Rising Sea Levels Threaten Egypt's Ancient Cities In Egypt, where antiquities have stood for millennia, climate change is posing new threats to an ancient country and its people.
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Rising Sea Levels Threaten Egypt's Ancient Cities

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Rising Sea Levels Threaten Egypt's Ancient Cities

Rising Sea Levels Threaten Egypt's Ancient Cities

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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HANSEN: For NPR's Climate Connection series with National Geographic, today we're going to explore Egypt, where for thousands of years the fertile banks of the Nile River supported a powerful civilization.

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HANSEN: Today, in the northern city of Alexandria the crash of the waves from the Mediterranean Sea sends foam over the crumbling sea wall onto the hundreds of concrete barriers set up to protect the ancient city from the rising sea.

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HANSEN: Scientists predict the Mediterranean Sea will rise somewhere between one foot to just over three feet by the end of this century, flooding rural towns and the urban sprawl on the northern coast.

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HANSEN: More than 2,000 years ago the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great established this legendary city as his capital. Alexandria played host to a cast of memorable characters: the Ptolemies, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Many of the places they walked are now under water due to earthquakes and the natural settling of the land.

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HANSEN: In 1994, a team of underwater archeologists, including Emad Khalil, discovered what is thought to be the remains of a wonder of the ancient world, the Pharos Lighthouse. The tower was more than 350 feet high and its beacon of fire guided ships into Alexandria's harbor.

Mr. EMAD KHALIL (Underwater Archeologist, University of Southampton): We'd just jump into the water and it was amazing because there are maybe 3,000 blocks there underwater, constructional remains. Some of them are as big as 70 tons.

HANSEN: We gaze at the fishing boats and pleasure craft on the surface of the eastern harbor of Alexandria, and he tells us more about what's underneath -the jetties, buildings and sculptures from past civilizations. Khalil also says he's concerned about antiquities that are still above water.

Are you seeing the effects of what comes under the broad umbrella of climate change in Alexandria now in your work?

Mr. KHALIL: Well, we are seeing it not just in my work but we are seeing it generally, where we are experiencing continuous problems trying to protect the Eastern Harbor. For example, one of the very moment issues that we are facing is the effect of not just the sea level rise, but the violence in the sea and the waves affecting the corniche, affecting the wall that's surrounding the Eastern Harbor. This is a historic structure, this is a historic wall that was built in the early 20th century and it's being continuously affected and destroyed as a result of the violence of the waves in winter. And obviously the gradual sea level rise is happening - we are not noticing it - but it is happening. It's going to have a long-term effect.

HANSEN: If the sea continues this pattern, experts say millions of people may become environmental refugees.

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HANSEN: A few miles inland we spot a woman selling oranges on the side of the road. This is the Tuto Farm. Khamiesa Abdelsalam Tuto speaks through an interpreter.

Ms. KHAMIESA ABDELSALAM TUTO (Orange Seller): (Through translator) If you touch the sand yourself, you can actually feel the salt. It's coarse, you can feel the salt in it. And they need to add sand but they can't afford it.

HANSEN: The salt is coming from the sea. As the Mediterranean rises, the saltwater pushes into the delta and the salt leaches into the soil. Khamiesa grows a variety of produce, and as she walks across her farm she points out the heaps of sand covering the trunks of the date palms and tomato plants.

The sand has to be bought and then trucked in to counter the effects of the salt.

Ms. TUTO: (Through translator) We can't afford it. It's very expensive. A truckload costs 100 pounds and we have to either to harvest or eat, and you have to eat. We are barely breaking even right now. Everything is on credit. We can barely make it.

HANSEN: Her father, 78-year-old Said Abdelsalam Tuto, says he's been a farmer for 70 of those years. He first began to notice the salt back in the 1930s, but it's getting worse.

Unidentified Interpreter: He's saying the last couple of years he has noticed that the saltiness has increased and if you go down the road people are actually selling salt for trade.

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HANSEN: Just up the road from the farm is the small town of Rosetta. Nearby, the ancient stone was discovered that helped to translate hieroglyphics and tell the story of early Egyptian civilizations. Salah Soliman is a professor at Alexandria University. He's helping to organize a climate change conference in Egypt next month and he invited us to take a boat ride.

We're sitting on a boat at the mouth of the Nile where the Mediterranean meets the Nile River. Why have you brought us here?

Professor SALAH SOLIMAN (Alexandria University): Well, actually to see what we are going to face very soon here in this country, and this particular area of the country - the northern part of Egypt. We are to the western side of the delta in Rosetta where, you know, the major branch of the Nile meets Mediterranean Sea.

And as you know, as a river, this great river,the Nile used to add soil every year to Egypt, to the northern Mediterranean Sea. When we built the High Dam we stopped adding more soil - or taking more soil from, more areas from the Mediterranean. But now with the climate change we are losing what we have gained during the last many thousand years. Water is coming from the sea toward the southern part of the delta, affecting all the vegetation on which our farmers - and most of our people actually are farmers in this country, depends on.

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HANSEN: The water on this part of the Nile, the West Branch, is the color of root beer - dirty, with bits of trash bobbing on the surface and gathering on the banks. As we move closer to the Mediterranean, we see abandoned buildings on the shore. There is little new construction here because soon this land could be underwater.

Professor Soliman conducts workshops for youth on environmental sustainability at the New Alexandria Library. One of his students is on board with us - 16-year-old Imad William has already made a PowerPoint production for his ninth grade class.

Imad, what inspired your presentation on climate change? Why did you want to write about it?

Mr. IMAD WILLIAM (Student): My cousin has showed me "An Inconvenient Truth."

HANSEN: Oh, the movie.

Mr. WILLIAM: Yeah.

HANSEN: "Inconvenient Truth."

Mr. WILLIAM: I was impressed by it so I decided to make the presentation.

HANSEN: What kind of success have you had in getting other young people to work with you and to be aware of the problem?

Mr. WILLIAM: I show them the presentation and I think it makes me - a feeling of fear, a fear of what's going to happen in the future. So I think it makes a lot of students have the same feeling.

HANSEN: In 2007, the United Nations reported that greenhouse gas emissions will have disproportionately negative health effects on the world's poorest countries, and made specific mention of the Nile Delta.

The 20-year-old son of Professor Soliman, Kareem, also came along on our boat ride. He said he was aware of the high levels of air pollution in Egypt so he assumed his country was a major contributor to the global emissions problem.

Mr. KAREEM SOLIMAN (Son of Professor Soliman): I have been tricked at first because when I see the traffic jams in Egypt and see the black clouds, so I say that we have contributed a lot. But in fact with the number gotten from the International Energy Agency, we contribute to this by 0.5 percent of the global emission of carbon dioxide.

In the same time, we are facing the big problems and challenges in the future. So there are a lot of other countries who contribute a large number of percent, including the United States. And actually the ecosystem there and the environment - I mean, their environment, maybe you will not be harmed as ours in the same time. So all of these concern me but I see this, the solution that we have to focus on is the adaptation.

HANSEN: Government officials say since Egypt can only have a limited effect on global gas emissions, the country's focus is on adapting to climate change.

Mr. MAGED GEORGE (Minister of State, Environmental Affairs): (Through translator) Thank you, Mr. President, your excellencies...

HANSEN: Speaking through an interpreter in Bali, Indonesia this past December, Egypt's minister of state for environmental affairs, Maged George, said Egypt is currently preparing an adaptation strategy. He has predicted that by the year 2020, the effects of global warming will threaten about 15 percent of the land in the Nile Delta. Getting the Egyptian people to focus on that problem is hard, according to the minister's adviser on climate change, Dr. Elsayed Sabry Mansour.

Dr. ELSAYED SABRY MANSOUR (Adviser to Maged George): Public awareness is difficult because the problem of climate change is that the impacts are not instantaneous - they come later on. They don't analyze what - the huge adverse effects that will come in the future. And sometimes we are accused that we are pessimistic, but I prefer to be pessimistic. To be more than optimistic and when the time come, if the climate change impacts that we expect that would be very huge don't come, it's okay. No problem. We benefited from this.

HANSEN: Population relocation, genetically modified crops and barriers to protect the lowlands are some of the courses of action the government is considering. But it all takes time. And on the International Coastal Highway, time is running out.

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HANSEN: This highway runs from Port Sayyed in the eastern part of the Nile Delta through the delta itself to Alexandria, and then continues west to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in northern Africa.

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HANSEN: It is the main commercial artery between all of these countries, and every day huge trucks carry all kinds of goods back and forth. It was built to be above sea level originally. As we drive, Professor Soliman asks us to pull over.

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Prof. SOLIMAN: So, we are on the delta now and this is the part of Egypt where it's going to be affected most with the climate change impact. And as you see it, Liane, here, it's very flat from here to the...

HANSEN: To the horizon.

Prof. SOLIMAN: ...to the horizon and the horizon meets the sea over there as you can see.

HANSEN: That's the sea.

Prof. SOLIMAN: The Mediterranean, yes. And as you see water and salt is coming from underneath here. And you can notice this land was planted with wheat by our farmer. How many wheat can you expect to get from here?

HANSEN: Not a lot.

Prof. SOLIMAN: This is salty.

HANSEN: They're very dry.

Prof. SOLIMAN: Yeah.

HANSEN: And that's the salt.

Prof. SOLIMAN: Yeah.

HANSEN: But this is very, very crucial.

Prof. SOLIMAN: Yeah.

HANSEN: Because, I mean, bread right now…

Prof. SOLIMAN: Right.

HANSEN: ...there's a crisis...

Prof. SOLIMAN: Right. It's a crisis about bread and we have to be prepared for the worst to come.

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HANSEN: The drive back to Cairo is sobering. The environmental problems in Egypt seem overwhelming. But there are some hopeful signs in the poorest section of the capital city. Next week you'll meet an agent of change, Thomas Taha Culhane. He's the charismatic founder of the NGO solar cities, and is working with young people, both Muslim and Coptic Christian, to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Mr. THOMAS TAHA CULHANE (Founder, NGO Solar Cities): Because the common enemy is environmental degradation, because the common enemy is climate change, we're united in finding solutions. Religion is only then the spirit that moves us to make a better humanity. The technology is the bread that we're breaking together. We could sit for a meal but then we wouldn't solve the climate change problem.

HANSEN: Next week on our climate connection series, how solar water heaters are changing the skyline of Cairo's slums and the lives of the people who live there.

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HANSEN: You can see a slideshow from Alexandria, Egypt, hear more stories about global warming and find the latest climate change features from National Geographic magazine at NPR.org/ClimateConnections. Rising sea levels of Alexandria was produced by Davar Ardalan and Ned Wharton with help from Sara Abou Bakr. Our editor was David Malinkoff.

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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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