Egypt's Nile Delta Under Threat, Part 1: The Sea Engulfs Kafr El-Sheikh

agricultural land with trees in the background
Muwatin
Kafr El-Sheikh, Egypt
Egypt's Nile Delta Under Threat, Part 1: The Sea Engulfs Kafr El-Sheikh

The Nile Delta is located in northern Egypt where the Nile River reaches the Mediterranean Sea. Located about 20 kilometers (km) north of Cairo, the capital, it has an area of 20,000 square kilometers, extending 150 km north and stretching about 250 km from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east.

The region is one of the oldest cultivated areas on Earth, supporting more than half of Egypt's agricultural land. Nearly 85% of Egypt's water resources (mainly provided by the Nile River) are allocated to irrigate 3.4 million hectares of cultivated land in Egypt. The majority of these agricultural activities are located in the delta region, and the fisheries in the region account for 12.5% of the total fish production in the country. 

The region is also important for biodiversity: The Nile Delta is part of the East African Migration Route, one of the most important bird migration routes in the world, which millions of birds use every year.

Thousands of acres of the Nile Delta could become unsuitable for living, agriculture, or investment. Sea levels have risen by 3.2 mm annually since 2012 in Egypt, which will continue to flood and erode the northern shore of the delta. Sea level rise will also exacerbate saltwater intrusion, pushing saltwater into the soil and groundwater that farmers use in irrigation, a process that will be accelerated by increased temperatures.

Rising sea levels can also destroy vulnerable parts of the sand belt, which is essential for protecting the lakes and reclaimed lowlands in the Nile Delta. Areas most affected by sea level rise include parts of Alexandria, Beheira and Kafr El-Sheikh governorates, which are located mostly along the northwestern side of the delta.

Although the delta governorates are all affected by rising sea levels, Kafr El-Sheikh is facing the most dramatic effects. As the sea swallows the land and salt invades the farms, residents are being forced to migrate in search of job opportunities and a way to provide food for their children.

This data-driven two-part series uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and satellite images to document the impact of climate change, represented by rising temperatures and rising Mediterranean sea levels, on agricultural lands in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate. The crisis is exacerbated by the decline in the quality of water used for irrigation, as salinity has increased in the governorate’s lands, causing a decline in agricultural productivity.

In addition to its consequences for agriculture, the series discusses solutions that could be undertaken to mitigate these consequences of climate change.

This is part one. Read part two now.

***

a man standing on agricultural farmland looking away from the camera, the land looks dry and has poor soil
Saeed Umaira walking in the middle of his land in the village of Umaira Al Sharqiya / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

Over the course of three decades, the sea has engulfed more than 1.5 kilometers of agricultural land owned by Samir Mohamed Abdel Raouf, a farmer in the village of Umaira Al-Sharqiya, located in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate. 

During winter, sea levels dramatically rise in Umaira Al-Sharqiya village, causing winter crops to drown, threatening the land and endangering homes. Abdel Raouf works and lives on his agricultural land, inherited from his father over six decades ago, and farming is his sole occupation.

“The land has deteriorated and is no longer suitable for agriculture. If I plant it, it will not produce any production for me. My land has become like a desert,” Abdel Raouf said, translated from Arabic.

Abdel Raouf and his neighbour, Saeed Umaira, are in a similar situation. Umaira has also lost a significant portion of his agricultural land, covering an area of approximately three acres, due to the rising sea levels. The remaining green lands have turned pale yellow, losing their productivity and burdening Samir with debt. He described with sorrow of losing more than 800 meters of the land he inherited from his father to the sea.

“When the sea rises here in the winter, it causes terror among people. At first the sea swallowed one piece, then a piece and a half,” Umaira said. "My father's land used to be vast and green, producing a significant harvest every year. We could sustain our lives and provide for our children from it. I had hoped to continue what my father started, but the sea overwhelmed us. The land became saline, and there is no drainage to remove the salinity. The crops died, and the palm trees died too."

They are not the only ones facing this issue. The owners of agricultural lands in the northern Nile Delta, specifically in Kafr El-Sheikh along the Mediterranean coast, have also lost parts of their lands over the years due to the rising sea levels — a consequence of climate change. This has resulted in increased salinity in their lands. The saltwater from the Mediterranean Sea has encroached into their agricultural fields, mixing with the groundwater and polluting it.

Prof. Ayman El-Gamal, the former director of the Coastal Research Institute in Alexandria and currently a professor at the institute, says, "Climate change has become a clear reality, and its effects have been apparent for years in the Delta, affecting farmers and agriculturists. Additionally, it has led to coastal erosion, changes in seasons, temperatures, and weather patterns. We are paying the price for it daily, even though we are not the ones causing it."

Using GIS and satellite imagery from Landsat 8 for the year 2023 and Landsat 5 for the year 1990, the investigator with support from a GIS specialist analyzed the state of agricultural land, including areas submerged by water, the extent of urban expansion, and the areas dedicated to fish farms in the governorate.

The analysis confirmed a 2.26% decline in the agricultural land area between 1990 and 2023. In 1990, the agricultural land area was approximately 2,504 km2, which reduced to around 2,447 km2 in 2023.

Furthermore, the area of land submerged by water in 2023 reached approximately 13.10 km2. All of these changes are attributed to the rising sea level. Satellite imagery confirms that the coastline has receded by about 840 meters between 1990 and August 2023.

map 3
A map showing the change in coastline from 1990 to 2023 / Credit: Eman Mounir.

In addition to the encroachment of seawater, urban expansion has also contributed to land salinity in Kafr El-Sheikh. This analysis documents a substantial increase in urban expansion over the past three decades which was approximately 138.6 km2 in 1990 and it reached around 224 km2  in 2023.

Prof. El-Gamal explains the relationship between climate change and rising sea levels.

"Sea level rise can occur through two different mechanisms related to climate change,” he said, translated from Arabic. “Increasing temperature causes problems ... The sea water increases in volume, and the sea also expands and takes from the lands. Likewise, the increase in temperature allows the ice present at the poles, whether the North Pole or the South Pole, to melt and descend, supplying the amount of water. Therefore, sea water will increase in quantity, and this causes the sea surface to rise.”

As global warming causes a rise in sea surface temperatures, seawater expands and occupies a larger area in the basin, leading to an increase in sea levels. This is particularly significant because the oceans are the largest heat sink, causing an increase in their temperature. 

Global warming also causes the melting of ice in the polar regions due to greenhouse gases and rising temperatures, adding new water to the oceans and seas, consequently raising sea levels as well.

El-Gamal emphasizes that the rise in sea levels in Egypt varies according to measurements and studies, but the average so far is about 1.8 mm per year and has not exceeded 3 mm to this day, in his opinion.

However, he also emphasizes that the real concern is the transformation of this small number into a significant one over the years, which is beyond our control. For example, if 3 mm were to transform into 3 centimeters and then into 3 meters over time, the effects on the coast and adjacent areas would be substantial and significant.

"The sea has engulfed our lands"

As reported in the Egyptian press archives, coastal erosion caused damage to Al-Hamad, Al-Shahabiya, and Umaira Al-Sharqiya villages between 2015 and 2018. Numerous appeals were published in local Egyptian media by the residents in 2015, confirming the submergence of tens of acres of agricultural land in addition to causing significant damage to many local residents' homes.

Several local residents confirmed to local journalists that the scenario repeated itself three years later when Mediterranean Sea waves reached up to 7 meters, leading to the flooding of homes and coastal lands in Baltim area of Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate.

What these events reveal is that rising sea levels not only threaten agriculture but the very existence of the entire village. According to Abdel Raouf, the villagers still rely on their own efforts to confront coastal erosion. He says, translated from Arabic, "Without support and collaboration among the village's youth every winter to divert the sea's waters, the village would have sunk a long time ago."

In addition, Umaira says farmers have had to adapt to increasingly salty agricultural land. Farmers now must cultivate specific crops that can tolerate high salinity, and even then, many farmers cannot make a living. "We can no longer farm as before; everything we plant dies because of soil salinity,” he said, translated from Arabic.

He said he hasn't planted rice in years because it withers due to excessive salinity. Additionally, there is no freshwater source available for irrigation in the village, so the residents are forced to use sewage water, which is the wastewater from the Kochiner canal.

And it's not just Umaira's land that suffers from high salinity, but most of the lands in Kafr El-Sheikh. Engineer Sobhi El-Sawi, who has worked as an agricultural consultant in Kafr El-Sheikh for four decades, states that the lands extending from Kochiner to the Mediterranean Sea in Baltim are suffering from excessive salinity due to their proximity to the Mediterranean coast. Additionally, the farmers exacerbate the problem by using untreated sewage water for irrigation, which is saltier than freshwater.

A study published in the "Environment, Biodiversity, and Soil Security" (EBSS) journal in 2019 confirmed El-Sawi's findings. Another study published in April 2018 in the Earth Systems and Environment journal relied on the analysis of three Landsat satellite images from the years 1996, 2006, and 2016, respectively. Soil samples were collected through 160 soil profiles for analysis and study.

The study confirmed that Kafr El-Sheikh region is experiencing high physical and chemical deterioration due to salinity, decomposition, and soil compaction.

These problems have pushed farmers to use heavy machinery and chemical fertilizers in order to achieve better productivity. This exacerbates the issue and threatens the soil with further degradation due to unsustainable land exploitation.

The researchers of the 2018 study looked at all types of deterioration that affected the lands of Kafr El-Sheikh between 1990 and 2016 using satellite imagery and the analysis of water and soil samples. This included physical or chemical deterioration, as well as deterioration caused by salinity, soil alkalinity, and the lack of access to clean water.

In a satellite-based visual analysis conducted in 2023 to determine salinity in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate lands using the NDSI (Normalized Difference Salinity Index), it was found that the area of highly saline lands is 517.43 km2, lands with moderate salinity cover 1127.3 km2, and low-salinity lands extend over 909.8 km2.

These numbers represent the extent of soil salinity in the region, with highly saline lands being the most affected and low-salinity lands being the least affected.

map of salinization
A map showing the salinity index across the governorate, including areas of high, middle and low salinity / Credit: Eman Mounir.

Moderate salinity refers to the concentration of dissolved salts in water or soil that falls within a specific range. Moderate salinity is defined as having a salt concentration of 3,000 to 10,000 parts per million (ppm).  Soils with moderate salinity can have negative impacts on agriculture, such as reducing crop yield and diversity, and inducing plant stress. 

Based on the study's findings, researchers categorized the land conditions in Kafr El-Sheikh into slight, moderate, high, or very high deterioration. The most affected areas were found to be those near the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Burullus, due to rising sea levels, as well as other areas farther from the Mediterranean due to water quality issues, poor agricultural practices, or excessive fertilizer use.

Prof. Hisham Abu Al-Saud, a co-researcher in the 2018 study and a researcher at the Soil, Water, and Environmental Research Institute (SWERI), stated that salinity in Kafr El-Sheikh is worsening each year.

"During the research, we examined all the causes of salinity, including natural reasons for rising sea levels and human factors like using mixed wastewater with freshwater for irrigation due to the lack of water resources in the area, not to mention urban expansion. However, through the study, we found that the biggest cause of salinity is the rise in sea levels by more than 80%,” said Abu Al-Saud, who also works for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Abu Al-Saud emphasized that when farmers see a decline in productivity, they increase their use of fertilizers, thinking it will solve the crisis, but unfortunately, salinity increases. One of the study's recommendations says awareness should be raised about the risks of excessive fertilizer use and its contribution to exacerbating the crisis.

map of soil degradation
A map showing the types of soil degradation throughout the governorate / Credit: Eman Mounir.

Prof. Ahmed Saad Al-Henawi, Head of the Land Department at the Faculty of Agriculture, Kafr El-Sheikh University, also emphasized that the higher temperature in Egypt compared to the global average increases the water requirements for lands that already lacked sufficient water resources. Consequently, this causes land drying, salinity, deterioration, and abandonment (the loss of its agricultural and economic value), resulting in unproductive land.

Al-Henawi explains the crisis of rising sea levels, stating: "Saltwater has a higher density than freshwater, so when sea levels rise, the saline water concentrates at the bottom of the soil, while freshwater lies above it. This leads to mixing between them and results in the shallowness of freshwater at the surface, increasing the salinity of groundwater."

Both Abu Al-Saud and Al-Henawi emphasize that salinity leads to a decline in productivity, which is supported by data from the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

Crop area and plant production reports from 2010 to 2020 were analyzed. Despite an increase in cultivated land in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate by more than 4%, the average per capita share has decreased by more than 15%. The productivity of many agricultural crops, both fruits and vegetables, has also declined.

Escaping to the sea

In search of a better livelihood away from agriculture, Saeed Umaira fled to the Mediterranean Sea to work as a fisherman, hoping to earn his living from fishing in the vast sea. However, the environmental impacts in the marine ecosystem and wastewater have hindered him there, too.

It's worth noting that climate change impacts not only lead to rising sea levels but also bring about changes in seawater quality and salinity levels. This can result in the appearance of invasive marine species, leading to the deterioration of the marine environment and posing risks to local species. Umaira emphasizes this by saying, "Many fish species have disappeared, and there are [only] small-sized species."

Prof. Ayman El-Gamal also confirms this, stating, "Climate changes affects the quality of coastal waters, leading to increased carbon dioxide levels, which in turn increases water alkalinity and salinity. This affects the marine organisms in the sea, causing marine creatures, especially fish, to migrate to other areas where they can survive."

However, the most significant impact, according to the researcher, is on bottom-dwelling fish species such as crabs, as they cannot migrate to other areas and cannot tolerate higher temperatures. The size and length of their species have also decreased significantly within just 10 years due to the rising sea temperatures in the Mediterranean, according to El-Gamal.

The data analysis conducted on fish production reports issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics between 2010 and 2020 confirms a decline in freshwater fish production by 3% and a 23% decrease in Mediterranean Sea fish production. It should be noted that rice fields in the province had zero production in 2020, compared to around 2,400 tons in 2010.

Prof. Nevine Abdel Khalek, a professor of aquatic medicine at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Mansoura University, explains that the rising sea levels lead to the inflow of saline water into coastal areas, which has numerous negative effects beyond the impact on agricultural productivity. One of the most significant impacts is the alteration of the ecological system, particularly on microorganisms and plankton — specifically changes to nutrition, growth, reproduction and geographic distribution. 

She adds that salinity can affect the habitats of living organisms and radical changes can lead to mass mortality or shifts in species distribution. Furthermore, the increase in water temperature in fish farms, especially Lake Burullus in Kafr El-Sheikh, makes it difficult to expand horizontally due to water scarcity, administrative procedures, and the financial burdens on many farm owners.

She believes it is essential to find solutions and for the government to develop fish strains that can tolerate salinity and temperature, allowing them to grow and reproduce in the changing aquaculture methods and surrounding environment. This can be achieved through research centers and support from the International Center for Fish, but financial support is needed to begin research and implementation. Additionally, promoting a shift towards marine and freshwater aquaculture and hatchery operations can help bridge the expected gap in fish production.

Prof. Ahmed El-Henawi explains that many farmers and fishermen have started to migrate to other areas, fearing rising sea levels and the inundation of the Nile Delta.

salt is visible in the soil on farmland where seawater has inundated
Salt is visible on Umaira's farmland, he points out / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

But Abdel Raouf and Umaira are still holding on to hope. Each of them dreams of rebuilding what was abandoned long ago, hoping that government adaptation projects will restore their land. They never want to be forced to leave the land they inherited from their ancestors due to climate change and rising sea levels.

While Abdel Raouf sits by the sea every day, contemplating the state of his land, Umaira tries to catch some fish to secure a small amount of money for his daily needs.


This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Arabic in Muwatin on November 20, 2023 and has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Agricultural land owned by farmer Saeed Umaira, which is suffering from severe salinity / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

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