CAIRO — With its densely populated coasts and low-lying agricultural areas, Egypt is one of the most vulnerable countries to rising sea levels.
According to World Bank data, a one-meter rise in the sea level would inundate a quarter of the Nile Delta and force 10.5 million people from their homes. Rising sea waters would also leave the soil in many of Egypt's traditional agricultural areas unfit for planting, destroy critical wetland habitats, wipe out coastal industry and tourism infrastructure, and possibly intrude on fresh water aquifers.
The seas have already started rising. Ice caps and glaciers are melting, and warmer weather is driving thermal expansion (when water heats up, it takes up more space). Scientists observed that the global mean sea level rose as much as 20 centimeters during the 20th century, and that the level of increase accelerated beginning in the 1990s, reaching around 3.2 millimeters per year.
Although there is still debate among scientists about how fast and how high the world's oceans will rise, there is little doubt that the seas will get higher in the coming decades.
But will Egypt be ready? According to a panel discussion on the subject, held recently as part of the Cairo Climate Talks, the answer is maybe.
Khaled Kheir Eddin, head of the Environment and Climate Change Research Unit at Egypt's Water Ministry, points to Egypt's collection of official strategy papers devoted to this issue as a sign that the government is taking preparations seriously.
In 2011, Egypt's Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) think tank published a set of recommendations about what kinds of projects should be prioritized, rather than a concrete plan with specific projects, benchmarks and timelines.
A 2013 strategy document from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation is similar. It offers slightly more detail about specific projects but notes that "extensive" studies are still needed before such adaptation measures can be put in place.
Reports like these indicate that decision makers are aware of the problem and are taking it seriously. But with the need to strike a delicate balance between competing interests, turning this awareness into action on the ground will probably prove challenging.
The Water Ministry estimates that measures to adapt to climate change could cost in excess of 180 billion Egyptian pounds ($23 billion) by 2050, a tough sell at a time when the government is trying to trim its budget deficit. "From the point of view of the decision maker, he will compromise between what the country needs now and what the country needs in 50 years," says Kheir Eddin.
Lawmakers will also inevitably face conflicts between competing interests, says Mohamed Bayoumi, an environment specialist at the United Nations Development Program. Farmers, fishermen, industrialists, beach-goers, city dwellers and wildlife should all be taken into account when planning for a rise in sea level, but their needs aren't all the same.
"It's quite tough to find a win-win situation for everybody," Bayoumi says. "Sometimes, some institutions are not going to be happy with what they will get, but the national interest should come out ahead."
Experts agree that in order for Egypt to prepare for rising sea levels, the issue of climate change will have to be "mainstreamed," with all ministries — from housing to defense — making decisions with climate change in mind.
Such a system is possible, explains Hamburg University's Peter Link. The German government has identified 17 human uses and ecological functions along the Wadden Sea, which stretches across the coasts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Any plans to develop or protect the coast must balance interests as varied as oil drilling, mussel farming and protected areas for birds.
Thanks to a combination of expertise, computer algorithms and political will, the system manages to function. "Once the plan is finalized, then people adhere to it," Link says. "Germans are renowned for making the most rules in the world and sticking to them. Sometimes this is quite hindering, sometimes it is quite helpful. In this case, if you look at coastal zone management, it is useful."
In Egypt, by contrast, people don't even follow building regulations designed to protect their safety and the integrity of the coast, Kheir Eddin says. "This needs enforcement, and raising public awareness."
Egypt's situation is even more challenging when relatively certain changes like rising sea levels are coupled with harder-to-predict phenomena such as shifting weather patterns.
Some climate change models predict that the flow of the Nile will decrease, while others speculate the exact opposite. Egypt could get wetter, or it could get drier, or perhaps both in sequence.
This means that Egypt's attempts to plan for climate change have to take both wet and dry scenarios into account. Uncertainty about the future makes it hard for most people to come to grips with climate change, and therefore reluctant to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gain.
"There are things that cannot be argued in terms of climate change," Bayoumi says. "These need not to be mixed up with the projections." To raise public awareness, issues need to be placed in their proper proportion. "Not to over-exaggerate, not to underestimate. Not to think about it as a science fiction story. Not to panic."