What should we be asking about Egypt’s food security megaprojects? And why are the longer term impacts of these projects on the environment not being discussed?

As a scientist concerned with environmental issues, I have observed that people in Egypt generally tend to consider such matters to be important only if they are clearly linked to their personal health or economic welfare. Perhaps this is why problems like swine flu, bird flu, unusual jellyfish blooms or air pollution from the burning of rice straw have been far more successful in eliciting prompt media, government and public responses than issues like climate change, or the degradation of marine environments. Maybe this is because the impacts of such phenomena seem deceptively distant, and thus irrelevant to many. However, while citizens cannot be expected to respond to issues they are unaware of, the government cannot afford the luxury of being unprepared or failing to prioritize preparations for predicted environmental crises.

In many ways, Egypt has been proactively engaged in official discussions on climate change mitigation and adaptation. As a member of the African Initiative for Renewable Energy, and a signatory of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, Egypt has been developing and implementing a national strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to focus on sustainable development. This strategy includes initiatives such as the Low Emissions Capacity Building Project (an international initiative that includes 25 counties and aims to improve the efficiency of energy use in various industries), and many other local and collaborative projects. However, while these strategies and initiatives indicate that the government is both aware of, and prioritizing the management of the scientifically predicted impacts of climate change on Egypt’s low-lying coastal zones, the Nile Delta, beach tourism and food and water security, some aspects of recent government projects seem counterintuitive to this awareness.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration recently inaugurated several projects that aim to increase food security in Egypt. Among them is the Berket Ghalioun fish farm project in Kafr al-Sheikh Governorate — the first stage of which was inaugurated in November 2017, and the 100,000 Acres of Greenhouses project — the first stage of which was inaugurated on February 8, 2018 in Matrouh Governorate. While, on the surface, both projects appear to promise benefits for the country’s economy and food security, there are many unanswered questions regarding their environmental impacts, their long-term survival and, ultimately, the choice to invest in them.

The Ghalioun fish farm, when completed, is expected to be the largest fish farm in the Middle East, costing a total of LE4 billion, and rivaled only by the massive prawn farm in Lith, Saudi Arabia, located on the coast of the Red Sea. The farm has its own shrimp feed, fish feed and fish packing and processing factories, and its own fish and shrimp spawning tanks. One of the main objectives of the farm is to produce affordable seafood for both local consumption and export. It aims to provide approximately 70 percent of the country’s total fish consumption by the time it is completed, and to reduce seafood imports by approximately 27 percent. The first stage of the project alone is expected to create 5,000 jobs in one of Egypt’s poorest areas.

At first glance, this project may seem lucrative. It is, however, important to look beyond the promises and apparent benefits of this massive, expensive, high-tech farm and ask deeper questions about the way it will operate, its potential impact on the environment and its predicted success in the context of global change.

In order to operate at full capacity, several large and powerful pumps will draw saltwater from the Mediterranean Sea into the tanks at a rate of 50,000 cubic meters per hour, as well as 20,000 cubic meters of freshwater per hour, making up a total of 70,000 cubic meters of water inflow. This will be balanced by an equivalent outflow of 70,000 cubic meters of water back into the sea every hour. This enormous outflow on an hourly basis could have potentially severe impacts on the natural marine ecosystems, particularly if the properties and quality of the outflowing water differ significantly from the seawater. For example, if the outflowing water carries high concentrations of nutrients from fish waste and other sources, this could enhance plankton blooms in the sea, which could in turn increase jellyfish blooms at certain times of the year. The altered chemistry of the water could impact the local marine environment in any number of unpredictable ways. It is unclear, however, what the quality of the outflow will be, or what kind of treatment, if any, it will undergo before it is pumped into the sea.

The Ghalioun farm will be run in collaboration with Chinese aquaculture company Evergreen. While this is widely regarded as a reputable company, it is unclear whether it will bear the responsibility for monitoring the quality of the outflow, or what their standards are. Additionally, while it is likely that an environmental impact assessment was carried out before the project started, the results of this assessment are unknown to the public.

Another question concerning water use relates to the farm’s freshwater intake. It is unclear whether this will be drawn from the Nile or from the groundwater aquifer, but both possibilities come with their own sets of questions. Firstly, if the water comes from the groundwater aquifer, which is a slowly renewable resource, how is the farm expected to continue once the aquifer is salinized by rising sea levels? And is it possible that such a high and steady intake rate may deplete the aquifer after some years, especially as Egypt’s climate is expected to become drier? Nile water near the coast is also expected to become more and more saline with time, and, in fact, the salinization of land and groundwater in the delta has already started and is being felt by present-day farmers.

Despite all this, sea level rise may present the most difficult challenge to the Ghalioun fish farm, and this makes me question the choice of location for the project, and whether sea levels were even considered before such a large investment was made. Even in the best-case scenarios, scientists predict that rising sea levels will most likely flood the area where the farm is located, the low-lying parts of Alexandria and the coastline of the delta by the year 2100. These scenarios predict a minimum sea level rise of about 1 meter within this time period, which will displace at least 2 million people and damage croplands in some of the poorest areas of the delta. However, many scientists consider these predictions highly optimistic, especially considering recent data on the rate of warming in Antarctica — a hitherto understudied contributor to global sea level rise. The worst-case scenarios (i.e., if we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally and ice continues to melt in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Circle) predict a sea level rise of 6 meters, which would be catastrophic for Egypt, flooding almost all of Alexandria and most of the delta, displacing nearly their entire populations.

Although such a dramatic rise is estimated to take over a century, as time passes, climate change continues to surprise the scientific community by progressing at increasingly rapid rates than predicted. Therefore, preparing only for best-case scenarios — if we are even doing that — may be irresponsible. And so, we must ask: Is there a contingency plan or an adaptation plan that would allow the Ghalioun fish farm to continue to operate despite a rise in sea levels? And if there is a plan, what is it? If there is no plan, why not? And was this a wise investment?

As for the 100,000 Acres of Greenhouses project, it is possible that this initiative may somewhat diminish the loss of agriculture in the Nile Delta brought about by climate change by providing an alternative means of growing crops. The 100,000 acres are split between the cities of Hammam, Abu Sultan, the 10th of Ramadan City and Hope Village in Sinai, east of Ismailia. Most of these locations, aside from the northern part of  the 10th of Ramadan City, hopefully fall outside the flood zones outlined in the worst-case scenarios for sea level rise. However, questions still need to be asked concerning this project. For example, even with the measures taken to conserve water in these greenhouses, will their water supply remain secure as Egypt gets drier and water becomes scarcer? If large sections of the delta are flooded and its people are displaced, will these 100,000 acres of greenhouse farms adequately compensate the population for lost crops? Are any of these issues being properly considered before huge sums are allocated to large national projects? And finally, could these funds have been better directed toward implementing costly climate adaptation strategies and research?

The annual State of the Environment Reports, which are produced by the Environment Ministry-run Egyptian Environmental Affairs Association (EEAA), and are freely available online, make it clear that the ministry, at least, is well aware of the host of negative impacts that Egypt is to expect from climate change. These include sea level rise, the salinization of the Nile, desertification and the displacement of populations. The reports also mention both climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, but without sufficient detail. On the subject of rising sea levels, there is a brief mention in some, but not all, reports of “experimental studies” on sand dune stabilization by the Coastal Research Institute (CORI), in an attempt to lessen the impact. However, it is not clear whether this will be relevant to the delta region or how effective it might be. The reports also seem to depend on the best-case scenario being the only likely eventuality, which seems both naïve and outdated. Other adaptation strategies suggested include changes in agricultural techniques and obtaining regular funding from abroad to assist with climate adaptation. In fact, the reports consistently seem to contain much more detail with regards to mitigation-related projects than to adaptation-related projects, which indicates an illogical sorting of priorities. While it is certainly beneficial, if not crucial, to be concerned with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and switching to fossil fuel alternatives, adaptation should be the priority of a small country like Egypt, whose emissions constitute a tiny fraction of global emissions, but that is predicted to experience severe impacts.

All of these questions concerning recent food security projects must be asked of those who are responsible, and they must be part of an unrelenting national conversation on climate change. It would be shortsighted to be impressed by short-term gains and neglect important details. While it is possible that there are good answers to these questions that have not been made public, I am primarily concerned with the absence of conversation. As a people, we are quite late in joining the global awareness and discussion of global warming which affects us all, starting with Egypt’s most vulnerable populations. There is an inexplicable silence surrounding climate change in Egyptian media, and it is nearly absent from school curricula at a time when the world cannot afford to raise generations who do not think of themselves as communities, yet who share a vulnerable planet with finite resources — a planet that is impacted by their inaction just as much as it is impacted by their action.

*Image courtesy of the Presidential Office.

Maha T. Khalil 

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