The devastating impact of climate change is shrinking the mighty Nile River and turning the water more saline, harming the surrounding soil ecosystem and reducing fertile agricultural lands and water availability across the Middle East and North Africa. While individual countries may take steps to adapt to the shifting climate, more aggressive, comprehensive, and quicker adaptation efforts should be made if the region’s agricultural system has any chance to survive.

Egypt – The Breadbasket of the World No More 

The nutrient-rich soil of the Nile River Delta, which flows from Tanzania to Egypt, has fed Egypt for centuries. Human civilization rose and thrived in Egypt thanks to the Nile River, which has kept the soil rich with silt from annual flooding. More fertile than other kinds of soil, Egypt’s agriculture has flourished from the silt-enriched terrain. For centuries, this ancient country has been the breadbasket of the world. Now Egypt is at the cusp of disaster as the Nile River struggles to exist under a changing climate, rapid population growth, and toxic pollution. Shrinking at a rate of 4-8 millimeters per year, the Nile River is about to affect food security, water availability, the economic well-being of farmers, and social and political stability not only in Egypt, but also in neighboring countries dependent on its water.

Improvements in farming and irrigation methods over the past decade should have boosted crop yields in Egypt. However, harvests have stagnated. Global climate change is exacerbating the erosion of the Nile’s shoreline that started during the construction of the High Aswan Dam in the 1960s. The result is reduced levels of silt available to nourish the soil. The warming climate and more frequent droughts are also reducing the Nile’s water levels. Egyptian farmers bemoan the fact that they are now forced to use groundwater since the Nile water is no longer reaching their crops. 

The Nile delta now lies only one meter above sea level, increasing the salinity of the water and soil, and causing crops to fail more frequently than ever. Adding to the problem, the lack of water from the Nile is only bound to be made worse by Ethiopia’s massive hydro-electric dam which is under construction, which will increase the accumulation of sediment in the soil. Rising sea levels along the delta are expected to overwhelm coastal cities, such as Alexandria, as well as agricultural lands, more than 60 percent of which are located in the delta. 

Egyptian economists predict that more agricultural land could be lost because of salinization. Egypt is already struggling to grow tomatoes, wheat, and rice because of water shortages and its growing salinity. The climbing temperatures are also impacting the harvest of fish. With the reduced production at home, the country’s food imports are expected to grow, putting more pressure on the ailing economy. 

The inability of the river to sustain people and agriculture will lead to unimaginable disruption and social turmoil. The World Bank estimated in 2014 that 3.8 million people living near the Nile Delta will be displaced by the sea level rises, especially in the Mediterranean. A May 2019 policy report from the National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia warns that extreme heat and increased desertification in the Middle East could lead to massive displacements of people by 2050.

The Rest of MENA Feels the Heat

Climate change is destroying agriculture as we know it in the Arab-speaking world.

Egypt illustrates how climate change is destroying agriculture as we know it in the Arab-speaking world. Food production and crops in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are also feeling the heat, both literally and metaphorically. The warming climate has led to crop failures in MENA and beyond and has escalated global food prices and social instability, including the onset of the so-called Arab Springs of 2011, which came on the heels of social and economic despair in many countries. 

According to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress, the Center for Climate and Security, and the Stimson Center, “global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier.” The drought of 2011 and the subsequent failure of agricultural lands in eastern Syria, which experienced the death of about 85 percent of the livestock and the displacement of thousands of people from rural areas to urban centers, is directly correlated to the eruption of the ongoing eight-year old conflict there. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued a stark warning in 2017 that MENA could face more conflicts and displacements of people without increased international support to ensure food and water security in the region. 

In light of the migrant crisis in Europe that started in 2015, Lilja Alfredsdottir, Iceland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iceland, wrote in a report for a NATO meeting: “The refugee crisis shaking political stability throughout much of the Middle East and posing serious problems in Europe could be a harbinger of things to come. The huge economic and social costs linked to mass movements on this scale are self-evident. It is distinctly possible that global climate challenges could trigger mass movement particularly in regions which no longer have the water and agricultural resources needed to support life.”

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Hotter temperatures, less precipitation, and more droughts are altering the agricultural landscape of the region. Harvests are likely to fall by 30 percent with rising temperatures of only 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. By the middle of this century, crop failures are likely to “1.5-24 percent in western Maghreb and 4-30 percent in parts of the Mashreq.” In particular, the production of maize and legumes are predicted to be damaged by the warming climate across the MENA region. Production of other crops is already getting harder. 

It is difficult to grow potatoes, onions, and other vegetables in Lebanon’s former prime agricultural region in the Bekaa Valley due to exceptional heat and droughts. Instead of vegetables, farmers in the Bekaa Valley are starting to grow cannabis, a drought-resistant crop. In fact, the Lebanese parliament appears close to legalizing medicinal cannabis. While local farmers expect to earn a decent living by growing cannabis, the country will have to buy the food they used to grow from elsewhere. Dependence on food imports will be the feature of most countries in MENA in coming years because of the deleterious impact of climate change on their agriculture.

To adapt to global warming and drier conditions, the region will have to make tough choices.

To adapt to global warming and drier conditions, the region will have to make tough choices. While a long road lies ahead to preserve agriculture and farming in MENA, some progress is visible. One of the adaptation measures is to grow more salt- and drought-tolerant plants, such as halophytes, including the popular quinoa and the lesser known salicornia, which are being introduced to the region. Quinoa, a grain crop native to the Andes area, is now cultivated in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Egypt due to its resilience and adaptability to different weather conditions as well as its nutrition content. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken an interest in growing salicornia as a potential food source for its people. Sorghum and pearl millet could also have a future in MENA. 

Technical innovations centered on an optimal use of scarce water supplies will be crucial to growing food in the MENA region in the coming years given that the water shortages in the region are expected to worsen over the next few decades. Some positive changes give hope, however. 

Tunisia, for example, improved wheat harvests through crop simulation modeling, which resulted in water-saving techniques to grow wheat. The yields increased between 40 to 80 percent, especially in the food-insecure central and southern parts of the country. Use of innovative farming technology, such as a proof-of-concept greenhouse system that adjusts temperature and humidity levels via computer controls, has yielded ten times more food per meter in the UAE. This modern version of greenhouse is 32 times more water-efficient than conventional farming. 

The world is warming at a faster rate than people can cope with it. The MENA region is and will be most vulnerable to the negative impacts of the climate change. The only way to ensure the region’s survival is to begin adapting to the change quickly.