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Egypt faces 'catastrophic' consequences

A dam and rising sea levels threaten the Nile Delta, the country's breadbasket and home to millions.

September 23, 2007|Anna Johnson | Associated Press

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — Millions of Egyptians could be forced permanently from their homes, the country's ability to feed itself devastated.

That's what probably awaits this already impoverished nation by the end of the century, if predictions about climate change hold true. The World Bank describes Egypt as particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, saying the country faces potentially "catastrophic" consequences.

"The situation is serious and requires immediate attention. Any delay would mean extra losses," said Mohamed el Raey, an environmental scientist at Alexandria University.

A big reason is the vulnerability of Egypt's breadbasket -- the Nile Delta, a fan-shaped area of rich, arable land where the Nile River spreads out and drains into the Mediterranean Sea. Although the delta is only 2.5% of Egypt's land mass, it is home to more than a third of this largely desert country's 80 million people.

The delta was already in danger, threatened by the effects of southern Egypt's Aswan High Dam. Though the dam, completed in 1970, generates much-needed electricity and controls Nile River flooding, it also prevents nutrient sediment from replenishing the eroding delta.

Add climate change to the mix, and the delta faces new uncertainties that could have a potentially more devastating effect on Egypt.

Scientists generally predict that the Mediterranean, and the world's other seas, will rise by 1 foot to 3.3 feet by the end of the century, flooding coastal areas along the delta.

Already, the Mediterranean has been rising by about .08 of an inch a year for a decade, flooding parts of Egypt's shoreline, el-Raey said.

By 2100, rising waters could wipe out the sandy beaches that attract thousands of tourists. Also at risk would be the buried treasures archaeologists are still uncovering in ancient Alexandria, once the second-most important city in the Roman Empire.

But those losses would pale next to the effect of the worst-case scenario that some scientists predict -- global warming unexpectedly and rapidly breaking up the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.

If this happens, seas could rise by about 16 feet, causing mass devastation to the region, according to a World Bank study released this year.

Richard Alley, a geosciences professor at Penn State University, said the sheets are collapsing at slow rate, but much faster than scientists had expected a decade ago. A complete collapse could take "at least centuries," said Alley, an expert on ice melt.

But even minimal sea rise in the next century would have serious consequences for Egypt, experts warn. A rise of 3.3 feet would flood a quarter of the delta, forcing about 10.5% of Egypt's population from their homes, according to the World Bank. The effect will be all the more staggering if Egypt's population doubles, as expected, to about 160 million by 2050. The delta is already densely populated, with about 4,000 people per square mile.

Also hit would be the food supply. Nearly half of Egypt's crops, including wheat, bananas and rice, are grown in the delta.

Even areas not inundated would be affected, with salt water from the Mediterranean contaminating the fresh ground water from the Nile River that is used for irrigation.

But the unique and fragile ecosystem of the delta makes the job of protecting it much greater.

For thousands of years, annual Nile floods deposited mud, sand and minerals that replenished the soil and prevented erosion. But for the last 30 years, the Aswan High Dam has curbed the sediment from resettling in the delta, leading to erosion.

"The sediment created a balance. Now the coastal processes are acting alone without sediments counteracting, and the balance has been changed," said Omran Frihy, a retired coastal researcher in Alexandria who has published several reports on the rising sea level and erosion.

In Egypt, global warming is rarely discussed. But the government in Cairo has begun to confront the problem.

In Alexandria, authorities are spending $300 million to build concrete sea walls to protect beaches along the Mediterranean, Frihy said. Sand is being dumped in some areas to .

Similar walls are going up in other areas, including Rashid, where soldiers in Napoleon's army in 1799 discovered the Rosetta Stone, which proved to be a key to unlocking the secrets of ancient Egyptian writing.

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Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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