Underwater Egypt

March 24, 2010

Brit Trogen

If late-night movies on the History Channel have taught me anything, Egypt is home to Cleopatra, lots of pyramids, King Tut, and of course, the Nile; a winding, sinuous lifeline set in the heart of the desert.

And while the days of Egyptian Queens on lavish floating barges have passed, the Nile still serves the less posh but vastly more important purpose of irrigating virtually all of Egypt’s farmland, before terminating at the Mediterranean Sea in the lush Nile Delta. The Delta is home to over half of Egypt’s population (roughly 80 million people), the majority of whom live in an area no bigger than Delaware. And it’s here that one of the biggest environmental crises on Earth is currently coming to a head.

The Delta—to put it plainly—is sinking.

Already 30% of its land is less than a meter above sea level, and data collected by Egypt’s National Institute of Oceanography & Fisheries indicates that coastal erosion and soil compaction are causing some regions to sink by nearly a centimeter every year. To make matters worse, the Mediterranean Sea level is expected to start rising as a result of climate change.  And if the residents of Cairo want to continue to be able to walk like Egyptians (as opposed to swim), something will have to be done to counter the trend.

So why the sudden droop? Well, it looks like the Aswan High Dam—built in 1960 as a source of electricity and flood control—has also been preventing the Nile from replenishing its sediment deposits, resulting in the land being quite literally carried out to sea. And while the Egyptian government scrambles to find a solution (one idea involves a “mega-pump” that would divert 10% of the Nile into uninhabited desert), as for the rest of the world…

Well, denial’s not just a river in Egypt.  Somehow, I doubt that even cities being swallowed into the sea will do much to turn the tide for climate change deniers, or speed us towards fast and decisive action for the planet.  But in the end, it’s only a matter of time.

(DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5972.1444)



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