Egypt's Nile Delta Under Threat, Part 2: Can the Country Reclaim What It's Lost?

a man with a two wheeler yellow cart walking along a beach with the ocean in the background and many people swimming, he is selling corn
Muwatin
Kafr El-Sheikh, Egypt
Egypt's Nile Delta Under Threat, Part 2: Can the Country Reclaim What It's Lost?

Five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians referred to the Nile Delta as 'Tah Moheet’ which was formed by the silt carried by floods, ultimately finding its way to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, sediment deposits accumulated and the Delta was formed, becoming fertile land where the ancient Egyptians thrived. For over five thousand years, their lives were abundant, all thanks to the high-quality clay soil.

However, today the situation has changed. The sea that once contributed to the formation of the northern Delta is now threatening to inundate it once again. According to a recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nile Delta is increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding due to rising sea levels. The report also highlights that approximately 2,660 km2 in the northern Delta are projected to be submerged by the year 2100. 

What efforts have been undertaken by the Egyptian government to slow or stop the inundation? And how effective have they been?

This is part two of a two-part series about the impact of climate change, represented by rising temperatures and rising Mediterranean sea levels, on agricultural lands in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate. In this part, the series discusses solutions that have been undertaken to mitigate the consequences of climate change and whether they have been effective.

Read part one now.

***

The formation of the Delta went through several stages over the years until it took its current shape. It was closely tied to the sea level of the Mediterranean, which played a significant role in shaping the northern part of the Delta — now known as Kafr El-Sheikh. The sea level has risen approximately 18m over Earth's geological history (the fourth geological era) when compared to the current state of the Delta. Initially, the coastline was situated to the south, and then the sea level began to gradually recede, causing the sea level to drop by approximately 26m from its initial position.

The sea continued its gradual retreat, leading to an expansion of the Delta and its coastline towards the north, eventually reaching approximately 67 km at a sea level of 12 m. During the Upper Paleolithic era (from 10,000 to 4,000 years ago), the northern boundary of the Delta continued to expand northward at the expense of the sea's retreat, resulting in the formation of the northern part of the Delta.

The 2021 IPCC report states that the rates of subsidence vary, ranging from 0.4 mm per year in the western Delta to 1.1 mm per year in the central Delta and 3.4 mm per year in the eastern Delta.

The numbers may seem small, but coastal risk to the Nile Delta is significant because large portions of it are situated only about 1.5 m above sea level.  While the Delta comprises only 2% of Egypt's total land area, it is home to 41% of its population and serves as the economic powerhouse of Egypt.

The Delta is a vital resource for aquaculture in Egypt, hosting over 63% of the country's cultivated land. Additionally, the coastal lakes in the Nile Delta are internationally renowned for their abundant bird life, representing a quarter of the wetlands in the Mediterranean Sea and contributing to 60% of Egypt's fish catch.

Is the Delta sinking? 

Prof. Mohamed Shaltout, a professor of marine natural sciences at the Department of Marine Science at Alexandria University, does not hide his concern about the future of the Delta. He has been working on the Mediterranean coast in Alexandria for over 30 years, and said, “The Delta region is at the same sea level, so any increase in sea level will affect the Delta. But what reassures us is that the evaporation rate in the Mediterranean Sea is very high.” 

In his view, despite the concerns, there are reasons for hope: The Mediterranean Sea is a semi-enclosed sea connected to the ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Therefore, any increase in water due to melting ice in the north will not penetrate this narrow strait. In the worst-case scenario, according to studies conducted by Prof. Shaltout, the sea level rise could reach 31 cm, which he considers to be a relatively small figure. 

Prof. Tarek Mohamed El-Gazairly, a professor of physical oceanography at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF), shares the same opinion: "When we compare the rate of sea level rise in the Mediterranean in Egypt to other Mediterranean countries, the increase is minimal, and the annual average increase in sea level in Egypt does not exceed 3.1mm per year, while in the Eastern Mediterranean countries, the rise ranges from 4 to 16mm per year."

While the two researchers agree that it is unlikely the Delta will sink entirely, its crucial resources including water, fish farms, agricultural lands, and more are still significantly affected by sea level rise and coastal erosion as well. If the situation continues, these resources are at risk of being lost.

Despite some reason for hope, the two researchers both pointed out the necessity of taking adaptation measures because the impacts of severe coastal erosion and the mixing of groundwater with saline seawater are already visible in the Delta. 

Kafr El-Sheikh as an example

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Water Management titled 'Impact of Climate Change on Water Security Elements in Kafr El-Sheikh' in 2022 explored the impacts of future climate conditions and land use on water and food security in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate in Egypt for the periods 2055 and 2095 compared to the current period. 

The study mentioned eighteen scenarios that would result from changes in water consumption, the impacts of sea level rise, and urban expansion.

Most of the future scenarios indicate that the agricultural land area will decrease due to urban expansion and rising sea levels, posing a serious issue for food security in the governorate, which contributes significantly to Egyptian agricultural production. The scenarios were drawn based on reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and consisted of three main components: sea level rise, temperature changes, and urbanization affecting land use.

Abdel-Moneim El-Khawaja, a researcher at the Faculty of Engineering, Tanta University and the author of the study, stated that they have studied all the future scenarios in the event of increasing temperature, sea level rise, or urbanization. 

“All scenarios may occur, but the most likely scenario to occur is scenario 4, where the area of agricultural land will decrease by 17.06% …which will increase the need for irrigation water based on wastewater reuse by 43% by 2055,” he said, translated from Arabic. “As for 2095, according to the same scenario, the area of agricultural land will decrease by 33%, and the irrigation water used will also decrease by 33%, while the need for irrigation water based on wastewater reuse will increase by 83%”. 

He also emphasized the importance of implementing adaptive measures.  

“Implementing precautions and adaptation measures to reduce the impacts of climate change are important to mitigate the potential impacts of rising sea levels,” he said, translated from Arabic. “It is advisable to establish marine protection projects and consider simple techniques such as replenishing beaches with sand and dredging sediments in waterways, as well as nourishing beaches with these sediments.” 

Furthermore, he said it will be essential to improve the use of water resources by enhancing irrigation efficiency (distribution and transportation) and transitioning to crops that require less water consumption to adapt to future impacts. 

Shaltout and El-Gizawy shared that Egypt is already undertaking several adaptation and resilience projects to protect its coastlines, some of which have been successful.

Adaptation projects underway

Ahmed Abu Elala has been living in the historic tourist city of Baltim for more than 27 years, immersed in the gazes and laughter of visitors. He inherited a chair rental business from his brothers. During the summer, as vacationers flocked to the seaside, he provides chairs, while in the winter, he is a fisherman. 

Abu Elala witnessed various stages of transformation in the city's coastline. The rise in sea levels began to erode the beaches and demolish the vacationers’ houses before 2000, causing them to flee the city in search of safer homes.

However, according to Abu Elala, the government at that time intervened to protect the beaches and constructed concrete barriers, which helped push back the sea by more than a kilometer and a half.

Baltim began to recover itself once again, and the vacationers were able to get their homes back. These barriers played a vital role in protecting the beaches and safeguarding the houses, leading to an increase in the number of tourists by more than 30% from one year to the next. 

Over the past 20 years, the Coastal Protection Authority has undertaken numerous projects to safeguard the shores of Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate, spanning approximately 100 kilometers. These projects have had a significant impact in halting the increasing erosion of the coastline, which had extended more than 4.80 km by the Nile Delta's Rosetta Branch outlet until the 1980s.

In a statement issued by the Minister of Irrigation and the Head of the Coastal Protection Authority, this erosion increase resulted in losing three rows of buildings along the beachfront of the summer resort in Baltim. These projects have had a significant impact on protecting Baltim and restoring the land lost, leading to the acquisition of millions of square meters of new land along the city's waterfront.

Among the government adaptation projects are concrete blocks on Bulaitem Beach in order to reduce the height of sea waves. Photography by Ahmed Qabil.
Among the government adaptation projects are concrete blocks on Bulaitem Beach in order to reduce the height of waves / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

Due to the presence of a low coastal strip north of the international coastal road in Kafr El-Sheikh Governorate, the project "Enhancing Climate Adaptation in the Northern Coast and Nile Delta in Egypt" is currently being implemented.

It is funded by the Green Climate Fund, aimed at protecting low-lying coastal areas in the governorate that are vulnerable to saltwater inundation due to rising sea levels. The project began in 2019 and is ongoing, with a grant provided by the Green Climate Fund of the United Nations Development Programme, at a cost of $31 million. The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation and the Egyptian Coastal Protection Authority are supervising and implementing the project.

The project aims to protect 69 km of the most vulnerable coastal areas prone to inundation due to the impacts of climate change. This initiative covers five governorates: Port Said, Dakahlia, Beheira, Damietta, and Kafr El-Sheikh.

map of the egyptian governorates in the north delta
A map of the five governorates involved in the project. Each governorate has its own project goals: In Beheira, th eproject will involve the construction of an earthen bridge and side slopes; in Kafr El-Sheikh, an earthen bridge and sand barriers; in Dakahlia, raising the beach elevation with imported sand; in Damietta and Port Said, two earthen bridges and sand barriers / Credit: Eman Mounir. 

Prof. Mohamed Ahmed, the Project Manager for Climate Change Adaptation in the Northern Coast and Nile Delta in Egypt, said the project began with a report from the IPCC in which it emphasized that the Nile Delta region is one of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise and at high risk of flooding and inundation due to climate change-induced sea level rise.

Hence, the implementation of the Climate Change Adaptation Project in the Nile Delta and the Northern Coast was initiated. This project identified more than 96 km of areas at risk of inundation from sea level rise, and protection measures were subsequently commenced.

Ahmed said the protection works used materials from the project's surrounding environment, which are cost-effective and have led to an approximately 70% reduction in costs compared to conventional protection methods like concrete blocks.

“First, we determine the protection type based on project studies of the low-lying areas. For instance, there is a type involves constructing a structure along the beach, covering the length of the protected area. This structure is made from natural materials such as sand and dredging by-products, and then we place reed barriers on it,” he explained in Arabic.

“Over time, these reed barriers will accumulate sand around them, causing elevation and supporting the protection structure that has been implemented. In this way, it becomes a natural high barrier from the surrounding environment that prevents seawater from reaching the road and establishments," he added.

A teenager walks on concrete blocks in Baltim Beach. Photography by Ahmed Qabil
A teenager walks on concrete blocks in Baltim Beach / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

He also explained that these types of projects have an advantage: Over time, they can add more reeds to the barriers and increase their elevation, meaning the structure can adapt to further climate change impacts.

The project primarily aims to build the resilience of the residents in the Delta region and protect sectors and investments from inundation. Prof. Mohamed Ahmed said the project safeguards approximately 192 billion Egyptian pounds in investments along the coast. Furthermore, the social benefits derived from the project have reached around 750,000 citizens who participated in the implemented protection works.

Ahmed said construction work on the ground is 99% complete.

There is another aspect of the project: the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan. This plan, being implemented by the government on the same timeline as the coastal project in the area, aims to establish an entity that brings together all stakeholders responsible for managing the coastal areas along the Mediterranean Sea.

The entity will operate under a single, binding legal framework, with the goal of creating a working environment that helps the state proactively address the threats of climate change and its impact on coastal areas. This, in turn, aims to provide a safe and sustainable investment climate in coastal regions.

How to choose the right solutions

A number of researchers who were interviewed believe the current project is not new. Many decades ago, the Egyptian government began searching for a solution to this sea level rise crisis.

Ayman Al-Gamal, who is also a member of the National Scientific Committee for Monitoring the Phenomenon of Climate Change, said not all of the adaptation projects over the past 30 years have been effective. In fact, some caused an increase in the problems instead of solving them, especially those that involve in-depth construction. In some instances, he added, it can seem as if the solution worked but further problems increase later.

For instance, Palm Beach in Alexandria experienced mass drowning incidents, which were later linked to the presence of breakwaters. A report issued in 2021 by the Egyptian General Authority for Coastal Protection confirmed that the breakwaters led to the presence of dangerous eddies that can claim the lives of vacationers.

Egyptians enjoying the Mediterranean Sea at the historic Blytem Resort, photographed by Ahmed
Egyptians enjoying the Mediterranean Sea at the historic Blytem Resort / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

“The announced adaptation projects aim to deal with specific sectors of the coast that have been identified through extensive studies to determine which sectors are vulnerable to climate change,” says Ahmed El-Adawi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Environment and Society at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

This erosion is essentially the result of major changes in the balance of sediment movement in the northern delta. The interventions being implemented include classic interventions of conservation work as usual, and a set of innovative solutions derived from nature are being tested.

El-Adawi adds that while these interventions focus on the severe erosion in the northern Delta and do so efficiently, the project is not a comprehensive response and lacks local involvement.

"Looking at the problem of erosion as the only problem ... neglects the region's long-term dynamics," he said. "Instead of working with the main stakeholders in the region, it adopts solutions that were developed centrally, far from residents of the regions and even local expertise."

El-Adawi stresses that, to enhance the ability of the northern Delta regions to withstand climate change and the deterioration of the local environment, it is necessary to collect detailed data, collaborate inside Egypt within various sectors and develop comprehensive solutions locally and not planned centrally or imported from different environments.

He adds that adaptation projects are not sufficient on their own, and must include support for all affected sectors, including agriculture, fisheries and more.

"We need to build a comprehensive, accurate and highly detailed data system for all regions and include data in addition to the environment," he said, mentioning water quality, air quality and soil as important data points.

Looking ahead

Prof. Mohamed Ahmed and his colleagues are working day and night to complete the project to preserve the Nile Delta. They are also focused on raising awareness among people and unifying efforts through the integrated plan. Meanwhile, Shaltout and Al-Khawaja are occupied with studying the future impacts of climate change on Egypt's coasts and planning for further studies on the Mediterranean coastline.

As for Abu Elala, he is busy assisting the vacationers on the historical coast of Baltim who have come seeking relief from the summer heat, only to encounter another consequence of rising temperatures on the Mediterranean coastline.


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: A Baltim Beach seller of grilled corn, a famous food at Egypt's summer resorts / Credit: Ahmed Qabil.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories