Picture: NASA – The Nile River Delta (light green, like a long-stemmed flower). The soil of the Nile River delta between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea is so rich in nutrients that the resulting greenery on the banks of the river can be seen from space, in stark contrast to the surrounding desert sands, the writer says.
By Dominic Naidoo
I recently came across a truly insightful Reddit thread about just how old the Ancient Egyptian civilisation actually is. For example, there were ancient Egyptian archaeologists 3,000 years ago excavating artefacts which were 2,000 years old to them.
Another mind blowing fact is that Queen Cleopatra lived closer to the invention of bitcoin than to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Great Pyramid of Giza was built around 2580 BC, about 2510 years before Cleopatra was born. We are roughly 461 years closer to Cleopatra, than she was to the Great Pyramid, according to the History Collection.
The rise of ancient Egypt can be greatly attributed to the Nile River and its dependable seasonal flooding. The river’s predictability and fertile soil allowed the Egyptians to build an empire on the basis of great agricultural wealth.
Egyptians are credited as being one of the first groups of people to practise agriculture on a large scale, made possible by the ingenuity of the early farmers who developed basin irrigation, which is the irrigation of land by surrounding it with embankments to form a basin and flooding it with water.
This allowed them to grow staple food crops, especially grains such as wheat and barley, and industrial crops, such as flax and papyrus.
NatGeo (National Geographic) explains that the Nile flows from south to north through eastern Africa, beginning in the rivers that flow into Lake Victoria and emptying into the Mediterranean Sea more than 6,600 km to the north.
In addition to satiating much of Egypt’s thirst, the Nile flows through or along the borders of 10 other African countries, namely, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.
The soil of the Nile River delta between Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea is so rich in nutrients that the resulting greenery on the banks of the river can be seen from space, in stark contrast to the surrounding desert sands.
Hani Suweilam, Egypt’s water minister, speaking at the opening session of the Environment & Development Forum: The Road to Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Change COP27, said that the country relies on the Nile for 97 percent of its water needs and that the negative impacts of climate change will increase water shortages in the country.
The event was part of the country’s preparations for hosting the COP27 in the Red Sea city of Sharm El-Sheikh in November this year.
“Several countries suffer from water shortages due to increases in population, unstable water shares (the percentage of water from shared sources, like the Nile, allotted to each country) and climate impacts, which has led to a shortage of water used for drinking, agricultural and industrial purposes,” Suweilam said.
The irrigation minister urged all countries to strengthen co-operation amid extreme climate phenomena, stressing the need to place the water sector, food and agriculture on the global climate agenda.
As one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, Egypt requires 114 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water annually, but only receives an average of 60 bcm, mainly from the Nile River, according to the water ministry.
It overcomes water scarcity by importing 54 percent of its virtual water and reusing 42 percent of its renewable water. Virtual water is the embedded water required to produce commodities and measured as a percentage of the already existing water resources such as imported processed food, textiles and other water-heavy products.
Egypt’s annual share of water is 560 cubic metres per person, placing the country well below the international threshold for water scarcity, according to the cabinet’s figures.
According to the UN, a population faces water scarcity when annual water supplies drop below 1,000 cubic metres per person and “absolute scarcity” when it drops below 500 cubic metres.
A study published in the journal Earth’s Future in August 2019 suggested that nations which share the waters of the upper Nile basin, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda, are all likely to experience increased pressure for a share in Nile water, and sooner than we thought.
Researchers from Dartmouth College used climate models, population trends, and crop failures to model the next 50 years along the river. They also found that nearly all the rain that feeds the river falls on the upper Nile region; parts of the lower Nile basin, mainly Sudan and Egypt, depend heavily on the water that flows from there.
“The region is about to take a one-two punch,” the report said. “Population in the upper Nile basin is set to double between now and 2040, from its current 200 million to 400 million people. At the same time, an uptick of hotter, drier years are set to parch the system.”
The researchers wrote that, toward the end of this century, the frequency of hot and dry years may rise by “a factor of 1.5 to 3,” even if global warming is limited to a global average of 2°C.
The Middle East Policy Council said in a report that, due to increasing water scarcity in Egypt, the government was forced to reduce agricultural output to save water, which led to hundreds of farmers forced out of work.
Egypt’s agricultural sector’s employment rates plummeted from 44 percent to 27 percent from 1991 to 2019, which not only affected the livelihoods of individual families but also crippled the $28 billion agricultural sector.
The report also found that a dramatic increase in pollution of the Nile is preventing water from being physically distributed to surrounding farms and cities with current estimates indicating that pollution costs Egypt 15 bcm of water annually.
“Beyond interfering with canal pathways, pollutants also infect marine life and agricultural lands that come in contact with the Nile’s waters. Environmental experts have deemed half of the Nile’s fish as ‘unfit for human consumption’ due to water contamination,” the report said.
The Grand Ethiopian Resistance Dam, located on the southeastern Blue Nile, further complicates Egypt’s water crisis. Although this dam will provide hydroelectric power to Ethiopia, it is anticipated to disrupt the Nile’s sediment flow and obstruct the natural distribution of silt in Egypt. As a result, the decreasing amount of water that does reach the Nile delta will lack the nutrients essential for agricultural productivity.
Although the annual flooding of the Nile basin currently brings with it fertility and food security, climate change will cause extreme rainfall and subsequent flood damage which will also have serious effects on agriculture and land degradation.
The impacts of flooding include loss of human life, crops, livestock, increased risk of the transmission of diseases such as Rift Valley Fever, malaria and cholera as well as the obvious destruction of infrastructure, according to the UN Environment Programme.
Even with the odds seemingly stacked against his ministry, Suweilam said that the country “is making great efforts in improving water management, which includes rehabilitating canals in order to better deliver water to farmers”.
Additionally, the country has established large-scale water treatment plants, such as Bahr Al-Baqar plant, to be used in agriculture, a sector on which about 40 million people in Egypt depend as a main source of income. The minister added that water is a key element in agriculture and food security.
The minister underlined the necessity of expanding water desalination projects, studying ways to find less costly and more efficient ways of reusing wastewater, including by using renewable energy.
Former minister of water resources and irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati has previously highlighted the adverse effect of climate change on Egypt’s fertile Nile Delta, as the rise in sea levels makes it one of the world’s most at-risk areas for decreasing fertility due to the interference of saline water.
“This affects the quality of groundwater and could lead to the displacement of millions of Egyptians residing in the north of the delta,” Abdel-Ati said.
The United Nations Environment Programme said in a report on the river Nile that “the impact of climate change on water resources is an unprecedented threat to life, livelihoods, and life-supporting systems. Even if the most stringent mitigation measures were put in place today, these impacts would continue for many centuries to come.”
“Thus the exigency of addressing climate change in the context of immediate, mid-term and long term implementable adaptation actions remain paramount.”
Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer