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Sinking cities: How climate change is ravaging the Middle East

Population centres are under threat from rising sea levels - none more so than the ancient Egyptian port of Alexandria
Waves breaking against the hull of a ship off Alexandria during a storm in January 2018 (AFP)

There’s water in the basement. The doors and windows of the apartment no longer shut properly. For many months of the year the road outside the tower block in the Abu Qir neighbourhood of Alexandria is covered in a thick brown sludge.

Egypt’s second city, with a population of more than five million, is sinking.

The sprawling coastal metropolis, renowned as one of the world’s most ancient and venerable ports, is under attack from both the sea and from the land.

The coastal foundations on which Alexandria is built are being eaten away

Climate change is causing sea levels in the Mediterranean to rise. Declining levels of silt build-up in the Nile Delta mean the coastal foundations on which Alexandria is built are being eaten away.

“What’s going on in Alexandria is crazy - a tragedy,” says a native of the city, now resident in UK, who didn’t want to be named for fear of endangering his family in Egypt.

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“The developers and planners are corrupt and the government doesn’t care. In Abu Qir and in other parts of the city along the coast, tower blocks are still going up right on the water’s edge, even though the law says they have to be built further inland. Buildings - and the people who live in them - are in great danger.”

Rising heat, rising seas

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has delivered its latest report on climate change on Monday - and it makes for grim reading.

Many low lying countries and communities fear they will disappear under the sea unless there is urgent action to prevent further temperature increases.

Ever since its foundation in the 4th century BC, Alexandria has battled against the sea. Its famous lighthouse, together with its temples and ancient library, were washed out to sea hundreds of years ago.

But the struggle against the waves continues.

In late 2015 at least seven people died as a combination of storm surges at sea and torrential rain resulted in the worst flooding to hit the city in years, with many streets and houses submerged for days. Faced with growing public anger, security chiefs sought to blame the banned Muslim Brotherhood for, they said, sealing manholes shut.

There was more bad flooding in 2017 and then again earlier this year, causing millions of dollars worth of lost revenue in what is one of Egypt’s main industrial hubs and tourist destinations.

The green banks of the Nile thread their way through Egypt's dry lands (NASA)

Seawater and flooding destabilises the soil and the foundations of buildings and infrastructure. Building subsidence and collapse is a regular occurrence.

Often buildings are constructed shoddily and with little regard for soil conditions. In early 2013 at least 22 people were killed when an eight-storey building collapsed in one of Alexandria’s poorer neighbourhoods.

Earlier this year, three people died and many were injured in a similar occurrence.

Gigantic chunks of polar ice crashing into the sea and melting might grab the headlines, but precisely how and when this will affect sea levels around the world – and the fate of the hundreds of millions who live in the world’s coastal cities – is still unclear.

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The relentless global rise in temperatures is another cause for concern. Increases in temperature have a profound impact at sea. When seawater warms it expands. The warming also causes more frequent and intense storms.

In a low-lying city such as Alexandria, even the most miniscule rise in sea level can have a severe impact.

This year is likely to be the fourth hottest on record; only in three other years – all since 2000 – have global temperatures exceeded those of 2018.

During the summer of 2018, temperature records were smashed in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Thermometer readings in parts of Algeria during late July surpassed 51C at one stage, an all-time high for the continent of Africa.

Stanley Beach in Alexandria in 2015: the ongoing battle between sea and land (AFP)

Mohamed Shaltout of the Department of Oceanography at the University of Alexandria says that present projections indicate a rise in sea levels along the coast around Alexandria of anywhere between 4cm and 22cm by the turn of the century.

“Even a 10cm rise will dramatically damage the north side of the Nile Delta region,” says Shaltout in a report produced along with other academics.

“These include large lakes, tourist resorts, historical sites, fertile agricultural land and four populous cites: Alexandria, Rosetta, Borolus and Port Said.”

Evidence of the sea’s growing power are not hard to find. Esplanades and beaches where Alexandria’s elite once walked and swam have been washed away. Old shorefront villas have crumbled. Poorer neighbourhoods near the shore are regularly swamped by sea water.

The Alexandria lowlands – on which the city of Alexandria originally developed – are vulnerable to inundation, waterlogging, increased flooding and salinization under accelerated sea level rise


The flow of water and silt of the Nile into the delta that surrounds Alexandria has markedly decreased during the years, following the construction of the Aswan dam and other water diversion projects.

Less build-up of silt has not only led to the delta, once one of the most productive agricultural areas on earth, becoming less fertile. It also means the land around Alexandria is being gradually eroded.

Water flows down the Nile are becoming increasingly unpredictable when there’s a lack of fresh water. Salty sea water can force its way into underground supplies of drinking water. Excess pumping from the aquifer below Alexandria has resulted in further seawater intrusion.

“The Alexandria lowlands – on which the city of Alexandria originally developed – are vulnerable to inundation, waterlogging, increased flooding and salinization under accelerated sea level rise,” says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with monitoring the impact of global warming.

The IPCC says the human and economic costs of such events will be considerable: it calculates that if sea levels rise by half a metre in the area in and around the city, then losses across agricultural output, tourism and industry would amount to more than $30 billion.

Egypt in top 10 list

Alexandria is not alone in facing problems of sea level rise and salt inundation. Jakarta in Indonesia – a country with the world’s largest Muslim population – has the unenviable distinction of being the fastest sinking city on the planet.

Home to 10 million people, scientists say the Indonesian capital could be entirely submerged by mid-century.

And fast-expanding cities such as Dubai - not so long ago a fishing village and now home to a dizzying array of some of the tallest buildings on Earth – are concerned about rising seas and ambitious development projects being reclaimed by the sea.

Flood waters deluge Dubai and strand vehicles in March 2016 (Reuters)

The Gulf states are particularly worried about the impact of increased storm activity because of warming seas.

In Beirut, where the population has swollen to more than two million in recent years, excess pumping of groundwater has led to seawater forcing its way into aquifers below the city.

In Basra, in southern Iraq, a combination of dwindling water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, plus seawater inundation from the Gulf have rendered the city’s water supplies undrinkable and laid waste to thousands of acres of farmland. Several people have been killed in recent months, as police opened fire on crowds protesting about government incompetence.

Scientists say coastal cities have to prepare and adapt to rising sea levels. Professor Mohammad al-Raey of the University of Alexandria has been studying the impacts of sea level rise and salt water intrusion for decades.

He says Egypt is considered to be among the 10 countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change but is listed as one of the least active when it comes to taking adaptation measures.

“There’s a very real threat from the sea yet nobody’s actually carrying out the work,” al-Raey said in 2016.

An man collects dead fish from a fish farm north of Basra in August 2018 (AFP)

Critics say the present Egyptian government, led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, shows few signs of being willing to tackle an issue which will impact on the lives of millions. Instead it’s intent on spending billions on another mega-project - a second Suez canal.

Inhabitants of Alexandria have long felt that Cairo has neglected their problems. The actions of the Sisi government in Alexandria seem to have been limited to clearing what it describes as squatter and slum areas near the sea such as El Max – a fishing community once known as Alexandria’s “Little Venice”.

Gebru Jember Endalew, an Ethiopian meteorologist and a leading figure in the IPCC, is one of those who is worried: “Every moment we delay, climate change impacts are intensifying, becoming increasingly expensive and creating more loss and damage," he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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