Combating Desertification in Egypt

Egypt is the third most populous country in Africa, the most populous one in the Middle East, and the 30th largest country in the world. The majority of its 80 some million people live on or near the banks of River Nile. Only 5.5% of the total land area is actually populated, the other 94.5% being uninhabitable desert. The coastal zone of Egypt extends more than 3,000 km and is home to more than 40% of the population. Most of the people live in and around a number of very important and highly populated industrial and commercial cities: Alexandria, Port Said, Damietta, Rosetta and Suez. The coastal zone of Egypt suffers from a number of serious problems, including a high rate of population growth, land subsidence, excessive erosion rates, water logging, salt water intrusion, soil salinization, ecosystem pollution and degradation, and lack of appropriate institutional management systems.

Egypt is potentially one of the countries most at risk from the effects of climate change. Its only source of fresh water, the River Nile, provides more than 95% of all water available to the country. Over 60 million of the people are associated with the agricultural sector which constitutes 20% of GNP and consumes about 80% of the water budget. Due to the concentration of much of Egypt’s infrastructure and development along the coastal lands and the reliance on the Nile Delta for prime agricultural land, coastal inundation or saline intrusion caused by anthropogenic climate change induced sea level rise will have a direct and critical impact on Egypt’s entire economy.

Land degradation is a risk to the already limited cultivated land. The complex ecosystem of the Nile, which has nurtured civilization for millennia, has already been deeply affected in the last 60 years by the construction of High Dam in the southern city of Aswan. The massive project managed to regulate the often devastating effect of the Nile’s yearly floods, but it also deprived lands of crucial nutrients and minerals. Only 4% of Egypt is arable, most of it along the floodplain of the Nile but two important zones exist: the area east of Nile Delta and the El Fayum Depression. In the eastern part of Nile Delta arable land degradation threatens the ongoing agricultural activities and prohibits further reclamation expansion. The fertile Nile Delta which provides around a third of the crops for the population and for export, is being turned into a salty wasteland by rising seawaters, forcing some farmers off their land and others to import sand in a desperate bid to turn back the tide. Land degradation puts cultivated land in the Depression at risk. Most of the lacustrine and alluvial-lacustrine soils are actually degraded by salinization, solidification and waterlogging. Research shows that severe risk to chemical and physical degradation affect 54.2% and 29.2% of the Depression respectively. Negative human impact affects 26.3% of the area and mostly in the alluvial plain. Great efforts related to land management are required to achieve agricultural sustainability.

Egypt’s Mediterranean Coast is very vulnerable to the impact of sea level rise (SLR). A 0.3m SLR would be sufficient to increase flood frequency from the present estimate of one in ten year flood to ten times a year. With SLR expecting to exceed 0.5m over this century, there will be devastating impact on Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt, with an economic loss estimated at over USD 35 billion including loss of 35% of total area and 195,000 jobs, and relocation of more than 2 million people. An integrated assessment of possible impact of SLR requires accurate and up to date information on elevation, land use and socio-economic characteristics; a comprehensive quantitative, high resolution analysis and assessment has not yet been finalized.

Global warming is expected to affect Egypt in many ways. In particular, water resources, agricultural resources and coastal zones are expected to be adversely affected. Some details of impacts are as follow.

  1. Water Resources – while a detailed quantitative assessment of the impacts of climate change on water resources in Egypt has yet to be produced, several predictive models have indicated the need for serious action. Impact on water supply are likely to arise from possible change in precipitation pattern over the Ethiopian hills (which accounts for 85% of water flow into the River Nile) and equatorial lakes (accounts for the other 15% of water flow) caused by uncertain effects such as the variation of the general cycle of wind and the increased frequencies of droughts and their intensities. A combination of salt water intrusion due to SLR and increased soil salinity due to increased evaporation are expected to reduce the quality of shallow groundwater supplies in the coastal areas, affecting both sown crops and other vegetation as well as those people who rely on groundwater for their business or for daily living.
  2. Agricultural and Food Resources – Intensive multiple cropping and high occupation rates are normal agricultural practices in Egypt. More than 6 million ha of crops are cultivated on 3 million ha of land. Soil depletion is expected under such heavy land use unless sustainability measures are provided. Marginal agriculture and marginal farming are the most vulnerable, both to short term variation in local weather conditions and long term variation of climate. Rise in temperature increase will reduce crop yield, negatively affect marginal land and force farmers to abandon marginal lands; and shortage of water resources will also force farmers to abandon marginal land which will accelerate land degradation.
  3. Socio-economic Impact on Coastal Settlement – Inundation and salt water      intrusion will compel a significant proportion of coastal zone population to abandon their land and homes. Changes in ecological system of lakes will reduce fish catches, driving away a large portion of fishermen and their dependents. Rise in temperature lead to increase in soil erosion and dust. Increased dust has direct adverse impacts on health, installations and equipment, and reduces the number of tourists. Increased wind speed encourages sand dune movements and threatens coastal infrastructure.

While the techniques and methodologies for vulnerability assessment of Egypt’s coastal zones are reasonably well identified and a quantitative pilot study has been carried out for one or more of the vulnerable areas, current data on land use and elevation are needed before reaching a final assessment of the potential impacts of climate change on the coastal zones of Egypt. A program based on a strategic policy for coastal protection and adaptation must be advanced and implemented. UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, Coastal Research Institute, The Egyptian Shore Protection Authority has initiated a project aimed at strengthening Egypt’s capacity to mitigate the impending problem of SLR, sea water incursion and other factors and adapt to the changing situation.
Egypt’s National Environmental Action Plan (NEAP) represents Egypt’s agenda for environmental actions between years 2002-2017. It complements and integrates with sectoral plans for economic growth and social development and is the basis for the development of local environmental initiatives, actions and activities. The NEAP includes programs and projects that addressed many environmental issues such as climate change and desertification. Each program consists of three major components: information and monitoring, preventive and/or corrective measures, and supportive measures. Egypt is taking the issue of climate change seriously and seeks the help and support of the international community to mitigate the impact of climate change. Egypt implemented two major projects in the field of climate change during 1995-1999. At the end of these projects in 1999, Egypt established a Climate Change Unit at EEAA (Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency) as the institutional focal point for climate change.

On the desertification front, Egypt’s general priorities are on issues relating to, amongst others:

  • degradation of irrigated farmland as a result of using low quality water in irrigation
  • degradation of rain-fed farmland, for insufficient water harvesting and water spreading processes
  • degradation of rangeland through overgrazing, degradation of plant cover
  • encroachment of sand formations, especially from the Western desert on the Nile Valley land and on High Aswan Dam reservoir
  • formulation of meaningful options that ensure that the introduction of irrigation into the sea does not threaten the sustainable use of the marginal land or the livelihoods of the present local population  

The first commitment of the countries that ratified UNFCCC, UNCCD and CBD is the preparation of National Action Plan (NAP) to mitigate and adapt climate change, combat desertification and to preserve biodiversity. The priorities considered in the NAPs are from identified cross-cutting capacity in the prioritization phase of the NCSA project. These identified common priorities and actions are: development of national plans; programs and institutional capabilities; improvement of legislation (both formulation and enforcement); enhancement of technology transfer and cooperation; improvement of monitoring and evaluation systems; increase of public involvement and awareness of the issue; provision of training for people in the sector. Other items in Egypt’s NAP in the three areas are:

  • Climate Change – In the climate change NAP, it addresses international cooperation as an important issue that is essential for implementing most of the actions introduced in the climate change plan.
  • Desertification – In the desertification NAP, it is stated that there should be measurements for the types and degrees of desertification and the rate of its extension in the four ecological zones in Egypt should be monitored. In order to provide the decision makers with relevant analyses of the desertification process, it is also stressed that it is important for Egypt to obtain technical assistance from concerned regional and international institutions as well as from other developed countries and donors and to adopt innovative technology to halt the desertification processes.
  • Biodiversity – In the NEAP, one of the goals of biodiversity conservations is developing Egyptian scientific and technological capabilities in the fields of conservation. In the biodiversity NAP, it is stated that the Nature Conservation Authority should use internationally recognized best practices to achieve the standards of excellence expected by the Convention on Biodiversity.

In Egypt, as in many developing countries, there is a gap between most written action plans and their implementation on the ground. In order to ensure that the National Conservation Strategy and Action Plan is implemented, several simple, practical and clear measures or principles need to be proposed and agreed upon which include: national ownership of and leadership in the efforts plus a high degree of national political commitment; multiple stakeholders involvement in national decision making and shared responsibility in implementation to maximize impact and create synergies; realistic capacity building efforts that recognize and build on existing strengths, knowledge and experience; flexible methods used for capacity building that can range from traditional methods to those that offer greater scope both methodologically and institutionally and better inter-agency coordination.


Combating Desertification in Asia, Africa and the Middle East – Proven practices, G. Ali Heshmati, Victor R. Squires (editors), Springer Netherlands, 2013, ISBN 978-94-007-6651-8, 476 pp.