By Michael Mortimer

The megacity of Cairo presents mostly in mottled shades of brown, tan, and beige. A coating of desert seems to paint every surface and object. Color, where it can be found, is closely linked to the Nile River. Like it has for millennia, the Nile is the source of color, sustenance, and ultimately, civilization in the region. Without the Nile, Egypt’s barren deserts would extend unbroken across the entire length and breadth of the country. With it, life flourishes in a slender green ribbon clinging to an even more slender blue ribbon running from South to North the length of the country.

The environmental security challenges along the Nile are not new. The Nile and its precious water have always been fundamental to the environmental security of the people living along its banks, and to the ancient empires fueled by the agriculture and commerce it enables. About 4,000 years ago, changes in climate and the accompanying droughts may have accelerated the demise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom—the pyramid builders. 1,000 years later, another such event may have accelerated the decline of the New Kingdom and the end of the glamorous 20th Dynasty—permanently ending thousands of years of Egyptian dominance. Unsurprisingly, lack of water and the ensuing conflicts have served as empire-ending events for as long as we’ve had empires.

Floating water pumping station on the Nile River, near Aswan; Photo credit: @Michael Mortimer
Floating water pumping station on the Nile River, near Aswan; Photo credit: @Michael Mortimer

Today’s Egypt faces variations on the theme. Though the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 tamed the Nile River while providing copious irrigation water and electric power, much has changed in the intervening decades. 

Much of the country is facing stresses on available groundwater as communities pump more to float massive urban expansions into the desert. Cairo’s New Administrative Capital City, under construction more than twenty-eight miles from the Nile and the future home to more than six million people, is literally smack dab in the middle of the desert. These desert reclamation projects are largely dependent upon scores of wells relentlessly sucking from the unrenewable subsurface aquifers. Egypt is among the fifteen nations that already withdraw more than 100 percent of their renewable fresh water, making it among the most water stressed places in the world.

Likewise, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, located upstream of Egypt in Ethiopia, nears completion. It may deplete Nile flows in Egypt to such an extent as to reduce available arable land by nearly twenty percent, equating to the loss of millions of acres of agricultural land.  Because nearly all of Egypt’s agricultural land is irrigated, even slight declines in Nile flows can have catastrophic effects. This in a country that already cannot grow enough food to feed its rapidly growing population and that must import virtual water in the form of food staples such as grains and oils. The potential to displace thousands of workers from agricultural employment may contribute to societal unrest in a country where that sort of unrest has contributed to two revolutions in less than a decade.

Finally, climate change looms. Forecasts suggest that increasingly erratic rainfall in the headwaters of the Nile may negatively affect river flows by the time the water reaches Egypt; temperatures will rise two-three degrees centigrade in an already hot, arid country; and sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration already threaten the agricultural heartland of the Nile Delta. All three impact are poised to degrade Egypt’s farming economy and its human prosperity.

Population in the area is projected to double in thirty years. Right now, there are more than 400 million persons living in the eleven countries comprising the Nile River basin. By 2050, the population of the basin will double to more than 800 million, all depending on that same slender blue ribbon. Many of those neighboring countries will face challenges similar to Egypt—increasing populations, threats to water availability, needs for ever more energy to drive development, insufficient domestic food production, and climate change impacts.  As the maxim goes, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Egypt has a history of societal collapses as old as the pyramids. Ignoring that past and the urgent needs for the future are a menacing formula for conflict and for a new round of collapse for Egypt’s human institutions.

Further reading: 
World Resources Institute 
USAID Egypt Climate Risk Project 
UN FAO Aquastat
Ibrahim, A.I.R. 2017. Impact of Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Population on Future Egypt Water Needs, 2017, American Journal of Engineering, res. 6(5): 160-171

Michael Mortimer in Egypt

Dr. Mortimer is the Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Montana and his law degree from the Pennsylvania State University. He teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy, Environmental Conflict Management, and Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural-resources journals. He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.