Soil erosion on sea coast of Egypt's Nile Delta threatens loss of 550-year-old fort

Construction of the Aswan High Dam led to the loss of up to 5.8km of coastline and countless buildings in city of Rosetta, studies show

This 15th-century fort in Rosetta, Egypt, is in danger of being swallowed by the rising waters of the Mediterranean. Hamza Hendawi / The National
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

On the shores of the Nile, near where the river meets its end from the depths of Africa to the coast of the Mediterranean, is a 15th-century fort at risk of being lost to the water forever.

Located in the coastal town of Rosetta, on the north-western edge of Egypt’s Nile Delta, it may take years or even decades for the fort built during the reign of the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay to join the many other structures around it that were swallowed by the sea.

But the danger is real and, for now, only electrical pumps working round-the-clock to keep seawater out of Fort Julien's grounds are protecting it from being overcome by the depths.

Should the pumps break down or suffer a power cut, the fort is almost instantly inundated with knee-deep water seeping into the lower sections of the fort that once stood on the highest ground in the surrounding area.

Yet the pumps can do little to stop areas of the fort walls from going mouldy from sustained wetness or some of the more vulnerable walls showing large water stains.

Buildings lost to the river

“Homes have disappeared. An old lighthouse, too, and a mosque,” lamented Khamees Al Qut, a 58-year-old father of five, who lives in the dusty and ramshackle village of Izbat Burj Rasheed.

The village, which sits close to both the Nile and the sea on the outskirts of Rosetta — also known as Rasheed — is where most of the damage from shoreline erosion can be found.

“You can see some of the buildings the sea swallowed if you are in a boat out there,” he said, pointing to the sea. Large buoys have been placed in the water to warn fishing vessels against sailing too close to sunken buildings whose tops are close to the surface.

For the fort to be overcome by water would be an immense loss to world heritage.

It is partially built with stones hauled from nearby temples and other structures dating back to the ancient Egyptian and Ptolemaic eras, a practice not uncommon in post-Pharaonic Egypt.

The stones included the world famous and tablet-like Rosetta Stone, whose identical texts in Demotic, Greek and hieroglyphics made it possible to decipher hieroglyphics, the language spoken in ancient Egypt’s royal palaces and temples, and establish the science of Egyptology.

Construction of Aswan High Dam exacerbates soil erosion in the Nile Delta

An economically prosperous town that’s a 40-minute drive away from Alexandria, Rosetta has the unenviable distinction of being one of the world’s most affected spots by global warming.

It is also a place whose global warming woes have been deepened by the construction more than a half century ago on the Nile of the Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt and before it the nearby Aswan reservoir in 1902.

The Soviet-built dam has, since its completion in 1970, regulated the river’s flow downstream and spared Egypt the destruction caused by flooding. It has significantly increased farmland, helping to feed the country’s rapidly growing population that stands at about 105 million.

But along with these key benefits, the dam also denied the Nile Delta the wealth of sediment that has, since time immemorial, renewed the soil of the nation’s breadbasket in the Nile valley and Delta. In the case of Rosetta, the reduction in the sediment accelerated the shoreline erosion caused by the advancing seawater. That coincided with the Nile also falling victim to climate change.

“The Nile has been affected by climate change in two extremes: drought and flooding,” said Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the Middle East Institute’s climate and water programme.

“Drought conditions have caused less water to be generated from the headwaters of the Blue and White Niles because of less precipitation and snowpack on the [Ethiopian] highlands. In addition, sea level rise in the Mediterranean has caused seawater to continue encroaching into the Nile Delta in Egypt, putting at risk residential areas and the primary source of Egypt’s agricultural output (the coastal Nile Delta),” he said.

Today, the telltale signs of a place in distress are difficult to miss in Rosetta and its immediate vicinity.

Row after row of foreboding concrete barriers are placed close to the shore at the point where the river meets the Mediterranean. Installed in the 1980s and 1990s, their function is to stop, or at least slow, the process of coastal erosion as a result of the advancing sea.

A large swathe of coastal land sits barren, seemingly no longer fit for farming because of the encroaching sea salt. An isolated army outpost at the tip of the coast is evidence of Egypt’s efforts to combat the use of its Mediterranean shores by illegal migrants seeking to cross to Europe.

Worries for the stability of farmlands

A study published last August in Egypt’s Alexandria Engineering Journal showed the Rosetta shoreline retreated by 4.4km at its eastern side and 5.8km at the western side between 1900 and 1991.

The study said the construction of Aswan High Dam and the reservoir led to a dramatic fall in the amount of sediment reaching the Nile Delta; from more than 120 million tonnes per year to almost zero today.

It also warned that, without additional protection, the Rosetta promontory would recede at an even faster rate, taking out some of the most fertile farmlands in mostly desert Egypt.

The loss of farmlands in the Delta can only deepen alarm in Egypt, which is already concerned that a massive hydroelectric dam being built by Ethiopia on the Nile could reduce its share of the river’s water. That, it claims, would wipe out hundreds of thousands of agricultural jobs and disrupt the nation’s delicate food balance.

Already importing 50 per cent of what its rapidly growing population eats, Egypt could suffer the loss of $51 billion worth of agricultural GDP if its water share is cut, according to a 2021 study published in the periodical Environmental Research Letters.

It would also add 11 per cent to its unemployment rate — officially 7 per cent now — and an overall GDP reduction by 8 per cent, according to the study.

However, the threat posed to Rosetta by coast erosion and the possible cut in Egypt’s share of the Nile water — on which the nation depends for almost all its freshwater needs — do little to conceal the prosperity and liveliness of the town of 60,000.

On one recent afternoon, the town’s colourful outdoor food market was packed with shoppers, snapping up goods sold at half what they cost in Cairo, about 250km to south-east. Fish farms dot the stretch of the Nile snaking through the city. On the east bank stand high-rise residential buildings. The seafront boulevard is peppered with slender date palms and marinas for Nile ferries.

Dry docks a short distance away from the town centre are working at near capacity building luxury yachts for the use of holidaymakers at Egypt’s popular Red Sea resorts.

Under the watchful eye of the soldiers manning the walls of their coastal outpost, some dozen men could be seen quietly angling while seated on top of the line of concrete barriers running parallel to the shore. Some of them travel 60km from Alexandria to fish in Rosetta, which enjoys a reputation for the richness of its fish at the Nile-Mediterranean confluence point.

“The sea is choppy today and the wind is too strong” said angler Mahmoud Baha, a 37-year-old father of two, who makes a living as an interior decorator.

“I am going to try to see what I can catch in the water between the barriers where the fish may be hiding.”

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Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:49 PM