Is Egypt prepared for the impending impacts of climate change?

Egypt, a signatory of the Paris Agreement since April 2017, has not been inactive on the political stage with regards to climate change, yet many questions remain over what the Egyptian government is planning to do in order to adapt to some of the inevitable consequences of climate change, which the country is already starting to experience.

Egypt contributes only about 0.6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (the biggest contributors are the United States at 14.8 percent and China at 25.9 percent). Compared to certain developed countries with similar population sizes, Egypt contributes greenhouse gas emissions that are five times lower than Japan and three times lower than Germany. Even if we consider per capita emissions, Egypt’s contribution ranks very low on the comprehensive list of world countries, while the worst per capita emitters include several Persian Gulf counties that are in the top 10, surpassing even the US. More importantly, between 1990 and 2012, Egypt’s gross domestic product grew at a faster rate than its greenhouse gas emissions did, which may indicate that Egypt’s economy is becoming less reliant on fossil fuels, or that it may have achieved higher energy use efficiency over time. Egypt’s relatively small area and population size (compared to the United States or China, for instance), in addition to its being a less industrialized developing country, have kept its global contribution very low until now.

While this means that Egyptians can perhaps bear less guilt for bringing about climate change, Egypt is nonetheless among those countries that, despite contributing very little to the problem, are the most vulnerable to its impending consequences. Even under the best-case scenarios predicted by climate science (in which global temperatures rise by only about 1.5 degrees by the end of this century), Egypt is facing a rise in sea level of about 1 – 1.25 meters, which would inundate most of Alexandria, Port Said and the parts of the Nile Delta closest to the Mediterranean shore. This would lead to the displacement of millions of people, cause the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and lead to massive losses in the tourism sector. This is in addition to increased drought, water shortages and salinization of the Nile and ground water in the Delta, the impacts of which are already starting to be felt by Egyptian farmers today. This would, in turn, lead to losses in crop yields and massive food security problems. The total estimated economic loss for Egypt from a 1.25 meter rise in sea level is upward of $4 billion. This estimate does not even take into consideration the impacts on Red Sea tourism, which are more difficult to predict and simulate. A rise in the incidence of coral disease and coral bleaching events over the next 50 years due to warmer waters could decimate Red Sea coral reefs, rendering them no longer attractive to tourists, which could lead to the further loss of millions of dollars of annual revenue and of thousands of jobs.

Ahead of the Paris Agreement of 2016, Egypt submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which is a statement of the country’s objectives and plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The statement outlines in broad terms the Egyptian government’s plans for every impacted sector, including agriculture and water, coastal zones, tourism, health and national heritage. For example, under adaptation strategies for managing water resources in the face of impending shortages, the statement lists actions such as, “maintaining water level in Lake Nasser,” “increasing water storage capacity,” “improving irrigation and draining systems,” “desalination,” “rain water harvest” and others. For coastal zones, the statement points out that adaptive actions will be “highly site-dependent” and that there will be “proactive planning for protecting coastal zones,” which will include providing job opportunities in “safe areas” for displaced residents.  

The policies mentioned in the statement include efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors, collaborating with European countries to transfer technologies for increasing energy-use efficiency, raising public awareness, supporting sustainable development and progressively increasing the use of renewable energy sources. The planned establishment of the Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant in collaboration with Russia (although not specifically mentioned in the INDC) is among these projects intended to help transition Egypt away from fossil fuels. According to the INDC, it is estimated that mitigation and adaptation strategies will cost Egypt around $73 billion between 2020 and 2030. However, it is not clear how this estimate was made.

Apart from ratifying the Paris Agreement and putting forth its objectives, Egypt also plays an active, leading role on the regional political stage regarding climate change and environmental issues, frequently leading and coordinating summits and regional meetings with other African countries. In 2017, Egypt led the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), where it coordinated discussions of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Although active political involvement and official public documents give the impression that the Egyptian government highly prioritizes climate change issues and is committed to international agreements, the official documents that are available to the public are mostly qualitative and very broad in nature, as evident in the aforementioned examples quoted from the INDC. Even the annual State of Environment reports produced by the Ministry of Environment hardly provide any detail. This makes it rather difficult for a reader or concerned citizen to assess or question whether the planned actions are adequate. As I read these documents, I find myself asking: How exactly will Alexandrian shores be protected from sea level rise? Will a sea wall be built? Will some kind of pumping and drainage system be established? How confident are we that the chosen solutions will be effective in the short and long term? How will they be financed? How will compliance with various emissions policies be ensured? Answers to such questions and many more are not available, as far as my research has revealed, for any part of the government’s adaptation plan, nor are these questions being raised by the media or brought to the attention of the public.

In addition to this lack of clarity on strategies and policies, certain decisions made by the Egyptian government, which superficially appear to be highly proactive in facing Egypt’s current and future challenges, contain details that make little sense in light of climate change impacts. I discuss one such action in a previous article about some of Egypt’s food security projects, in which I question how the massive new fish farm in Berket Ghalioun is going to survive sea level rise. Is there a plan in place to ensure the safety and sustainability of this enormous and expensive project? The answer remains unclear.

Egypt’s official documents also regularly mention plans for “raising public awareness” of climate change. State of Environment reports dating as far back as 2004 (the oldest report available online) always claim to prioritize raising public awareness in order to prepare the Egyptian population for climate change adaptation by enhancing education and launching awareness campaigns. However, little, if anything, is known of such efforts. As a university instructor teaching an introductory course on climate change, I continue to admit into my classroom students who have managed to reach university education without having learned anything about climate change and its impacts on Egypt, and I continue to observe that the discourse on climate change is limited almost exclusively to academic circles.

I find myself once again bemused by the lack of transparency and by the absence of climate change as a live topic in our day-to-day existence, and I wonder what the reasons for this silence could be. Could it be related to the fact that climate change will impact the poorest and most vulnerable Egyptians long before it impacts the rich and privileged? Why does the Egyptian government seem to be working on adaptation strategies on its own and “behind the scenes,” rather than openly involving, and thus empowering, those who will be directly affected? And why are we not demanding to know more? At this point, I still have more questions than answers.

Maha T. Khalil 

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