by David Sterman, July 2009
If climate change continues unabated, it threatens to impose severe environmental devastation upon Egypt. The vast majority of the Egyptian population lives in the Nile Delta and along the thin strip of the Nile Valley while the large expanses of territory that make up the rest of the country remain almost entirely uninhabited. Egypt’s unique geography provides a serious challenge for adaptation to the changing climate and makes change in sea level or the flow of the Nile an extreme threat to Egypt’s population and economy.
According to a report produced for the Organization for Economic Development by Agrawala et al, the Nile Delta is already subsiding at a rate of 3-5 mm per year. Just a .25-meter rise in sea level would devastate the populous cities that drive Egypt’s economy. Forty percent of Egyptian industry is located in Alexandria alone; a .25-meter rise in sea level would put 60% of Alexandria’s population of 4 million below sea level, as well as 56.1% of Alexandria’s industrial sector. A rise of .5 meters would be even more disastrous, placing 67% of the population, 65.9% of the industrial sector, and 75.9% of the service sector below sea level. Thirty percent of the city’s area would be destroyed, 1.5 million people would have to be evacuated, and over 195,000 jobs would be lost. [ii]
Alexandria is not the only Egyptian city that would be devastated by even a .5-meter rise in sea level. Agrawala et al cite a study that finds that a .5-meter rise would cost over 2 billion dollars and eliminate over one third of the jobs located in Rosetta, another city in the Delta. [ii] The Egyptian Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1999 estimated that sea level rise would force the migration of 2 million people currently living in the Nile Delta. [i] Other cities threatened by a rising sea level in the delta include Port Said, Matruh City, and Arish City. [ii]
Climate change will harm Egypt’s tourism sector through sea level rises and ocean acidification. The Nile Delta is home to much of Egypt’s tourism, and for cities like Alexandria or Matruh City, the threat of a rising sea level will reduce both their capability to sustain tourism as well as the desire of tourists to visit them. Forty-nine percent of Alexandria’s tourism industry would be underwater if sea level rose .5-meters. [ii] In addition, high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will result in ocean acidification, destroying coral reefs. [ii] The bleaching of the coral reefs is not just the loss of an important ecosystem but also the elimination of a prime tourist attraction. Disruption to the Egyptian tourism sector could have broader societal implications, as 20% of Egypt’s foreign currency earnings are from tourism and according to Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, 12.6% of the workforce depends upon the travel industry. [xiii] The dangers climate change poses to Egypt’s tourism sector and economy as a whole should not be underestimated.
Climate change also threatens to upend the precarious balance of water allocation between Egypt and the other states bordering the Nile. Egypt and Sudan currently claim the vast majority of the Nile’s water despite their location down river from the source regions. These claims are made under the Nile Basin Treaty of 1959. The treaty denied the riparian states, which were still under colonial rule, all but the most minimal allocation of water. Today, states like Ethiopia that already face severe water stress are demanding more water than the treaty allows for. While the variability in models prevent a conclusive determination of whether climate change will mean more or less rain at the Nile’s source waters, it is clear that the increased evaporation due to rising temperatures will result in greater water stress. [ii] Increased scarcity will threaten Egypt’s development plans. Agrawala et al point to this danger, writing that one third of international monetary support for Egypt’s development is for projects involving sectors threatened by climate change. [ii] As the Nile’s waters dwindle, the survival of communities in Ethiopia and other states currently disputing water rights with Egypt will also be placed in jeopardy.
Finally, climate change could exacerbate the food security issues that Egypt already faces. Egypt’s report to the UNFCCC states that “climate change may bring about substantial reductions in the national grain production.” [i] Grain is only one of Egypt’s food sources endangered by unmitigated climate change. Even without climate change, by 2020 Egypt is projected to import 300-360 thousand metric tons of fish, which is a third of its projected domestic production. [iv] However, climate change could drastically increase Egypt’s trade imbalance in fish products while simultaneously tightening the global fish market. As the sea level rises, salt water will infiltrate the North Egyptian lakes where 60% of Egypt’s fisheries are located. [ii] As the lake water becomes saltier, the aquatic plants that protect the marine life by filtering the contaminated wastewater from Egypt’s industry will die off. [i] The shallow nature of Egypt’s lakes will provide little protection from temperature increases that could disrupt the marine ecosystems. [ii] As Egypt’s domestic fisheries face increased risks, Egypt will be forced to import more fish from other nations whose own fisheries will be facing decline. Disruptions in Egypt’s food supply could impose starvation and economic stress, likely leading to unrest. Food scarcity has a history of provoking instability in Egypt: according to the Washington Post “the only mass popular uprising in Egypt in the past half-century” occurred in 1977 when there was an attempt to eliminate subsidies for bread. [viii] In 2008, riots broke out in Egypt over the lack of food. While the riots that occurred last year eventually came to an end, Mubarak was forced to call out the military to distribute and bake bread. [viii]
The recent data on the dangers of climate change reaffirm the early warnings provided by the Climate Institute and others about Egypt’s vulnerability. In the March-April 1992 Climate Alert, the Climate Institute published a story summarizing several reports on vulnerable countries presented at the Climate Institute-sponsored symposium for UN missions and nongovernmental organizations. The presentation on Egypt warned of drops in Nile flow, loss of arable land, and changes in Egypt’s trade balance for critical crops. [ix] In 1995, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, co-chairman of the Climate Institute at the time, was the principal investigator of a 5-year EPA study on the dangers of sea level rise that isolated Egypt as one of the nations that would suffer the most. The study not only predicted the forced migration of 2 million people but also warned of the disastrous effect a rising sea level would have on the Egyptian tourism sector. [x] The evidence and consensus is overwhelming that Egypt will face serious challenges as the climate changes.
While Egypt’s unique geography makes continued climate change extremely dangerous, its geography also provides the potential for a strong renewable energy sector. Egypt is stepping up to take advantage of this potential by assuming a leadership role in climate change mitigation among Middle Eastern and North African nations. By 2020 Egypt plans to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources. Egypt has already received 300 million dollars from the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund [xii] and is planning to implement a feed-in tariff to support the further development and proliferation of renewable energy technologies. [v] Egypt’s geography allows for the development of several sources of renewable energy on a large scale.
As part of the 20% goal, Egypt plans to produce 12% of its energy from wind power. Reaching the 12% from wind goal would involve producing 7200 MWs of wind energy by 2020. [v] The New Renewable Energy Authority (NREA) found that Egypt’s Red Sea coast “is one of the windiest places in the world,” [vii] and the Egypt National Report for Plan Bleu estimates that there is the potential for 20,000 MWs of wind power from the Red Sea coast alone. Egypt’s geography provides great advantages for wind power development, and the Global Wind Energy Council is optimistic about Egypt’s potential for wind energy development, noting that there were already 356 MWs of installed capacity in 2008 with several more projects in development. [v] As there are very few population centers along the Red Sea coast, wind development is unlikely to face stiff competition for land. [vi] Moreover, Egypt’s wind resources are not limited to the Red Sea coast. The deserts to either side of the Nile Valley and the Sinai provide more land that could potentially be developed for wind power, [vi] even though the wind speeds are slightly lower there than along the Red Sea coast.
Egypt can also mobilize solar power to meet its 20% goal. According to a report by the NREA, Egypt is well endowed in its solar power resources with a yearly average of 1900-2600 Kwh of solar radiation per meter squared. [vii] On average the US only receives 1759 KWh/m2. [xi] Egypt plans to construct a 150 MW solar plant, which generates 30 MWs through solar thermal, and by 2020 Egypt plans to have built two additional solar plants, each with 300 MWs of capacity. [vi] In addition, Egypt could save a lot of energy through the use of solar water heaters. Egypt’s solar water heater industry began after Egypt imported 1000 solar heaters in 1979. [vi] In 1987, Egypt required that new buildings have solar water heating systems. [vi] Unfortunately, Egypt’s initial foray into the use of solar water heaters was a failure. Poor quality resulted in numerous problems that reduced public confidence in solar water heaters, and builders began to ignore the requirement. The problems in quality were compounded by the difficulty of providing maintenance instruction to the more rural areas. However, the initial failure is not cause to abandon solar water heater use in Egypt. Other states including Israel have successfully implemented regulations requiring the use of solar water heaters. The solar water heaters currently functioning in Egypt already save 290,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually, [vi] and the NREA suggests that the number of people using solar water heaters could be grown by increasing financial incentives, establishing strict production guidelines, and providing instruction on how maintain the systems. [vii]
Egypt’s recent concern regarding climate change and interest in developing renewable energy is not an outlier in Egypt’s history. Egypt began exploring renewable energy as an option in the 1970s when oil prices were high and Egypt was still an oil importer. [vi] Egypt established the NREA in 1986, signed the UNFCCC, developed an inter-ministerial committee of climate change, and signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Egypt also hosted the first major climate conference in the Middle East. The conference was convened by the Climate Institute as well as the Egyptian government and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1989. Several Egyptian ministers not only attended but also participated in the sessions. Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, served as the honorary chairman and addressed the conference. The conference resulted in the publication of the Cairo Compact, a set of recommendations and reports on climate change, which helped set the stage for the UNFCCC by illustrating the possibility of different governmental leaders agreeing on the importance of addressing climate change.
Despite this history of involvement and recent steps towards leadership in the field of renewable energy, Egypt faces a serious challenge if it is to meet its goal of 20% renewable energy by 2020. Egypt ranks 31st in total emissions with 221.1 million tons of CO2 emitted yearly making Egypt responsible for .59% of global emissions. [iii] Egypt ranks 94th in terms of per capita emissions with 3 tons of CO2 per person. [iii] The World Bank categorizes Egypt as in the top tier of countries in terms of growth in emissions and states “under business as usual conditions, Egypt could face a 50% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from 2007 in the electricity sector alone”. [xii] Egypt’s energy sector is the largest emitter constituting 74.6% of Egyptian emissions compared to a global average energy sector share of 75.2%. [iii] Egypt’s agricultural sector is the next largest emitter with 12.3% compared to a global average agricultural share of 16.1%. [iii] It is far from a foregone conclusion that Egypt can meet its goals, and even if it does, preventing the impending disasters that climate change poses for Egypt will take strong commitments from other nations.
Egypt stands at a crossroads. It can either take a leadership role in confronting climate change and see its land blossom into a powerful center at the heart of the renewable energy sector or it can fail to implement the necessary policies and thus transform Egypt’s unique geographical resources into a deadly trap spreading massive dislocations of people, economic disaster, and starvation. The latest signs from Egypt’s government are encouraging and if successful could help marshal the rest of the international community to take similar action.
[i] The Arab Republic of Egypt Initial National Communication on Climate Change. Prepared for the UNFCCC by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. June 1999. PDF
[ii] Agrawala, Shardul et al. Development and Climate Change in Egypt: Focus on Coastal Resources and the Nile. Produced for the OECD. 2004. PDF
[iii] Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) Version 6.0. (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2009).
[iv] Feidi, Izzat H. Impact of International Fish Trade on Food Security in Egypt. Produced for the FAO Fisheries Report No 708. 2003.
[v] Global Wind Energy Council. Egypt.
[vi] Gregory, Rafik Youssef and Soliman, Adel Tawfik. Egypt’s National Study Final Report. Prepared for Plan Bleu. March 2007. PDF
[vii] Implementation of Renewable Energy Technologies – Opportunities and Barriers Egypt Country Study. Produced by the New and Renewable Energy Authority for the UNEP. 2002. PDF
[viii] Knickmeyer, Ellen. In Egypt Upper Crust Gets the Bread. Published in the Washington Post. 4/5/2008.
[xi] Technology White Paper on Solar Energy Potential on the US Outer Continental Shelf. Published by the Minerals Management Service Renewable Energy and Alternate Use Program US Department of Interior. May 2006. PDF
[xii] World Bank News and Broadcast. Egypt: Renewable Energy and Clean Transport Are Cornerstones of Low Carbon Growth. 6/5/2009.
[xiii] Yeranian, Edward. Drop in Tourism Adds to Egypt's Economic Woes. Published by Voice of America News. 5/19/2009.
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