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Facing the threat of rising seas
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Egypt, with its densely populated coasts and low-lying agricultural areas is one of the countries most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

According to World Bank data, a one meter rise in sea levels inundate a quarter of the Nile Delta and force 10.5 million people from their homes.

Rising sea waters would leave soil in many of Egypt’s traditional agricultural areas unfit for planting, destroy critical wetland habitats, wipe-out coastal industry and tourism infrastructure, and could intrude into fresh water aquifers.

The seas have already started rising. Ice caps and glaciers are melting  into the sea, and warmer weather is driving thermal expansion (when water heats up, it takes up more space). Scientists have observed the global mean sea level rose as much as 20 centimeters throughout the 20th century, and that the level of increase accelerated beginning in the 1990s, reaching around 3.2 millimeters per year. 

Although there is still debate among scientists about how fast and how high the world’s oceans will rise, there is little doubt that the seas will get higher in the coming decades.

Will Egypt be ready?

According to a panel discussion on the subject, held Tuesday as part of the Cairo Climate Talks, the answer is: maybe.

Khaled Kheir Eddin, head of the Environment and Climate Change Research Unit at Egypt’s Water Ministry, pointed to Egypt’s collection of official strategy papers devoted to this issue as a sign that the government is taking preparations seriously.

In 2011, Cabinet think-tank IDSC published a document entitled “Egypt’s National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change And Disaster Risk Reduction.” Despite its grand title, the document as published appears to be more of a set of recommendations on what kinds of projects ought to be prioritized, rather than a concrete plan with specific projects, benchmarks and timelines.

A 2013 strategy document from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation is similar. It does give slightly more detail about specific projects — reinforcing portions of the Mohamed Ali Sea Wall along Abu Qir bay, installing a breakwater north of the Gamasa industrial area — but notes that “extensive” studies are still needed before such adaptation measures can be put in place.

Reports like these do indicate that decision makers are aware of the problem and taking it seriously. But with the need to strike a delicate balance between competing interests, turning this awareness into action on the ground will likely prove challenging. 

The water ministry estimates that measures to adapt to climate change could cost in excess of LE180 billion by 2050, a tough sell at a time when the government is seeking to trim its budget deficit. “From the point of the decision maker, he will compromise between what the country needs now and what the country needs in 50 years,” says Kheir Eddin.

Lawmakers will also inevitably face conflicts between competing interests, says Mohamed Bayoumi, an environment specialist at the United Nations Development Program. Farmers, fishermen, industrialists, beach-goers, city dwellers and wildlife should all be taken into account when planning for a rise in sea level, but their needs are not always the same.

“It’s quite tough to find a win-win situation for everybody. Sometimes, some institutions are not going to be happy with what they will get, but the national interest should come out ahead,” Bayoumi says.

The experts agreed that in order for Egypt to prepare for rising sea levels, the issue of climate change will have to be “mainstreamed,” with all ministries — from housing to defense — making decisions with climate change in mind.

Such a system is possible, explained Peter Link, of Hamburg University’s Research Group Climate Change and Security. The German government has identified 17 human uses and ecological functions along the Wadden Sea, which stretches across the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Any plans to develop or protect the coast have to balance between interests as varied as oil drilling, mussel farming and protected areas for birds. 

Thanks to a combination of expertise, computer algorithms and political will, the system manages to function. “One the plan is finalized, then people adhere to that,” Link says. “Germans are renowned for making the most rules in the world and sticking to them. Sometimes this is quite hindering, sometimes it is quite helpful. In this case, if you look at coastal zone management, it is useful.”

In Egypt, by contrast, people do not even follow building regulations designed to protect their own safety as well as the integrity of the coast, Kheir Eddin says. “This needs enforcing the law, and raising public awareness.”

Egypt’s situation is even more challenging when relatively certain changes like rising sea levels are coupled with more harder-to-predict phenomenon like shifting weather patterns.

Some climate change models predict the flow of the Nile will decrease, others that it will increase. Egypt could get wetter, or it could get drier, or perhaps both in sequence.

This means that Egypt’s attempts to plan for climate change have to take both wet and dry scenarios into account. It also contributes to uncertainty about the future and makes it hard for most people to come to grips with climate change, and therefore reluctant to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.

“There are things that cannot be argued in terms of climate change. These need not to be mixed up with the projections,” says Bayoumi. To raise public awareness, issues need to be placed in their proper proportion. “Not to over-exaggerate, not to underestimate. Not to think about it as a science fiction story. Not to panic,” he says.

Isabel Esterman