Climate change hits home as Egypt swelters in never-ending summer

Egyptian farmers tell of lower yield and higher costs leading to soaring market prices

An Egyptian farmer shows a mango at his farm in the Giza Governorate. AFP
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Summer in Egypt was so hot this year that the managers of a 40-hectare orchard in the Nile Delta had to wrap each fruit on its mango trees with paper to shield them from the heat.

They also coated the orchard's oranges with kaolin, a type of clay, in the agricultural equivalent of applying sunblock to humans, said Laila Aly, one of the orchard's managers and a German-trained agronomist.

A spray system was also installed to cool the trees on particularly hot days in a summer now labelled by scientists as the hottest on record, she told The National.

Now in mid-November, summer and its unforgiving near-daily temperatures of 40ºC and above should be long gone.

Not quite.

Temperatures have remained at 30ºC and above since October, nearly 10ºC above the norm for this time of year five decades ago – and even more recently.

With cooler weather nowhere in sight, T-shirts and light cotton are still the clothing of choice. The whirr of air conditioners is still constant in Cairo, where the population density and air pollution make even a moderately hot day feel much hotter.

With the hotter weather comes higher-than-usual demand on the electricity grid, forcing the government to reintroduce daily power cuts lasting an average of two hours to reduce the load.

Experts say the higher temperatures are an effect of climate change that has caused extreme weather, deadly floods, wildfires, sandstorms and coastal erosion in countries around the world.

Although the impact on Egypt is unlikely to be cited alongside the risks faced by low-lying Pacific and Indian Ocean islands at the Cop28 climate summit in the UAE later this month, the danger posed to the Arab world's most populous nation is both imminent and serious.

How temperatures and rainfall have changed in Egypt - 1901-2020

The mostly desert nation, whose 105 million people live on less than 10 per cent of its land, is ranked among the driest countries on the planet. Much of its $90 billion annual import bill is spent on food.

Now, rising sea levels caused by climate change is not only eroding its Mediterranean coastline but also causing the rapid salination of the fertile farmlands in the Nile Delta – the nation's bread basket.

At the same time, hotter and longer summers are raising costs and reducing yields for food growers, which has a knock-on effect on consumers already struggling with record levels of inflation amid an economic crisis.

“Climate change mitigation is costly and labour intensive but must be done for our business to survive,” said Ms Aly of the Nile Delta orchard.

“The additional expense goes on top of the sharp increase in production costs as a result of the Egyptian pound's significant loss of value against the dollar since last year,” she added.

Prominent climate change and farming expert Waleed Ramadan said Egypt's prolonged summers are already taking a heavy toll on food production, reducing harvests and disrupting the normal cycle for growing crops.

Both mean higher domestic retail prices for vegetables and fruits, he told The National.

“What used to be grown only in southern Egypt, where it's hotter than the rest of the country, is now being grown in the north. And the crops that are normally grown in September or October are now put back to November and December when the weather is cooler,” he said.

“When the productivity is down, what's available on local markets becomes less and that pushes prices up,” he said. “And it's because of the hot weather that your export season for a fruit like strawberries is stretched to May and June and not ending in March as it once did.

“That puts us at a disadvantage because it means our strawberries go head to head against better quality strawberries from places like Morocco and Spain.”

Nagy Salim, an agronomist and a farmer from Assiut in southern Egypt, already has his own climate change disaster story.

This year, nearly 75 per cent of his mangoes were so scorched by the summer heat that he had to sell them at a huge discount, he said.

“It's climate change. But here in southern Egypt, we cannot afford to cover the fruits in paper or spray them to protect them from the heat,” Mr Salim, who offers his expertise to large-scale farmers, told The National.

He also complained about a reduction in the yield of other crops he grows, as well as higher-than-usual water consumption by his crops because of the excessive and prolonged heat.

Back in northern Egypt, Mohammed El Beltagy said climate change was affecting his family's fruit and vegetable export business.

The family's 1,200-hectare farm north-west of Cairo mainly supplies supermarket chains in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany.

“The heat is forcing us to delay planting crops and is reducing our productivity,” Mr El Beltagy told The National.

“You can no longer make accurate forecasts because of climate change. In fact, the very act of trying to make weather predictions has become very difficult. That's a problem.”

Updated: November 15, 2023, 9:34 AM