The Impact of Sea Level Rise on The Arab World

Karim Elgendy

In recent years much of the discussion about the impact of climate change around the world has caused a mix of anxiety and fear about the impacts this may have on human life and the environment. Many detailed studies have shown by using simulation models the impact of sea level rises on coastal cities around the world if sea level were to rise by a certain degree.  These studies showed that generally speaking, it was low lying areas and river deltas that were most vulnerable, especially when these deltas are densely populated.

Figure 1. Relative vulnerability of coastal deltas as shown by the indicative population potentially displaced by current sea-level trends to 2050 (Extreme = > 1 million; High = 1 million to 50,000; Medium = 50,000 to 5,000 (following Ericson et al.,2006). Source Nicholls, R.J., P.P. Wong, V.R. Burkett, J.O. Codignotto, J.E. Hay, R.F. McLean, S. Ragoonaden and C.D. Woodroffe, 2007

With sea levels already rising, as demonstrated by the  17 cm rise in the sea level over the last century , the impacts of such rise is becoming more and more pressing, especially that 400 million people live within 20 km of a coast. It is estimated that most of the sea level rise is a result of thermal expansion of the water of the oceans and seas as well as the melting of the polar ice caps.

A 2009 study by the Arab forum for Environment and development on the impacts of climate change on  the region provided the first detailed data on the impact of sea level rise on the Arab world. The study used remote sensing techniques to depict the consequences on the Arab world of various climate change impact scenarios, ranging from conservative (1 meter) to extreme (5 meters) sea level rise until the year 2100. The study found that  “under the 1 m sea level rise scenario, the simulation reveals that approximately 41,500 km2 of the territory of the Arab countries would be directly impacted by the rise of the sea level. Projected increases in sea levels will displace a quickly growing population into more concentrated areas. At least 37 million people (~11%) will be directly affected by Sea level rise of 1 meter. In the case of 2m, 3m and 4m sea level rise scenarios, around 60,000, 80,700 and 100,800 km2, respectively, of the Arab coastal region will be seriously impacted. In the extreme case of 5 m sea level rise, such impact will be at its highest, as it is estimated that up to 113,000 km2 (0.8%) of the coastal territory would be inundated by sea water .”

Figure 2. Recorded sea Level rise between 1993 and 2007, by cause. Source: Josh Willis, NASA JP

The study also found that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco, will be the most affected while others such as Sudan, Syria, and Jordan will be less affected. Egypt will be by far the most impacted country of the Arab world with at least 12 million Egyptians displaced in the extreme (5 meter sea level rise) scenario. It estimates that one third of the Arab population impacted will be from Egypt alone (Figure3).

On the other hand, it estimated that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Bahrain will witness the highest Sea level rise effect in terms of the percentage of population at risk from the total country population, with 50% of the population of each country impacted by the extreme (5meter sea level rise) scenario. The current analysis also indicates that Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Tunisia are most vulnerable in terms of their land mass, since  1 to 3 % of land in these countries will be affected by a 1 meter of sea level rise.  In the most extreme case, Bahrain and Qatar would experience a significant reduction of about 13.4 % and 6.9%, respectively, of their land as a result of the 5 meter scenario (Figure 4).

Figure 3. (Left) extreme scenario (5 meter sea level rise) impacts on the Arab world, by total population affected. Figure 4. (right) extreme scenario (5 meter sea level rise) impacts on the Arab world, by percentage of population affected. Source: AFED Arab Environment Climate Change Report.

A comparison of percentage impact of sea level rise on GDP and Land in the Arab World. Source: AFED Arab Environment Climate Change Report.

Focusing on the Nile Delta, the study argues that the low lying delta is already retreating at an alarming rate of about 100 m per year. The retreat of the Nile Delta, which is about 24,900 km2 in area and alone accounts for about 65% of Egypt agricultural land, is not only due to climate change and sea level rise but also a result of the human activity reducing soil sediments due to the Aswan High Dam and heavy groundwater extraction.The study estimates that Under most scenarios, much more of the Nile Delta will be lost forever. It estimates that “a sea level rise of only 1 meter would flood much of the Nile Delta, inundating about one third (~34%) of its land, placing important coastal cities such as Alexandria, Idku, Damietta and Port-Said at a great risk. In this case, it is estimated that about 8.5 % of Egypt’s population (~7 million people) will be displaced.” More alarmingly, In the extreme case of 5 meter sea level rise, the study estimates that “more than half (~58%) of the Nile Delta will be facing destructive impacts, which would threaten at least 10 major cities (among them Alexandria, Damanhur, Kafr-El-Sheikh, Damietta, Mansura and Port-Said), flooding productive agricultural lands, forcing about 14% of the country’s population (~11.5 million people) into more concentrated areas to the southern region of the Nile Delta”.  (Figure 5).

Figure 5. (left) Impact of sea level rise on the Nile Delta according to the 5 scenarios of 1 meter to 5 meter sea level rise. Figure 6 (Right) A comparison of percentage impact of sea level rise on agriculture production in the Arab World.

It is  estimated that a 1 meter sea level rise would submerge the city of Alexandria, and the Egyptoan government has already allocated US$300 million to build concrete walls to protect Alexandria’s beaches as part of a “national strategy study” to combat the coming floods.

The study also suggests that Egypt’s economy the most vulnerable with 1 meter of sea level rise putting more than 6% of its Gross Domestic Product at risk. This  figure rises to more than 12% for a sea level rise of 3 metres.  More than 12% of Egypt’s best agricultural lands in the Nile Delta are at risk a from sea levels rise of 1 meter, and this figure rises dramatically to 25% for 3 meters and even almost 35% in the case of 5 meters. It is estimated that many of the towns and urban areas in the north of the Delta will will feel the effect of sea level rise by 2020. An interactive map of the impact of different sea level rise scenarios is also available for the Nile Delta amongst other locations world wide.

In addition to the threat of sea level rise, the encroachment of water on the delta threatens it in another way as salt sea water seeps into ground water. Today, with much of the Nile’s water consumed upstream before it reaches the sea corner of the Delta, and much of the water reaching the sea being mixed with waste water and toxins, the soil near the sea has become contaminated with a mixture of salt water and waste water which has impacted crop fertility in those regions closest to the Mediterranean sea.  This threat was confirmed in a governmental report by the Egyptian Environment Minister to a parliamentary committee. This bleak picture is complicated by some studies which show that demand for fresh water in Egypt will exceed supply by 2017.

The impact of a sea level rise on the Nile Delta according to UNEP/GRID estimation. Source: IRIN Middle East

For More information watch this 12 minute Youtube movie (in Arabic) by the Arab Forum on Environment and Development, entitled “Wet and Dry” about the impacts of sea level rise on the Arab World.

Karim Elgendy is an architect and a sustainable design researcher based in San Francisco. He can be contacted at: Karim [at] Carboun [dot] com

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Sources: Arab Forum on Environment and Development, Arab Environment Climate Change Report,, and IRIN Middle East

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