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.

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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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Sisi’s Suez moment

 
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By Khaled Diab

Suez Canal II is not about economics. It is a symbol of how President Sisi is supposedly navigating Egypt through narrow straits towards modernity.

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Image via Ahmed Namatalla

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Sequels rarely match up to the original, most film buffs will tell you. But judging by the trailers and the blitz publicity campaign, Suez Canal II will be every bit as significant as its predecessor.

Dubbed as Egypt’s “gift to the world”, inaugural ceremony for the new channel of the Suez Caal promised to “dazzle the world”. The spectacle included an air and naval show, fireworks, folklore performances and even a performance of Verdi’s classic opera, Aida.

On Wednesday 5 August, the front page of the semi-official al-Akhbar newspaper carried an image of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the helm of a ship steering it through the canal, with smiling citizens waving flags enthusiastically in the background.

The symbolism is clear. The ship is presumably Egypt, the canal is the narrow strait the country is currently navigating, the  destination is a brighter future and every Egyptian is firmly behind their president. But with all the pomp, swagger and bluster in the air, perhaps nautical metaphors are not the most appropriate: unseen icebergs and the Titanic spring to mind.

More subtly, the image echoes the propaganda during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. For instance, in a nationalist song from 1963, the legendary heartthrob Abdel-Haleem Hafez sang:

Our president is a navigator. He’s taking us across.

He’s a worker and farmer. He’s one of us.

And perhaps behind al-Sisi’s surprising choice of megaproject is an unspoken wish that the Suez Canal will propel him to legendary status, as it did Nasser. After all, the canal sealed Nasser’s reputation when he nationalised it, triggering the 1956 Suez Crisis, known to Egyptians as the Tripartite Aggression.

The Suez Canal was also important to Anwar al-Sadat, who was often lionised as the architect of the “crossing of the canal” during the 1973 war with Israel. Mubarak did not have a Suez moment but he did have plenty of waterways, from the stalled al-Salam (Peace) Canal to make the Sinai bloom and the Toshka white elephant to create a new Nile valley in the Western desert.

In fact, the Suez Canal has been an important nationalist symbol since its construction. For Khedive Ismail, it was a central plank – along with rapid industrialisation and the new Cairo he built as the “Paris on the Nile” – of Egypt’s steady march to modernity.

Symbolism aside, does Suez Canal II actually live up to the hype? Strictly speaking, the megaproject is not a new canal but a 72-km parallel channel to extend the existing one. And it is not even the first such expansion – there were previous ones in 1955 and 1980.

This makes the notion that it is a second Suez Canal and an engineering feat on a par with the first seem ludicrous, considering that the original waterway was 164-km long and completely revolutionised shipping from Asia to Europe by giving vessels a massive 7,000-km shortcut.

In actuality, Egypt, perhaps in light of the rapid de-development of the region, seems to be downsizing its mega-dreams compared with previous generations. But the boastfulness and adulation surrounding them is as grandiose as ever.

That is not to say Suez Canal II is not without engineering merit. Unlike the original French-conceived canal, the new channel was completely designed and implemented by Egypt. Moreover, unlike its predecessor, it did not result in the deaths of tens of thousands of Egyptian forced labourers.

Unlike many previous megaprojects, not only was this project actually completed, it was finished ahead of time, in a record single year, which some have seen as a positive sign for the future. In addition, unlike the original, the expansion is domestically financed, largely through investment certificates sold to citizens, which could act as a promising model for future initiatives.

Unlike in the 19th century, whether it succeeds or fails, Suez Canal II is unlikely to help bankrupt an already highly indebted nation. However, Egypt may have trouble paying back citizens if its projections prove unfounded.

According to government projections, the expanded capacity and faster passage time will propel the canal’s revenues from the current $5.5 billion to an astonishing $13.5 billion. Many international and local experts are sceptical this will happen because the canal is currently running at below capacity anyway and the rate of annual growth in global shipping would have to be considerably higher than it is today.

Though they make a strong case and one I find highly persuasive, it is possible the experts are wrong, as officials keep reminding us, and Egypt will confound its critics, as it did in 1956 when everyone expected the country would not be able to operate the canal after removing its British and French management.

Personally, I believe this was a massive missed opportunity. Rather than focus on an initiative of questionable and marginal benefit, the government should have chosen a megaproject of true national importance.

As I’ve argued before, instead of Suez Canal II, the billions sunk into dredging the desert sand should have gone to shoring up the Nile Delta, which is threatened by rising sea levels and sinking sediment. Although experts have been warning for decades of these dangers, Egypt has taken almost no action to save its breadbasket and home to nearly half its population.

Now that is truly a sinking ship that needs to be navigated to a safe port before it is too late.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 August 2015.

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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.

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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.

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

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