uses the land to measure time. To calculate how many years his family has been farming the fertile lands of the Nile Delta, he places his hands on his knees in his gray galabiya and gazes at an indefinite point in the mandara, a small room with sofas for receiving visitors next to the main house. He sighs and smiles before returning from the past. "The grandparents of my grandparents' grandparents were already farming these lands. My family's surname is part of this land. Our ancestors have always lived here." Suleyman, 57 years old, is the patriarch of a family of ten members, including men, women, and children, in Kafr Mesaed, a village of three thousand farmers in the Nile Delta, the agricultural heart of Egypt, where 80% of the country's 109 million inhabitants reside.

As in all villages in the region, life in Kafr Mesaed revolves around the harvests. Fears do too. And lately, there is fear. "Something strange is happening," he says, "for years, the land is becoming saltier, we notice it in the vegetables or cauliflower; besides, the production is decreasing, and the profit is reduced because we have to buy fertilizers to reduce salinization." His son Mohamed Suleyman, 30 years old, who listens from the doorstep, nods in agreement with a list of absences. A decade ago, the family's fields grew tomatoes, watermelons, beans, and melons, and two decades ago, they cultivated cotton. "Now it's impossible. It's too hot, and the fields are no longer as fertile as before."

A man standing in front of a dead field
Farmer Suleyman Abdezalam in front of one of his crops killed by sea salt, Egypt, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

Although the coast is 50 kilometers from Suleyman's orchard, to find the root of the problem, you have to look at the sea. And at science. According to the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, due to a combination of sea water thermal expansion and land ice melting, the Mediterranean Sea level has been rising at an average rate of over 3 millimeters per year in the last 30 years. The latest study by the World Meteorological Organization gives perspective: sea and ocean levels and their water temperatures have warmed at a faster rate in the last century than at any other time in the last 11,000 years.

The consequence in the Nile Delta is the spread of white poison: beyond the threat of the sea flooding coastal populations, the advancement of the Mediterranean Sea is a blow to Egypt's fertile lands because its salty current seeps into groundwater and degrades arable lands.

Although the salinization of Egyptian lands has multiple causes, such as excessive groundwater extraction and the use of fertilizers and pesticides, the rise in sea levels has exacerbated the problem.

Suleyman doesn't deal with calculations or predictions; he relies on life itself. He asks us to accompany him to his orchard, and upon arrival, he points to a barren area. The compact pieces of clumped mud are covered with a thin white layer. He clicks his tongue, saying, "It's salt. Can you see it? Here, salinization is so high that nothing grows, but some neighboring fields are also sick, and rice doesn't grow abundantly." He laments that, in addition, the high temperatures this year have delayed the germination of rice and wheat, further reducing production.

image of land with salt on parts of it
When the crops dry up, the salt accumulated in the earth's interior turns the surface of the fields white, Egypt, June 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

Suleyman and his family inhabit condemned land. The Nile Delta and the main city of the region, the legendary Alexandria, will be the first victims of the climate crisis. Because the sea's bite will intensify. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Mediterranean Sea level will rise between 30 centimeters and one meter before the end of the century. A World Bank report warns that, if the worst predictions come true, between 10 and 12% of the delta's population (more than 6.3 million people) will be forced to leave their homes, a figure similar to almost the entire population of Catalonia.

But if the entire region is at risk, where the catastrophe looms like a millennium-long loss is in Alexandria. According to Maha Khalil, a biologist with a doctorate, Egypt's second-largest city with 5 million inhabitants, founded in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, is at real risk of disappearance. "Alexandria is a huge city, but it is expected to be submerged by the end of the century according to predictions; in fact, just one meter of sea-level rise will flood significant parts of its surface."

Although Egyptian authorities are skeptical about bleak forecasts, they have already begun to take initial measures. You need to descend to the sea through the maze of narrow streets and wind between buildings with decadent facades to see it. At sunset, when the smoke clouds from street food stalls mix with the neon lights of shop windows, hundreds of Alexandrians gather on the corniche to watch the sun set. As the orange sphere disappears on the horizon, fishermen cast their last fishing lines, and some couples secretly hold hands, whole families sit down to enjoy the spectacle of nature without thinking about the threat of the sea. But the concrete beneath their feet reminds them that the threat is real.

On the waterfront of the Louran district, like in many other parts of the city, no one sits on the beach sand. It's not there; the coast is occupied by hundreds of gigantic cement blocks. In recent years, authorities have placed hundreds of solid cubes as breakwaters to contain the constant onslaught of the sea against the artificial wall.

In the Egyptian city, the fight against the climate crisis is a race against time. After evacuating hundreds of residents in 2015 because heavy rains flooded the Al Max neighborhood, the government spent $14 million three years later to protect the Qaitbay Fortress from the Mediterranean's rise. The fortress dates back to the 15th century and was formerly the location of the disappeared Alexandria Lighthouse. The solution was the same as on the corniche: 4,700 cement blocks were thrown into the sea to surround the historic citadel.

a man and two children on cement blocks by the sea at sunset
Alexandria residents watch the sunset over hundreds of concrete blocks placed to prevent the rising sea, June 2023, Egypt / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

Alexandria will not be the only victim of rising seas and oceans. Last year, a UNESCO study warned that, as a result of rising sea levels, the risk of tsunamis in the Mediterranean will multiply.

In addition to Alexandria, the organization pointed out four other cities at risk of experiencing a tsunami from this year onwards: Marseille, Cannes, Istanbul, and Chipiona, near Cádiz.

In February, during the first United Nations Security Council debate on the global implications of rising sea levels, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned of the consequences. "We could witness a massive exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale and see increasingly fierce competition for fresh water, land, and other resources." French researcher Gonéri Le Cozannet, an expert on climate change risks and author of several studies on the impact of climate change in the Nile Delta, believes that the topography surrounding Alexandria makes the entire area an ideal victim. "The river ends gently because it is an extremely flat area where sediment settles that fertilizes the land, which in turn has historically attracted millions of people who cultivate their crops there. There is probably no other place in the Mediterranean where a slight rise in sea level affects so many people."

Le Cozannet warns of an added factor: not only is the sea rising, but the land is also sinking. "In the region near Port Said, next to the Suez Canal, we have detected that the land is sinking by a few millimeters each year, and that accelerates the problem."

According to the sixth report on climate change by the UN's expert group (IPCC, 2022), in addition to the predicted sea-level rise, the Nile Delta will experience an additional land subsidence of 0.25 meters. As a result, 2,600 square kilometers of land will be exposed to flooding.

For the Egyptian government, climate change is a state matter. In June, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi described the danger of climate change on his territory as "obvious" but called for global commitment to combat it. "Rich and developed countries with the technology and knowledge have a responsibility to help other countries that do not have them," he said.

In Abu Homos, farmer Abdel Rasik claims that the seasons have disappeared. Accustomed to using clouds and winds to predict nawas – a type of local storms and gusts – for years, neither he nor his fellow farmers can read the sky's signs. "The calendar has gone mad," he says. But the worst is in the bowels of the earth. "Malih! Malih!" he repeats. Salty land. Since the town's wells have an excessive salt concentration, authorities have built pipelines to transport fresh water from the Nile, which supplies 95% of the country's drinking water for crops. Rasik believes it's an attempt to delay the inevitable.

"When the day comes that we can't farm anymore, we'll have to go somewhere else; there's no other choice," he says.

a man sitting by his dead field
Farmer Abdel Rasik sucks his finger to check the salinity of his crops. "Malih! Malih!" he repeats. Salty soil. June 2023, Egypt / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

In Ezbet El Bus, a village bathed by the waves, Edi Hassan, 44 years old, spews anger. For the past five years, his crops have rotted due to excessive salt in the soil, and he has to spend a fortune he doesn't have on fertilizers. He gave up growing fruits and vegetables long ago. And he is certain of one thing: it's not his fault. "In Egypt, we pay the bill for industrialized nations like the United States or China. They pollute, and we are humble and can't fix anything. We don't know what to do. If we lose agriculture, we lose everything, but no one helps us. It's a problem created by others but attacking the heart of our way of life."

Hassan's desperate cry echoes a figure he doesn't have but intuits. This: Egypt, whose Mediterranean coast is one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet to the climate crisis, is responsible for only 0.76% of the world's CO2 emissions.

This article was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Vanguardia on 27 August 2023 in Spanish. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Alexandria residents watch the sunset over hundreds of concrete blocks placed to prevent the rising sea, June 2023, Egypt / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

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