Egypt’s 21st-century plagues

 
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By Khaled Diab

While the Egyptian regime battles for its survival, Egypt itself may not survive as a viable state, as it faces a ‘plague’ of potentially crippling environmental, economic and social challenges.

Image: ©Khaled Diab

Monday 12 February 2018

For those of us who dared to hope that democracy would lay down roots in Egypt, the farcical run-up to the presidential election – one measure black comedy, one measure theatre of the absurd – is agonising to watch.

It is agonising to watch not because anybody (aside from incumbent president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s most diehard supporters and loyal propagandists) believed the election would be anything more than a one-horse race. It is agonising because any pretence that the other horses even stood an outside chance has been abandoned, with the other serious contenders either crippled or disqualified or both.

This blatant match fixing led human rights lawyer Khaled Ali to announce his withdrawal from the 26-28 March vote, following the arrest of Sami Anan, who, like Sisi, is a former general who was a member of the military junta that governed Egypt immediately following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

Sisi’s apparent fear of every challenger that would run, in the end, left him with none. Eventually, one did emerge, a candidate of such heavyweight stature that he went from endorsing Sisi to competing against him: Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the pro-regime Ghad party.

As if having a fan and ‘yes man’ as his opponent, rather than as his running mate, was not enough, Sisi threatened anyone challenging him (I mean, challenged Egypt’s ‘security’ – which are the same thing in his book), in an impromptu performance in which he sounded like a stern school teacher chiding errant schoolkids. Sisi even threatened the entire Egyptian population, whom he cautioned against even thinking about a repeat of 2011, warning that he would not allow it.

But this is not up to Sisi to decide. It is up to the Egyptian people, whom currently appear tired of revolting against a regime that will cling on to power, no matter the price or the cost.

That said, I am convinced that the Egyptian revolution, like its French equivalent, is far from over. However, it is in a race against the environmental, economic and social clock. If the ‘plagues’ threatening the country combine into a perfect storm, Egypt could become a devastated state before it becomes a democratic one; it could become Somalia before it becomes Scandinavia.

Civil strife

The sparsely populated Sinai peninsula has been in the grips of a large-scale insurgency against the central state ever since the Egyptian revolution erupted, with no clear end in sight. Armed groups there, namely the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, still remain strong, capitalising on the peninsula’s geography, relative lawlessness and disgruntled Bedouin tribespeople. While the murderous, bloody rampages of the jihadis, exemplified by the recent deadly attack on a mosque frequented by Sufis have alienated locals, the state’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics, including airstrikes, have done little to endear it to the peninsula’s population. This include mass displacements caused by the razing of the border region between Gaza and Sinai in Rafah. In addition, rather than tackling the socio-economic grievances at the heart of the unrest, the state has allowed the situation in Sinai to deteriorate by failing to implement effective development initiatives there, combined with the collapse of the economic mainstay of tourism. This has fuelled disillusionment, frustration and anger, according to the state-funded National Council for Human Rights. As a sign of the regime’s fixation on a solely military solution to the insurgency, a major military campaign was launched last Friday aimed at crushing, once and for all, the insurgents. Whether more of the same can succeed, especially without a comprehensive development strategy, has been greeted with scepticism by some experts.

Despite suffering a regular string of terrorist attacks, especially those targeting churches and Christians, the Egyptian mainland has so far been spared the same levels of sustained and vicious violence and lawlessness. However, the potential is, sadly, there for mass civil strife, or worse, to break out at any moment. The violence, brutality and excess with which the state has responded to every form of challenge and opposition, even against peaceful protesters and demonstrators, has the potential to fuel a cycle of ever-escalating violence, as formerly peaceful individuals reach the dangerous conclusion that the only way to combat a violent state is through violence. In addition, the precarious grip the state has over many provincial areas and the hinterland of the country could also facilitate a descent into violence.

Mutiny in the ranks

Another potential flashpoint for destructive conflict are power struggles within the military or between the country’s various security apparatuses. Although the army projects an image to outsiders of unity and depicts itself as the glue holding together the nation, there are signs of division within the ranks, including the senior ones.

This was highlighted by the curious case of Sami Anan. On paper, Anan made an ideal regime candidate who could have provided a sheen of legitimacy for the election while doing nothing to challenge the military’s grip on the reins of power. An ex-army general who was Mubarak’s chief of staff, Anan was the second most senior member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which governed Egypt directly following Mubarak’s downfall. Moreover, he was forced to retire by ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who is universally reviled by supporters of the military and anti-Brotherhood Egyptians. This meant that whether Sisi retained power or Anan defeated him, the army would still emerge as the winner.

The arrest and disappearance of Anan for simply daring to announce his candidacy may have simply been driven by Sisi’s overwhelming desire to stay in power at any cost. However, it also reveals a possible split within the army, and could also be, it has been suggested, a manifestation of the rivalry between different factions within the army and other powerful security organisations, such as the police, the homeland security agency, military intelligence and the general intelligence service.

This is not the first sign of unrest within the military. An earlier example of this was the 2015 conviction, in a secret military trial, of a group of 26 officers who had allegedly attempted to mount a coup to overthrow the Sisi regime.

If clock and dagger gives way to open conflict within the military and/or between it and other security agencies, the army, the country’s main functioning institution after it eliminated its rival power bases, could push Egypt over the edge of the abyss.

Economic faultlines

While the regime’s power centres jockey for ascendancy and power, and cash in on their influences, including the aggressive expansion of the army’s economic pie, the economy has been struggling and is heading towards a painful crash if something drastic and dramatic does not happen soon.

Although the Egyptian government aims for an economic growth rate of up to 5.5% for the current fiscal year (2017/18), which would make Egypt the fastest-growing African economy, this masks a number of bitter and troubling realities. Not only is this growth mostly debt-driven, financed by conditional loans from the international financial institutions or the influence-peddling of the regime’s Gulf benefactors, it has failed to create a sufficient supply of jobs. In addition to unemployment remaining high, the cost of this recovery has mainly been borne by the poor and dwindling middle classes. The floating of the Egyptian pound and austerity measures, including the removal of subsidies and higher indirect taxes, and the high inflation they create, have hit the average Egyptian family extremely hard – as they have been doing for years.

The government’s penchant for expensive white elephant mega-projects of questionable economic benefit and feasibility, as well as high environmental risk, could spell future economic disaster by indebting the country further and emptying state coffers. These include the much-vaunted $8-billion expansion of the Suez Canal, a new administrative capital, with an initial estimated cost of $45 billion, whose business district is being built by China, not to mention Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, to be constructed with a $21 billion Russian loan.

Needless to say, these tens of billions of dollars could be more usefully and productively invested in a country in desperate need of every penny. Instead of a new capital city, Egypt should decenteralise the state and invest in its neglected provinces and periphery regions. Instead of outdated, unclean, dangerous and expensive nuclear energy, Egypt could invest the money in setting up small-scale renewable energy projects across the country, which will not only generate more energy but create more jobs to boot, as I have argued before, helping it to significantly exceed its aim of extracting 20% of its electricity needs from renewable sources. Other examples abound of how Egypt could use its limited resources resourcefully to stimulate development and promote sustainability.

Heat tidal wave

Egypt is a hot land and one of the driest in the world. And human-induced global warming means that Egypt’s climate is getting hotter and drier, with experts warning that climate change could make much of the Middle East, including Egypt, effectively uninhabitable in future decades. Extreme weather, including more frequent and longer heatwaves, is becoming more common. A sweltering example of this was the weeks-long heatwave which hit the country, and much of the region, in the summer of 2015. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to rise a whopping 2-3°C, while the country’s already low rainfall is expected to taper off by another 7-9% – inflating the country’s water poverty beyond the current alarming levels.

Global warming is also causing sea levels to rise, already damaging and threatening Egypt’s northern coastal region, especially Alexandria, the country’s second-largest urban area.

Strike force Delta

Rising sea levels have not only already started to claw away at Egypt’s coastline, it is rendering growing areas of coastal farmland too saline as seawater seeps into soil and aquifers. In addition, inadequate irrigation, drainage and fertilisation practices have affected up to 43% of Nile valley agricultural lands. One report found that soil in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s most fertile area and perhaps the best farmland in the world, is being submerged at a rate of 1cm per year by rising sea levels. By 2100, as much as a third of the Delta’s 25,000 square kilometres of arable land could be lost to agriculture, experts warn. This problem is severely exacerbated by the subsiding of sediment, which means while the sea is rising, the Delta itself is sinking. This is largely due to the fact that the fertile sediment that used to shore up the Delta has not reached it since the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir began filling in the 1960s, causing erosion and a troubling rise in the water table, and with it greater soil salinity.

As I argued in an article I wrote at the time of the Suez Canal expansion, the price tag for protecting the Delta is, according to my calculation, lower than Suez Canal II – and defending Egypt’s breadbasket would have been a far more useful and productive use of scarce resources than this white elephant.

With Egypt already dependent on imports for an estimated 60% of the food needs of its burgeoning population, this failure to protect the Delta will have dire economic and security consequences in the future by making Egypt more dependent on expensive food imports at a time when global food supplies are likely to become more stretched and unreliable.

Population time bomb

A closely related plague is the unrelenting explosion in Egypt’s population, which not only corrodes the benefits from economic growth but is also placing unprecedented strain on Egypt’s ability to feed itself, its land resources, its environment and its ecological carrying capacity. It is almost unfathomable today that when Napoleon landed in Egypt in 1798, the country’s population was estimated at just 3 million, compared to France’s population of around 30 million at the time.

More recently, the 1947 census counted 19 million Egyptians, which is less than the current population of Cairo. Today, Egypt’s population is just shy of the 100 million mark, according to one estimate. Egypt’s population is growing by a whopping 2 million or more each year, partly due to the chaos that has engulfed the country in recent years. In panic, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has described population growth as the biggest challenge facing Egypt and the government has revived its birth control programme, but it may be too little too late.

Concrete jungle and just deserts

Although Egypt is a huge country, the vast majority of Egyptians are squeezed into the Nile valley, which constitutes around 4% of the country’s territory. This has meant that, for decades, agricultural land has been swallowed up by the growing concrete jungle, as anyone flying over the country can clearly see, in a process of desertification that has been intensified by global warming and encroaching sands.

Even though Egypt managed to reclaim around a million acres of desert land in the three or four decades to the 1990s, a similar area was lost to urbanisation. Another study found that in the 1990s the net stock of agricultural land actually rose by some 14%. However, this reclaimed land was of far inferior quality to the extremely fertile vanishing agricultural lands of the Nile valley. The choice of crops, such as water-intensive banana and corn, and the use of inappropriate fertilisers have damaged reclaimed land. In addition, already by the mid-1980s, sand encroachment and active dunes affected 800,000 hectares.

Despite a long-standing ban on building on agricultural land, the trend has actually accelerated due to the relative breakdown in law and order, growing population and worsening economy since the 2011 revolution. An estimated 30,000 acres are lost annually today, compared with 10,000 acres before 2011. Then, there is the huge industry to bake red bricks, using the precious and fertile top soil which is essential to farming. The government has been working on stiffening fines for illegal construction on agricultural land, but it is unlikely to make a dent as Egypt’s population continues to creep upwards and the desert settlements are too expensive or unattractive for average Egyptians to make the move.

One promising avenue for combating desertification and the encroachment of the desert sands is to plant specially modulated forest areas using sewage effluent, which provide the bonus of being a sustainable source of wood in a country which currently imports almost all its wood requirements. An innovative pilot project just outside Ismailia has been so successful at doing this that it has elicited interest from German investors.

Curse of the Nile

Egypt has long been described as the gift of the Nile. In a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for this legendary waterway, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt would be a barren desert dotted by occasional oases. Not only is the ‘eternal river’ dying a slow death, under strain from booming populations along its length, pollution and climate change, the water Egypt receives from the Nile is barely enough to meet its current needs, let alone its future requirements.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other from 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic metres, the country is struggling with water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

Meanwhile, the needs of Ethiopia and other upstream countries are also growing exponentially. To meet the requirements of its rapidly growing population, which now exceeds Egypt’s, and its development plans, Ethiopia has constructed its Grand Renaissance Dam and is seeking to fill its giant reservoir, which could potentially cause significant disruption to the downstream flow reaching Egypt. This has caused years of brewing tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which abated somewhat in 2015, following the sealing of a Declaration of principles, but have reignited in recent months, as negotiations have stalled.

These frictions could potentially trigger a ‘water war’ between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, even if Egypt wishes to act in good faith with Ethiopia, any reductions in the water flow reaching Egypt could have catastrophic consequences, especially in years when rainfall in Ethiopia is lower than expected.

That said, with the right investment and innovation, redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt excessively, as it can actually get by on considerably less water. For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage, such as the practice of flooding fields instead of drip irrigating them. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

_____

The ‘plagues’ facing Egypt are formidable and would be challenging even for a rich and highly developed society. However, the Egyptian state can and must do more to secure the country’s survival against all these odds, rather than its fixation solely on the regime’s survival.

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Dispelling the curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Conflict between Nile basin countries has been averted. But unless effective action is taken, a water war remains a distinct future possibility.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

War has been avoided. As Yemen becomes the latest battleground in what future historians might call the Middle East’s “World War”, news like this is welcome indeed.

The averted casus belli was the Grand Renaissance Dam – slated to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa – which Ethiopia began constructing in 2011 at the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies some 60% of the great river’s water.

This move made Egypt very nervous and angered decision-makers in Cairo. This was owing to fears that the new barrier would adversely affect the flow of water downstream, bringing potential drought and turning Egypt from the “gift of the Nile” into its curse.

Once completed, the dam will actually have a negligible impact on river flow to Sudan and Egypt, unless Ethiopia decides to divert its waters to irrigation projects elsewhere. Ethiopia even claims it will increase water to Egypt because of the lower evaporation levels in its temperate highlands.

However, the 65.5 billion cubic meters –the equivalent of about one year’s flow to Egypt – required to fill the Great Renaissance’s reservoir troubled Cairo because it could potentially affect millions of farmers and harm the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

These fears – both real and exaggerated – prompted Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, to engage in some poetic sabre-rattling. “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary,” he threatened in 2013.

And his government considered moving beyond semantics. A closed cabinet meeting which was accidentally and embarrassingly broadcast live on air showed ministers brainstorming ideas for spreading disinformation, dispatching special forces and backing rebels in Ethiopia.

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Morsi-appointed defence minister who ousted his patron following mass protests, began by pursuing a similarly inflexible position, with Egypt lobbying the international community to halt the project.

Despite al-Sisi’s reckless willingness to go to war in Yemen and his brutal and violent repression of opposition, he wisely decided that diplomacy was more effective than force with Ethiopia. “We have chosen co-operation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” al-Sisi said on the occasion of the inking of a declaration of principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn reassured.

But despite this landmark deal, we are not out of the woods yet. The three countries still need to agree on the pace at which the new dam’s reservoir will be filled – which could prove to be a difficult barrier to cross.

More fundamentally, the longstanding dispute over the allocation of the Nile’s water resources is the greatest potential flashpoint. This could escalate the proxy conflicts between Cairo and Addis Ababa into the kind of full-fledged “water war” which experts have been warning about for decades.

Two colonial-era treaties, one from 1929 and the other 1959, allocate the lion’s share of the Nile’s water resources to Egypt and Sudan, leaving Ethiopia high and dry. Nevertheless, although Egypt gets almost two-thirds of the Nile’s 88 billion cubic meters, the country is struggling against water shortages. And with a growing population and global warming, Egypt’s needs are likely to grow.

In such circumstances, it is understandable that Egyptians regard any reduction in flow as an “existential threat” and a national security issue of the first degree.

But Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are also completely justified in being vexed at this unfair distribution. When they were not in a position to make use of the Nile’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue.

However, this situation has changed radically. Ethiopia is developing rapidly and its population is exploding, reaching over 96 million in 2014, which is larger than Egypt’s. Addis Ababa understandably wishes to exploit more of the rains which fall on its territory.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism regarding quotas, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in 2010 seeking to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan.

But the reality is that redistribution does not need to hurt Egypt, as it can actually get by on considerably less water.

For example, though vital, the intricate system of irrigation canals dotting the country shed 3 billion cubic metres in evaporation alone, and more in wasteful usage. In fact, the Irrigation and Improvement Project believes it can save up to 8 billion cubic metres through greater efficiency.

Likewise, Egypt’s crumbling domestic water supply network is bleeding water. In Cairo, for instance, 40% of the water supply is wasted, according to government figures. Then, there are the water-intensive cash crops, such as cotton. Egypt must reduce its cultivation of these in favour of crops which are more suited to dry climates.

Above all, Egypt needs to save its arable land, perhaps the most fertile in the world, which is under threat from rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation. Rising sea levels and the Aswan High Dam’s retention of the silt which used to regenerate the Nile Delta have placed Egypt’s bread basket under severe threat of collapse. This environmental-catastrophe-in-the-making must be addressed urgently.

With the right investment, innovation and planning, the curse of the Nile can be averted and it can continue to be a gift, not just to Egypt, but all the countries through which it flows.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 April 2015.

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Save the Nile Delta, President al-Sisi

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt would be much better off saving the sinking ship of the Nile Delta instead of building a white elephant Suez Canal II.

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Save the Nile Delta. Image: NASA

Thursday 18 September 2014

Egyptian presidents have long been fond of symbolic mega-projects. In addition to the practical benefits they were expected to perform, these show-pieces had the dual purpose of demonstrating how apparently visionary the dictator of the moment was, his patriotism and benign influence, as well as a tool for cobbling together a semblance of national unity and purpose.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser had the Aswan High Dam, which was intended to electrify the public towards his ambitious Arab socialist development programme. However, disagreement over financing prompted him, in 1956, to nationalise the Suez Canal to pay for the dam, leading to war with Britain, France and Israel. Anwar al-Sadat’s mega-project was to cross the Suez Canal militarily to regain the Sinai territory Egypt lost to Israel in 1967, and defeat not only Egypt’s neighbouring enemy but also to silence his domestic ones.

Hosni Mubarak had his Toshka project which was meant to create a new Nile Valley to absorb some of the country’s runaway population growth and the alarming loss of arable land to urban development. Toskha would achieve this by diverting water from Lake Nasser into the desert with the aim of expanding Egypt’s agricultural acerage by 10%. Despite its noble ambitions, “Mubarak’s pyramid”, as this largely aborted super mega-project was described, has only delivered a molehill due to mismanagement and poor planning.

Only a few months into his presidency, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has already broken ground on his own mega-project, billed not as the new Nile Valley but as the new Suez Canal. While Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and Sadat’s army crossed it, Sisi’s ambition is to expand the waterway by building a second, 72km-long channel that is expected to boost the traffic passing through Suez. The project also fits into the government’s ambition to transform the Suez region into an industrial, technological and international trading hub.

But this poorly conceived project is already smashing against the rocks of unexpected problems. On a fundamental level, some experts wonder whether the extension will actually boost the Canal’s capacity, since more than 90km of the waterway will remain single-carriage. In addition, there may simply not been enough additional demand from shipping to justify the new investment.

On top of that, the project has already run into expensive technical complications. Ignoring warnings by irrigation experts, the digging began too close to the original Canal which has caused the site to fill with groundwater. Pumping the excess water out carries a price tag of $1 million per day.

It is my view that, rather than yet another white elephant mega-project, Egypt would be much better off diverting the estimated $8.4 billion it will cost to build Suez Canal II to another, far more pressing mega-project: Nile Delta I.

Since ancient times, the Nile Delta, which covers 25,000 square kilometres and houses nearly half of Egypt’s population, has been the national breadbasket but also that of various empires. Yet this extremely fertile fan of land in the middle of the desert is under serious threat from a two-pronged attack: rising sea levels caused by global warming and sinking sediment due to the silt being blocked upstream by the Aswan High Dam.

The Delta is quite literally sinking into the sea, but few officials seem unduly alarmed by this impending shipwreck. Despite the economic, social and national security implications of this catastrophe-in-the-making, no Egyptian government has taken any substantial action to beat back this erosion, aside from constructing a few measly dykes and barriers to protect important urban areas on the coast.

This is doubly surprising in light of the decades of forewarnings provided by both local and international experts. For example, more than a quarter of a century ago, researchers at the Smithsonian Institute delivered dire warnings about future disaster.

Today, the alarm amongst experts has reached fever pitch. “The total [area of the Delta] expected to be impacted by a rising of the sea level by one metre during this century will be 8,033 square kilometres, which is nearly 33% of the total area of the Nile Delta,” predicted Khaled Ouda, a geologist at Egypt’s Assiut University, in an interview with Al Jazeera earlier this year.

In addition to the loss of precious agricultural land, this would turn millions of people in one of the most densely populated places on Earth climate refugees.

Given that rising sea levels and a sinking delta would redraw Egypt’s natural map more radically than ISIS has redrawn Iraq and Syria’s political one, the price of averting this disaster is surprisingly low – less than half al-Sisi’s Suez Canal project.

A plan proposed by Egyptian engineer Mamdouh Hamza involves the construction of a concrete wall along the Delta’s entire coastline and skirting it with a plastic diaphragm to prevent saltwater seepage. Total estimated cost: just $3 billion. The remaining billions can be invested in building impenetrable barriers several metres below sea level to hold the crumbling Delta in place and avoid sea water salinating the Delta’s aquifer.

Beyond these emergency measures, Egypt needs innovative solutions to replenish the Nile Delta through restoring the flow of natural silt, which not only protects against sea erosion but also acts as a powerful natural fertiliser. But this is more easily said than done, since the silt is sitting at the bottom of Lake Nasser a thousand kilometres downstream.

Inaction on these fronts will make the fallout from the revolutions and counterrevolutions that have gripped Egypt since 2011 seem like a minor distraction. Failing to protect the gift that is the Delta will turn the Nile into a curse for Egypt.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 September 2014.

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Climate change in Camelot

 
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By Robert Adler

In South Dakota, everyone knows that the climate is just right – and that global warming is just the hot air of science.

Monday 15 March 2010

“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.

The climate must be perfect all the year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August cannot be too hot.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In Camelot.”

– Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe

 The legislature of the State of South Dakota distinguished itself by passing an anti-climate change resolution – House Concurrent Resolution No. 1009 – in February.

 No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilise the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.

On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”

The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances”.

The phrase I’ve italicised is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the UN to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its ‘Academic Bill of Rights’, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.

 It’s all too easy to trivialise the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents – that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life” – and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.

 Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.

 I suppose that, from a European perspective, the whole issue may seem quaint and laughable – just another example of America’s amusing lack of sophistication.

 Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest – but by no means the last – skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds, as well as the hearts, of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board – whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study – voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.

 It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, state legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against US and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda – nothing less than to replace the pluralistic secular humanism that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.

 The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still-growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the Constitutional wall separating church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.

 As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.

 And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who depend on the votes of true believers also depend on campaign contributions by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping crude oil, mining coal, and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

 At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognise that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.

Published with the author’s permission. ©Robert Adler. All rights reserved.

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Green shoots in the desert

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Arab world no longer dismisses environmentalism as a western luxury and is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges.

9 October 2009

The Arab world is gradually awakening to the massive environmental challenges ahead for the region.

The environmental movement has long been regarded with suspicion in the developing world. For two centuries, the west has had a more or less free hand to pollute with impunity, deplete the planet of natural resources, exterminate most of its stock of wildlife that might pose any kind of threat to human safety and wipe out biodiversity not only in its own backyard but also across the planet.

Given this trail of destruction and distrust, it is perhaps unsurprising that well-meaning and far-sighted eco-warriors out to protect cuddly killer cats, hug trees against the deforester’s axe and fume over emissions have often been viewed as little more than latter-day missionaries sent out to subdue the restive natives and keep them from aspiring to better things.

This unfortunate perception was partly a coincidence of history. Although environmental campaigners in Europe and north America are as old as the industrial revolution, widespread social awareness of environmental degradation did not emerge until after World War II, with the industrialised level of destruction wrought by that conflict and the fearful potential consequences of the nuclear age.

At about the same time, the newly independent former colonies embarked on a postcolonial drive for rapid industrialisation and the desire and ambition to match and perhaps better western standards of living. Despite the emergence of cleaner and greener technologies, this was largely done with little regard for the environmental impact of modernisation, partly because developing countries could not afford the new technologies.

In recent years, many developing countries, faced with massive environmental degradation and poor air and water quality, have reached a similar stage in their industrialisation cycle as Europe and the west were at in the 1950s and 1960s, with the environmental movement gradually becoming more than a fringe concern. This, coupled with the impacts already being felt by climate change and the massive upheavals ahead, means they are slowly awakening to the reality that development and the environment are not two separate entities.

In the Arab world, although direct industrialisation has slowed down over the past three decades, modernisation has not – stressing the environment enormously. The region may be the world’s main petrol pump, but this finite resource is rapidly dwindling and dependence on it has affected air quality in large urban centres and on the coastal plains where half of the region’s population lives. Major investment in harnessing the region’s massive solar resources makes both economic and environmental sense.

In addition, although climate change largely carries a ‘made in the West’ label, the region is set quite literally to take the heat for it. Both temperatures and populations are expected to rise over the coming decades, causing water reserves to diminish, or at best stagnate, and desertification to accelerate. This means that scarce water will become even scarcer. Rising sea levels could also threaten major coastal population centres.

Faced with all these emerging challenges, it is unsurprising that the latest Arab Human Development Report dedicated an entire chapter to the environment and natural resources.

As in many other areas, Arab leaders do not always set a good example. Take King Muhammed VI of Morocco, whose enthusiasm for cars prompted him to take the outrageous step of chartering a Hercules transporter plane to fly his Aston Martin from Rabat to Britain for repairs. Before we laugh off those eccentric and peculiar Arab leaders, it is worth recalling that the US president – who travels abroad with two planes and an entire fleet of cars – has a carbon footprint estimated to be the equivalent of 2,200 energy-guzzling US households.

A group of independent experts has produced a report dedicated to the region’s environment. The Arab Environment Future Challenges Report estimates that environmental degradation costs the region about 5% of its GDP.

The document also identified Abu Dhabi as a trailblazer in environmental action, commending its environment strategy for 2009 to 2013 as a “model” for other countries to emulate. Environmental action in the small emirate is also reaching the grassroots and the new generation. For instance, 50 Abu Dhabi schools are in the process of “going green” and reducing their ecological footprint.

A few weeks before the Copenhagen climate conference, Beirut will play host to the 2009 conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development where a new report will be released and experts will debate what action needs to be taken. As occurred at Kyoto and may well happen in Copenhagen, it remains to be seen whether greater awareness of our heavy-footed environmental bootprint will translate into effective and sustained action.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 28 September 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Forecast: dry, becoming drier

 
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By Khaled Diab

There’s more than enough fresh water in the world to sate our thirst. The problem is getting it to where it is desperately needed.

September 2008

With the depressing torrential rain and flooding at the weekend, water shortages are the last thing on our minds here in these wet, northern climes. In fact, perhaps we need a collective ‘sun dance’ to implore the powers that be to deliver us an ‘Indian summer’.

Despite the misery, we are fortunate, as more and more areas in the world are beset by water shortages. Over the past week alone, the water table in the Pakistani capital Islamabad has fallen to dangerous levels (a common problem across the subcontinent), Kyrgyzstan has cut electricity production to save water, and Californian farmers have complained of lower yields due to water rationing.

The Middle East and North Africa, the driest population centre on the planet, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages. According to the International Water Management Institute, every country in the MENA region suffers from physical water scarcity or is approaching it.

Yemen – fabled for the fertile ancient kingdoms of Arabia Felix – is expected to be the first country in the region to deplete its ground water.

The Sea of Galilee in Israel has reached the lowest levels ever recorded, with fears that, if the government continues to pump it at current rates, the country’s main fresh water reservoir could reach the point of no return.

And the situation is likely to deteriorate, if climate change models prove to be accurate. Earlier this year, the UN released a report estimating that a 3-4°C rise in temperatures could lead to a drop of up to 35% in agricultural output. However, more localised analysis by an Australian scientists suggests that some parts of the region, such as Iraq, may see more rainfall.

Nevertheless, the forecast looks dry for the Middle East. In addition, with around 730 million people, including in the EU, expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2050, in the world living with water shortages, the future looks bleak.

Not, necessarily, says Jonathan Chenoweth of the Centre for Environmental Strategy. “I believe the looming water crisis is primarily a problem of distribution and management rather than supply,” he wrote in a recent New Scientist article.

In addition to water efficiency and desalination technologies, the major pillar of his strategy would be for arid and semi-arid countries to import “virtual water” in the form of food because agriculture consumes some 90% of water supplies. These countries would shift to less water-intensive sectors, such as trade and services.

Although largely unspoken, this is the direction in which the Middle East has been heading for decades. In fact, the term virtual water was probably coined by Tony Allan of SOAS in reference to the region. Without it, the region may have suffered severe famines by now. For instance, Egypt, with some of the most productive land in the world, imports more than half of its food owing to water shortages and population growth.

Soon-to-be-published research carried out by Chenoweth suggests that “by importing virtual water, a country could offer a high quality of life with as little as 135 litres of water per person per day”.

While this theory is promising at certain levels, it seems to overlook some crucial issues. While the more developed Middle Eastern countries with a smaller population, such as Israel, Lebanon and Dubai are successfully shifting their economies towards trade and service, it is difficult to see how many others will be able to reduce their economic dependence on agriculture and manufacturing.

Egypt, for instance, has a large educated population and its economy has a robust and rapidly growing service sector, including IT. Nevertheless, agriculture accounts for 14% of the country’s GDP and employs a quarter of the labour force. In addition, cash crops and cotton textiles and clothes are among Egypt’s main exports. Moreover, other large sectors of the economy, such as steel, manufacturing and chemicals are heavy water users.

If Egypt, a middle income, relatively developed country has such difficulty shifting its economy towards water-light sectors, what of less-developed countries? Sudan, for instance, overall has abundant water supplies, yet it is unable even to meet food shortages within its own border. The situation is even worse in Ethiopia where I personally witnessed UN food aid being distributed only miles away from the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana.

What Chenoweth’s analysis also seems to overlook or understate is that water-rich regions may have an abundance of water but they are already sailing pretty close to the wind in terms of food output. While growth in Middle Eastern agriculture is crippled by the absence of water, it is highly unlikely that largely temperate regions, such as the EU, will be able to translate their water abundance into significantly higher agricultural production, since most of their arable land is already in use.

The current food crisis may be an early indication that we are slowly approaching an agricultural ceiling. In addition, the energy crunch suggests that the kind of globalisation of trade required to shift virtual water effectively may be unsustainable.

Then, there’s the issue of food security. How can countries dependent on virtual water ensure a sufficient flow of food to sustain their populations? What if a more severe crisis in the future forces major food exporters to cut off exports? Alternatively, if wealthy and arid countries, such as the Gulf States, buy up large tracts of farm land in poor countries to ensure their food security, this will help these countries to boost their agricultural output and develop their economies. But we could also be looking at future artificial famines rather like the Irish potato famine which, interestingly, prompted the Ottoman sultan and native Americans to send humanitarian aid to Ireland.

If virtual water is to be successful in feeding the world, we need robust and effective international mechanisms to ensure that this redistribution is implemented equitably and that neither suppliers nor recipients go hungry in lean years. In addition, development programmes in poorer arid countries will need to find ways of reducing dependency on sparse local water resources and controlling population growth.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 9 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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