Shielding agriculture from climate change

Ghada Raafat , Tuesday 10 Mar 2020

Egypt’s agricultural sector must adapt to global warming in order to maintain productivity and increase growth, reports Ghada Raafat

Shielding agriculture from climate change
photo: Reuters

For the past few years, many people in Egypt have increasingly complained of unfamiliar weather patterns, including bitterly cold winters with temperatures dropping to unprecedented lows and summers becoming longer with Gulf-like heat. 

While many often attribute these patterns to global warming and climate change, Nader Noureddin, a professor of agriculture at Cairo University, explained that climate change meant a steady change in the climate over a longer period of time, perhaps up to 20 years.

It differed from climatic fluctuations, which mean short-term changes in the climate when comparing one season to another in previous years. Nonetheless, he said, climate change had resulted in a rise in average temperature levels of between 1 degree Celsius and 1.8 degrees Celsius in many regions of the world.

According to MedECC, an independent international scientific expert network, based on global climate scenarios the Mediterranean has been classified as one of the most responsive regions to climate change. In the Mediterranean region, average annual temperatures are now 1.4 degrees Celsius higher than during the period 1880-1899, well above current global warming trends, especially during summer, MedECC says.

“As for the future projections, the 2 degrees Celsius global mean temperature [adopted by the Paris Climate Conference in 2015] target implies 3 degrees Celsius warming in hot temperature extremes in the Mediterranean region,” it said, expecting a rise in temperatures from 2 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100 in the Mediterranean during summers with high temperature events and heat waves becoming more frequent and more extreme.

Such high temperatures are already making themselves felt in the form of drought and increased evaporation from the soil and plants. Noureddin said that while the world needed to increase food production by about 60 per cent by 2050, water resources were expected to shrink by 30 per cent, leading to shortages of crops by about 10 to 20 per cent. Given these facts, the only solution would be to adopt less water-consuming crops, said Noureddin.

He warned that rising sea levels and possible flooding of the Nile Delta, inhabited by about four million people in about eight governorates of Egypt, would threaten 72 per cent of the country’s total agricultural production. In an attempt to tackle such threats the Ministry of Irrigation had placed concrete blocks in the northern areas of the Kafr Al-Sheikh, Port Said, Damietta, and Mariout regions, with the aim of preventing sea water intrusion. 

Declining food production might eventually lead to the spread of conflicts to control resources, Noureddin said, adding that it could also lead to internal migration and pressures on cities. He worried about increased migration via unsafe land routes, or the risk of drowning at sea, and stressed that the developed world must help the developing and poorer countries to overcome the effects of global warming.

He advised the government and the private sector to fund scientific research in the agricultural sector in order to come up with crop strains that could endure higher temperatures, drought, and disease, and help to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

On a similar note Ayman Abu Hadid, a former agriculture minister, said that global warming threatened Egypt’s traditional crop patterns. For example, varieties of wheat were once grown in Upper Egypt but because of higher temperatures they were now cultivated further north in the Delta, he said.

He said the Ministry of Agriculture was attempting to overcome such problems by working to develop new crop strains able to withstand higher temperatures and water scarcity. 

Abu Hadid also warned that arid and semi-arid regions in Egypt were also at risk due to expected droughts. He explained that these regions were important for the economy because they had wild and desert plants on which sheep grazed, especially in the Western and Southeastern deserts.

Abu Hadid said the government together with the private sector had for years been trying to increase agricultural land in Egypt through land reclamation. Egypt’s agricultural area had increased from six million acres to 8.5 million acres during the past 40 years due to agricultural reclamation projects, he pointed out.

The ministry of agriculture has also succeeded in raising the productivity of many crops thanks to scientific research. As a result, Egypt has the highest productivity of rice, sugar cane, and wheat in the world, Abu Hadid said, adding that Egypt’s main problem was not agriculture and farming land but rather the lack of irrigation water and drought caused by higher temperatures.

According to the former minister, Egypt’s arable land is estimated at about 16 million acres, but these huge areas of land lack adequate sources of irrigation. He said that renewable energy and seawater desalination could provide the solution, especially with their declining costs.

He also wanted to see the more intelligent cultivation of crops. For example, he said, cultivation in greenhouses could be more efficient than in open fields. Whereas one cubic metre of water produced about four kg of tomatoes, the same amount of water could produce about 50kg of tomatoes grown in greenhouses.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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