Creating a balance for development

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 2 Nov 2021

Former environment minister Laila Iskandar explains Egypt’s commitment to integrating environmental objectives within its development plans to Dina Ezzat

Creating a balance for development

The risks that come with climate change are serious matters for Egypt. A country with a population of more than 100 million that is growing relatively fast, Egypt is short on natural resources, especially water, and such shortages may be exacerbated by climate change.

Benban solar plant

Egypt has always been almost fully dependent on its increasingly insufficient share of the Nile’s water to cover its water needs for agriculture and domestic use and for a wide range of other activities, including power generation and industry.

In addition to concerns over the possible hazardous impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, a river which grants Egypt close to 80 per cent of its share of Nile water, there are also other worries about increasing heat related to climate change. This increases evaporation and consequently reduces crops yields, as has been the case this year with mangoes and olives.

For Egypt, climate change is also about the increasing salination of agricultural land, an inevitable outcome of increased evaporation. Increasing losses of agriculture land, the possible erosion of the Delta and North Coast cities as a result of rising sea levels, and the possible loss of livestock and movement of rural communities are all also worries of what may come about as a result of climate change for Egypt.

Former environment minister Laila Iskandar is an important expert on the matter. She is also a social entrepreneur who has invested in promoting environmental awareness especially among the least economically privileged segments of society and was a minister for one year between 2014 and 2015.

For Iskandar, the issues mentioned above are ones that Egypt must bring up at the COP26 meeting that opened in Glasgow in the UK on Monday.

Zaafarana wind plant

She said it was impossible to underestimate the kind of concerns that Egypt has and that it is very important to stress the need for international support to face up to these as part of a wider commitment to working with the rest of the international community on reducing currently dangerous levels of global warming.

“Egypt has been committed to this issue, and considerable work has already been done at the national level,” Iskandar said. Despite still-limited financial support and equally limited sharing of relevant know-how, she said, “Egypt has been systematically moving on several fronts” to meet the threats of climate change.

New Cairo waste water plant

“On energy, Egypt is systematically expanding its use of renewable energy. The national objective is to get to 20 per cent of renewable energy use from the overall energy mix by 2025, and I think we are getting there,” Iskandar said.

“On agriculture, too, we have been moving quite fast, with an ambitious scheme to coat irrigation canals to reduce the level of evaporation that comes with increases of temperature levels,” she said. “In parallel, we have been taking steps to expand our use of modern methods of irrigation to maximise our efficient use of water,” she added.

While work on these fronts has been in order for well over 10 years, Iskandar noted that during the past six, and since the country signed the Paris Agreement that came out of the 2015 Paris Conference on Climate Change, Egypt has been fully invested in measures to protect its shores from rising sea levels.

“We have also been well aware of the possibly devastating impacts of increased levels of seawater leakage onto agricultural land and have been adopting measures to stop this because we cannot afford to compromise our agricultural land. Maintaining agricultural land is part of the global work to reduce global warming,” she said.

She added that Egypt’s contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions is not large, but the impact of overall global warming on Egypt is. Moreover, the country’s commitment to do as much as it can as fast as it can is very clear.


MEASURES TAKEN: Over the past five years, Egypt had doubled its measures to introduce green energy options, especially for public transport. In parallel, it has been invested in launching solar-energy plants.

“We are really working hard to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and we are also working on improving the efficiency of our energy usage,” Iskandar said.

Egypt, she added, is also as concerned about its methane emissions as it is about its emissions of carbon dioxide. Projects for better rubbish disposal and recycling are essential too. “Organic waste increases the levels of methane emissions. We have tried several options to dispose of waste, and I think we have realised that for now standard rubbish-collection and management is the best way,” she said. 

The world is moving towards green energy, and it is also moving towards more recycling. “This is what we call the circular economy, in the sense that we turn organic waste into natural fertilisers and recycle all solid waste,” Iskander explained.

Egypt, she added, has also opted for dedicated schemes to recycle and treat agricultural drainage and wastewater. The objective is two-fold: to maximise the efficient use of water and food security. Egypt is already a country suffering from water scarcity, and this complicates the challenge of managing already limited water resources in a situation where these are at risk of possible decline.

Other projects include work on preserving the Nile Delta against flooding that could damage rural communities or force them into displacement.

All these environmental targets are part of Egypt’s Vision 2030 development objectives. “I think it is fair to say that Egypt is committed to the cause of the environment, but that it also has to work on creating a balance between the economic growth that is necessary to keep up with the needs of a growing population and its honouring of its commitment to working on reducing climate change,” Iskander said.

In Glasgow, Egypt will be able to showcase the projects it has been adopting since 2015 and demand support for the implementation of more projects to meet the Paris Agreement. 

“The world has to show its collective commitment to the cause of reducing global warming, and the big economies have to step in not just with serious funding, but also with serious sharing of know-how to help small and medium-sized economies observe the objectives of global-warming reduction without over-stressing their already strained national resources,” Iskandar said.

“While working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Egypt also has to worry about expanding and improving essential services like healthcare and education. In order to be able to walk on these two parallel paths, it will certainly need assistance,” she said.

Egypt needs more investment, especially in the green economy and including in sustainable transport, sustainable tourism, green construction, and green waste management. 

“We are not in a position to allow the economy to slow down. We need to get the economy to grow, but we could make it grow in a green direction, and we can create green job opportunities,” she said.

Facing up to global warming, Iskandar said, is not only the job of government. There is room for cooperation between government and civil society, though the latter needs funding that can help it to pursue projects to help with water preservation, recycling, and the reduction of emissions.

She said there was a need for massive awareness campaigns in the media, but that essential grassroots work is something that remains for government and civil society to execute.


BUSINESS: The private sector also needs to be brought on board, not just in relation to the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and meeting recycling objectives, but also in relation to supporting a holistic vision of economic growth and environmental protection, decarbonisation included.

Iskandar insisted that in order to secure the required sector-specific policies, the investor community has to be fully on board. The COP26 meeting will bring together governments, businesses, local authorities and civil society to discuss global climate action, she added.

There are many stakeholders that need to work together, she said, adding that what will bring them together is a collective set of ambitious projects.

It would be unfair for the developed countries that carry the responsibility of close to 80 per cent of greenhouse-gas emissions to expect the low and middle-income countries to pay the price for the industrial advances that the rich countries have benefited from. The concept of “equity” in responsibility sharing is essential, Iskandar said.

It will be up to the relevant NGOs to keep an eye on the levels of commitment that all the countries of the world are showing to implement what was agreed on in Paris and what will be agreed on in Glasgow in 2021.

The world needs to work more on mitigating the effects of climate change and to introduce programmes that allow for resilience against global warming. However, Iskander said that without proper financing and technology sharing, it will not be possible for all countries to work on establishing adequate systems or to opt for resilient infrastructure or to accelerate the phasing out of fossil fuels, especially coal.

She spoke as this week’s meeting of the G20 countries ended in Rome without any preliminary agreement on financing international efforts to reduce global warming. Expectations for clearer financial commitments during the Glasgow COP26 meeting also do not seem immediately promising.

For Iskandar, this is not good news. If finance is not available, she said, the necessary measures will not be taken, and the world will have to live with increasing heat, declining species, and poorer crop yields. “This is not just about Egypt, although Egypt is a particularly vulnerable country given its limited resources and the size of its population,” she said.

Ultimately, climate change is not about any one country. However, it is in the interest of every country and in the collective interest of the world as a whole that global warming is kept under 2.7 °C if the mitigation, adaption, and resilience measures do not keep it under 2 °C as previously hoped.

Finally, in November next year, Egypt will be the first African country to host a UN summit on climate change when the COP27 meeting begins in Sharm El-Sheikh. Egypt, Iskandar said, deserves to host the COP27, given its continuous commitment to the cause of the environment.

In 1992, Egypt was at the Rio de Janeiro summit on the environment. A few years down the road, it set up its first Environment Ministry. Since then, Egypt has joined all the international agreements that have set out roadmaps to face up to climate change, including the Paris Agreement.

According to Iskandar, Egypt is a country that has been taking the issue very seriously and that has “made a lot of advances despite the limited funding it has been getting to cover the relevant projects”.

On the road from COP26 to COP27, Iskandar said, world governments would need to show a serious level of commitment to honour their responsibilities as stipulated in the Paris Agreement. 

COP 26 has been qualified as a “now or never moment”, and Iskandar understands why. “We have been seeing more farmland turning into desert, and we have been seeing more aggressive heat waves and more wildfires,” she said. The question, however, is whether the growing concern over global warming worldwide can be translated into prompt and systematic action.

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