Egypt’s growing population is putting increased pressure on water and energy – and action needs to be taken now, writes naturalist Richard Hoath.
by Richard Hoath
As we move from a 2016 that brought great economic hardship to very many — and there are more Egyptians than ever before — there are a number of serious environmental challenges that will need to be addressed. The danger is that because of these economic woes they won’t be. It is difficult when exchange rates are soaring and the Egyptian pound buys less and less, when there are shortages of basic commodities such as sugar in the shops, when prices are going up across the board, to find an audience for issues such as wildlife protection and conservation. I will argue that such issues do need to be addressed but other ‘green’ issues are of more obvious fundamental importance, issues such as population, water, pollution, energy and climate change to name but a few.
Take population. According to countrymeters.info, the population of Egypt by the end of 2016 was close to 94,500,000 an increase of around 1,929,000 over the 2015 figure and an increase rate of an estimated 2.18%. That in itself says very little though the percentage growth has risen in recent years having been below 2% for much of the 1990s and 2000s. However it has serious implications for vital resources.
Aside from scattered water in the oases of Egypt’s deserts, the Nile is by far the country’s largest source of fresh water. And while population increases, inexorably the amount of water does not. The amount of water available per capita is getting lower and lower. This is exacerbated by the fact that Egypt is the last of the Nile Basin countries to have access to the water. All of the ten other countries have growing populations too and developing economies and their demands on the water will correspondingly increase. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is constantly under review and of course Egypt’s biggest worry is the vast Grand Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia. Talks between the two countries stalled in the summer of 2016 but keeping the dialogue going through 2017 while construction continues apace is going to be of great importance to both states.
Ethiopia is at pains to point out that the dam is being built largely to provide energy. And energy is going to be an issue for Egypt too. Much has been made of increasing the use of renewable energy sources but perhaps it is the renewing of the Al Dabaa project that is most controversial. The contract between Egypt and Russia for the construction of a nuclear power plant on the site was ratified by Egypt’s State Council in October 2016. Apart from representing a commitment by Egypt to a nuclear program, it represented a shift in the country’s “energy mix” which not only projects that nuclear fuel should provide 5 percent of Egypt’s energy needs but also coal’s share would rise to an estimated 15 percent — a source of concern for environmentalists.
Coal of course is a ‘dirty’ fuel, highly polluting and the burning of fossil fuels is a major cause of what is widely recognized as global warming. And Egypt needs to worry about global warming. While much attention has been paid to the plight of the low-lying islands of the Pacific and most famous of all the Maldives, less attention has been paid to the low lying river deltas of the world many of which are major population centers. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt where the Nile Delta is not only home to much of the 94,500,000 mentioned above, it is also Egypt most important agricultural area. Some studies estimate that a predicted 30 cm rise in sea level by the year 2025 could flood up to 200 km2 and there is already evidence of farmers being forced off their land as the soil turns saline. Perhaps 2017 could be the year when this whole issue is taken more seriously.
It needs to be. Global warming by its very name is a global issue. Back in Washington president — elect Donald Trump has vowed to “cancel” the Paris Climate Agreement in his first 100 days in office. He has described climate change as “fictional” even, according to the BBC, accusing the Chinese creating it as a hoax “to make US manufacturing less competitive. If the US does renege on the Paris Climate Agreement it is going to be much more difficult for the targets set in the plan to be met. The signs are not good. The appointment of Rick Perry as his energy secretary has been criticized by environmentalists fearing a retreat from renewable energy in favor of an increase in fossil fuels. The appointment of Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Rex Tillerson as US secretary of state last month does nothing to reduce concerns. Whether Trump does carry out his threatened withdrawal (and Egyptians have every reason to be skeptical of 100 day promises!) will be interesting.
In my own field of interest, wildlife and conservation over recent years it has become more and more difficult to conduct field research and the main reason for that has been security concerns. The tools of the trade — binoculars, telescopes, long lens cameras etc. don’t help. In 2008/2009 I went on two long expeditions down to the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat. Trouble across the border in Libya have made such trips nigh on impossible today. I can remember going up to North Sinai every October for the fall migration at Lake Bardawil. Now North Sinai is off the radar and my concern about that is that less research is being done and there is little information coming from the area on practices such as bird netting and hunting. Certainly the bird netting in more accessible areas continues. Conservative estimates put the annual slaughter of migratory birds in Egypt at 10,000,000. Egypt needs to clean up its act. Sharm El-Sheikh has been chosen to host the 14th Conference of Parties (COP) for the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2018. A great honor, and with great honor comes great responsibility. Egypt’s flora and fauna is its natural heritage just as important to nurture and protect in times of austerity as its treasured cultural and historical heritage.
Despite all the challenges that Egypt will face on the environmental front in the coming year, there is some reason for optimism. I was in Fayoum last month and visited Wadi El-Hitan. The Visitor’s Center and Museum were packed. The museum is a gem — informative, well-laid out, interactive and engaging and it was filled with coach loads of lively, engaged young people enjoying the whole experience. Above the Center was a campsite where those same people would overnight and get the opportunity to connect with the natural world. If this coming generation gets that opportunity, then perhaps 2017 might not be so bad after all.