It was a few weeks ago when I decided to grab a long weekend trip to Alexandria, to relish its exquisite autumn breeze and indulge in its unique cosmopolitan aura. The strong smell of iodine that characterises the Mediterranean was thick in the air, conjuring up childhood memories of the good old days.
But those recollections did not include the now many cement blocks aligning the shores that seemed to gaze from afar, standing in solemnity, as if in preparation for shielding any looming danger coming from the high seas. The large blocks, I was told, were typically built to protect the beaches against rising waves.
But is that the whole story?
The question kept ringing a bell all along my trip on a two-storey bus to the Qaitbay Citadel that treated me to a panoramic view of the azure Mediterranean from atop. Touring the ancient fortress I peeped through one of its ancient small windows to have a look at the sea stretching into the horizon. The window was historically designed to spot any looming danger of occupying forces lurking by the sea but, again, I wondered if yet another different menace is right around the corner.
Is the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, where more than five million people live, facing a climate change crisis in the near future?
Many environmental experts in Egypt and abroad would answer in the affirmative. Like many other coastal cities and sand beaches around the world, Alexandria is at risk of sinking.
Or at least that was the red flag raised last year during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, when then British prime minister Boris Johnson put it flatly that Alexandria ‘is four degrees away from being the “long lost city of”, then provoking public anxiety and a heated debate among experts and officials alike in Egypt.
“When the temperature rises only four degrees, we will say goodbye to entire cities, which are Miami, Alexandria and Shanghai. They will all sink underwater,” Johnson warned.
Experts at the conference predicted two scenarios for climate disasters. Firstly, the erosion of beaches, which has already started (and measures have been taken to deal with it). Secondly is the more controversial risk of sinking under the sea. Such speculation, albeit not new, reignited controversy about previous studies with similar findings. Officials, for their part, were all over the place telling the Egyptian press that Egypt has been taking serious measures, many of which are already on the ground, to avert all possible scenarios and protect coastal areas.
A GLOBAL PERIL
Johnson’s statements were definitely not new. Previous studies have recurrently warned that many sand beaches and coastal cities are due to gradually sink underwater over the years. Environmentalists worldwide have been reiterating their concerns that rising global temperatures would cause ice sheets and glaciers on the North and South Poles to melt at an increasing rate, resulting in a hazardous sea level rise. Moreover, increased greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere would also ultimately result in the corrosion of many beaches worldwide due to climate change.
A 2020 study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (ECJR), which was published in the Nature climate change journal, for instance, had warned that climate change puts half of the world’s beaches at risk of erosion by the end of the century. The study expects that erosion would destroy 36,097 km (13.6 per cent) of sandy coast around the world, including those of Egypt, within 30 years. That is not the end of the story, though. Researchers at the commission speculate that the second half of the century will see the erosion of another 9.561 km of coastlines. The study based its calculations on the ration of greenhouse gases emitted in the atmosphere worldwide.
The United Nations, for its part, has reiterated warnings that the world is heading towards “3C of global warming. This will ultimately redraw the map of the world,” wrote The Guardian in a 2017 article ‘The three-degree world: cities that will be drowned by global warming’.
“Scientists at the non-profit organisation Climate Central estimate that 275 million people worldwide live in areas that will eventually be flooded at 3C of global warming,” wrote The Guardian.
Asian cities will be the worst affected, including Osaka in Japan, followed by Alexandria in Egypt. According to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global scientific group dedicated to climate change, Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, China’s Shanghai, and Miami in the US are all expected to follow suit.
Alexandria has been ranked third on the list of lands most at risk of submersion. Even in the best case scenario of a 0.5 sea-level rise, the IPCC insists on painting a bleaker picture, warning that Alexandria’s beaches and many parts of the Nile Delta will disappear under water, displacing millions and destroying the fields that provide most of the food on Egyptians’ tables, unless protective measures are immediately implemented. A 3C world would then be even more catastrophic, changing the whole map.
Those red flags have been flying high for many years with many reports warning that the most densely populated Nile Delta and the iconic city of Alexandria are the third most vulnerable on earth to rising sea levels.
The Arab world’s countries seem to be all facing a high risk, not just Egypt. Back in 2009, an Egyptian study titled Sea Level Rise on the Low Land Area south East of Alexandria, Egypt, concluded that “most of the Arab countries, if not all, are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise not only through direct inundation but also due to salt water intrusion… and its potential impact on groundwater resources and soil salinisation.” The study lamented that, despite the danger, “none has established a strong institutional capability for adaptation with particular emphasis on monitoring capabilities.”
The impact is reflected on land productivity, income and health conditions of the population, the study warned. “Implications of increasing severity and frequency of extreme events will also be reflected in higher risk of droughts, water scarcity, flash floods, increasing mortality and economic losses,” it added.
Egypt’s Delta is home to about 10,000 square miles of farmland providing around 60 per cent of the nation’s food and accommodating almost two-thirds of the country’s population. The fact that an estimated 270 kilometres of that farmland could be lost to floods for being at a dangerously low level is literally a time bomb awaiting the country’s food safety.
Meanwhile, as the study puts it, “beaches on the Mediterranean coast in Tunisia, western Libya, Alexandria, Gamasa and Port Said may also suffer direct inundation due to sea level rise. Direct inundation will have serious implications on the coastal shape, resources and tourism.”
Biodiversity would receive a serious blow since global warming is likely to affect coral reefs of the Red Sea as well as lead to “the loss of biodiversity of medical plants, marine life and on land fauna and flora in coastal zones,” according to the study.
The extreme scenario expected that a “14m rise that would result from the disappearance of Greenland and western Antarctica would leave the Mediterranean lapping at the northern suburbs of Cairo, with practically all of the Delta underwater,” according to The Guardian.
AN ANCIENT CITY UNDERWATER
The scenario of a possibly disappearing coastline is definitely not totally unfounded. As I walked outside the ancient citadel, I gazed at lashing waves of the coastline and pondered. After all, there is already an ancient city that once hosted a similarly bustling life lurking underwater right where we stand now.
An ancient Greek city that lasted 80 years during the Pharaoh Ptolemy II, reportedly featuring luxurious palaces, temples, recreational areas, squares and courtyards decorated with fountains, statues and other amenities, has been excavated from under the water in the eastern shore of Alexandria.
Local and foreign excavations conducted over the past decades concluded that coastal erosion due to rising sea level led to the disappearance of many of the ancient city’s landmarks underwater. There is almost a consensus among archaeologists that the first sinking of the coastline was in the sixth century CE, when the city had many structures still standing. Some structures in the eastern port reportedly sank as a result and experts believe they continued to sink over a period between the seventh and 10th centuries CE, as water levels rose over the past two millennia.
“In 1961, while diving in the Qaitbay area, Egyptian diver Kamel Abul-Sadat found a group of stone blocks, statues, columns and clay pots underwater,” wrote Al-Ahram Weekly in an article titled ‘Tales of sunken cities’. “He plotted their coordinates and excavated a large statute, eight metres tall and 21 tons, of Queen Arsinoe II, the wife of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, in the form of the goddess Isis, the Protector of the Seas.” This invited so many excavations in the area that still last to date, unearthing a major treasure of sunken heritage.
Fishermen at the Max fishing port near the Qaitbay Citadel are aware of that sunken heritage, but no one seemed worried about the same scenario of sinking to recur, at least in the near future.
Haj Mohamed, who likes to be nicknamed Rayyes Houda, is a veteran fisherman in his 70s who has spent a whole life in the fishing business.
“My grandfathers were all fishermen and we know the sea more than anyone else,” Houda told the Weekly. “It is true that parts of Alexandria and Rashid in the Nile Delta were submerged due to rising levels, but from what we see now, there is no comeback of this scenario.”
The sun, and of course age, have left their unfriendly marks on Houda’s face, but despite the fact that he is left with only one fishing boat that his sons work on now, the old fisherman remains optimistic. He would immediately ditch all talk by experts of rising sea levels and the perils of submersion as no more than “media fuss”.
“I’ve been in the business for 70 years and there is no such thing as rising sea levels,” he insisted. “The sea is not any higher than before and the government has been taking measures to protect areas overlooking the shores by erecting huge stone blocks along seashores. The emissions that are said to cause global warming are washed away in the rains. I’m sure nature will take care of it and God has been protecting Egypt throughout history.”
Another fisherman nicknamed Al-Yabani nodded in approval. “We have not experienced any significant rise in the sea so far; the waves were within their normal height,” Al-Yabani told the Weekly. “It is, perhaps, the ecosystem that has been affected by climate change. We’ve noticed that fish have decreased in particular times of the year and some species have significantly decreased in number.”
Far at the other side of the northern coast, on the Delta agricultural lands, most farmers cannot care less about issues of global warming either. “Most farmers are more concerned about their daily livelihood and making ends meet to feed their children,” said one owner of farmland in a small village in the Delta. But isn’t the loss of farmland to floods also a time bomb to people’s livelihood and food security? “Yes,” he conceded, arguing, however, that “there is nothing in our hands to do anyway.
“It is in the hands of the government to take precautionary measures, not us,” he said. “No one would think of leaving his land at the moment. We all just leave it in the hands of God to protect us and our lands.”
EGYPT’S TAKE ON THE ISSUE
Officials, however, seem to be trying to take matters into their own hands. Egypt’s experts and officials alike are aware of climate change hazards and say they have been preparing for such scenarios.
Egyptian scientists and officials alike have been long talking to the Egyptian media, warning that a one-metre rise in the sea level which global estimates expect to happen within a century, will ultimately cause a 20 per cent loss of the Delta lands to the sea, in addition to the fact that Alexandria’s low-level sea shores will submerge underwater.
Abdel-Samih Samaan, a professor of environmental education at Ain Shams University and head of the Geographic and Environmental Committee at the Supreme Council of Culture, says that all recent environmental disasters, including draughts, torrential rains and famines, are attributed to global warming.
“Although Egypt, and Africa in general, are the least contributors to global warming, they are the most negatively affected because they are already suffering from desertification and water scarcity,” Samaan elaborated. “Carbon dioxide emissions have significantly increased recently and if they continue to rise at such high rates, the whole world will suffer, including Egypt.”
Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati told the press, however, that Egypt is forging ahead with prior plans to avert such dangers.
“The country is currently carrying out a major rehabilitation drive along 50 kilometres of shores across the country,” Abdel-Ati told a 2021 fourth edition of Cairo Water Week (CWW) which discussed the Adaptation Project designed to combat climate change and its impact on Egypt’s coastline and Delta. “A series of replenishment works along 210 kilometres of the North Coast have already concluded,” he added
Abdel-Ati conceded that “one-third of the Nile Delta may go down due to an increase in the water level of the Mediterranean Sea as a result of global warming.” He said, however, that the government is adopting measures to safeguard citizens living in vulnerable areas. Such measures are essential, he pointed out, since “the rise in sea levels places the Nile Delta at risk of being lost to the sea or losing its fertility due to the interference of saline water, affecting the quality of groundwater and possibly leading to the displacement of millions of Egyptians residing in the north of the Delta.
“The projects aim to safeguard citizens residing in these areas and protect existing investments at industrial, agricultural and tourist zones,” the minister explained.
Abdel-Ati also revealed that the Green Climate Fund granted Egypt $32 billion to combat the repercussions of climate change, “however, this amount of money is not enough to resolve the issue, but is substantial, nonetheless.”
The Green Climate Fund was established in 2010 within the framework of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Treaty to combat the consequences of climate change. The fund supports projects, programmes, policies and other activities in developing countries to meet the challenges of global warming.
“The project depended on studying the development of the North Coast as well as ways to protect valleys in the area prone to drowning,” Abdel-Ati said.
Official and experts’ statements aside, we decided to have our last dinner at the iconic Greek restaurant of Delices, a 1922 landmark of the Alexandrian city centre, Mahattet Al-Raml, which still features a number of Greek, Armenian and Italian cafes as well as the old tram that all bespeak a heritage of past splendour. The smell of their special fresh pastry hardly distracted me from a soul-searching question: Would, in the worst case scenario, those features ever be part of a history book describing a ‘once-upon-a-time’ city?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly