Nile Delta: ‘We are going underwater. The sea will conquer our lands’

By Jack Shenker, The Guardian Friday August 21, 2009

A farmer ploughs his rice paddy in the DeltaA farmer ploughs his rice paddy in the Delta. Photograph: Jason Larkin

Maged Shamdy’s ancestors arrived on the shores of Lake Burrulus in the mid-19th century. In the dusty heat of Cairo at the time, French industrialists were rounding up forced labour squads to help build the Suez Canal, back-breaking labour from which thousands did not return. Like countless other Egyptians, the Shamdys abandoned their family home and fled north into the Nile Delta, where they could hide within the marshy swamplands that fanned out from the great river’s edge.

As the years passed, colonial rulers came and went. But the Shamdys stayed, carving out a new life as farmers and fishermen on one of the most fertile tracts of land in the world. A century and a half later, Maged is still farming his family’s fields. In between taking up the rice harvest and dredging his irrigation canals, however, he must contemplate a new threat to his family and livelihood, one that may well prove more deadly than any of Egypt‘s previous invaders. “We are going underwater,” the 34-year-old says simply. “It’s like an occupation: the rising sea will conquer our lands.”

Maged understands better than most the menace of coastal erosion, which is steadily ingesting the edge of Egypt in some places at an astonishing rate of almost 100m a year. Just a few miles from his home lies Lake Burrulus itself, where Nile flower spreads all the way out to trees on the horizon. Those trunks used to be on land; now they stand knee-deep in water.

Maged’s imperial imagery may sound overblown, but travel around Egypt’s vast, overcrowded Delta region and you hear the same terms used time and again to describe the impact climate change is having on these ancient lands. Egypt’s breadbasket is littered with the remnants of old colonisers, from the Romans to the Germans, and today its 50 million inhabitants jostle for space among the crumbling forts and cemeteries of those who sought to subjugate them in the past.

On the Delta’s eastern border, in Port Said, an empty stone plinth is all that remains of a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal; somewhere along the Delta’s westernmost reaches, the long-lost tomb of Cleopatra lies buried. With such a rich history of foreign rule, it’s only natural that the latest hostile force knocking at the gates should be couched in the language of occupation.

“Egypt is a graveyard for occupiers,” observes Ramadan el-Atr, a fruit farmer near the antiquated town of Rosetta, where authorities have contracted a Chinese company to build a huge wall of concrete blocks in the ocean to try to save any more land from melting away. “Just like the others, the sea will come and go – but we will always survive.”

Scientists aren’t so sure. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared Egypt’s Nile Delta to be among the top three areas on the planet most vulnerable to a rise in sea levels, and even the most optimistic predictions of global temperature increase will still displace millions of Egyptians from one of the most densely populated regions on earth.

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