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More salt water in Egypt's Nile Delta putting millions at grave risk, study says

Scientists say the deepening crisis may make parts of Africa and the Middle East uninhabitable in the next few decades.

By
Doug G. Ware
A horseman looks out over the Nile River Delta near the village of Abusir, located about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. The country's Nile River Valley and Delta, which contain some of the world's most nutrient-rich soils, is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Most of Egypt's 90 million people live near the delta. File Photo by Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency
A horseman looks out over the Nile River Delta near the village of Abusir, located about 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt. The country's Nile River Valley and Delta, which contain some of the world's most nutrient-rich soils, is also one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Most of Egypt's 90 million people live near the delta. File Photo by Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency

March 13 (UPI) -- Increased human activity over the last few decades has slowly created a fresh water crisis that now looms for nearly 100 million people in Egypt, a scenario that scientists say could ultimately make the entire region uninhabitable by the end of this century.

Most of Egypt's 90 million people live near the Lower Nile Valley and Delta because its nutrient-rich soil has for decades provided most of the country's limited agricultural means for food production and fresh water supply. However, the reliability of that soil to sustain life is fading, according to the results of a new, multi-year study.

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According to the research, the basin's fertile soils are becoming less capable of producing food and fresh water because of growing salinity in the delta plain, which lies only 1 meter above sea level. The northern third of the Nile Delta is lowering between 4mm and 8 mm every year while the sea level is rising annually at a rate of about 3 mm, researchers say.

The end result of the opposing levels is the submerging of about 1 cm of delta terrain per year, the study said. At those rates, between 12 and 24 miles of presently dry delta surface will be under water by the year 2100.

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Scientists fear that growing salinity would ultimately render the delta's soil incapable of agricultural cultivation and effectively cut off the area's fresh water supply.

"Egypt now releases less than 10 percent of its water supply, a mostly saline and highly polluted aqueous mix, to the sea, with little sediment available for coastal replenishment," researchers wrote. "Egypt, the tenth and last country below Nile headwaters, presently needs much more fresh water than can be provided by the Main Nile. Without it, the delta's coastal margin, for the most part depleted of its former sediment supply for replenishment, continues to erode locally and subside."

The delta plain's dwindling agricultural potential, the research says, is rooted in various human activities over the last 200 years that have slowly grown the crisis by altering the River Nile's flow conditions.

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A figure included with Monday's results of a multi-year study on the evolution of the Nile Delta shows the level of sea water (shaded in blue) encroaching on the delta plain, which for decades has provided nutrient-rich sediment to grow food and a supply of fresh water for tens of millions of people. Image courtesy The Geological Society of America

The construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s and the Aswan Low Dam decades earlier are just two events identified by the study as having a tremendous impact on the soil evolution in the Nile Delta. The damming has altered the river's flow and natural distribution of nutrient-rich sediment, which is increasingly being trapped within the delta instead of continuing downstream where it could be used for agriculture.

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To make matters worse, researchers say, nearby Ethiopia is expected to complete its construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam this year -- another man-made obstacle that will impact Nile flow patterns. The dam is on the Blue Nile River, which is one of the two main tributaries that feed into the larger Nile in Egypt.

It will take several years for the dam to fill the Millennium Reservoir, during which time the natural fresh water flows to Sudan and Egypt will be greatly reduced -- by as much as 25 percent -- creating grave conditions for the millions who rely on it to sustain life.

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"Further Nile fresh water decrease would be grave because, at best, the river barely supplies 97 percent of Egypt's water needs ... one of the world's lowest per capita water shares," the researchers wrote. "With a population expected to double in the next 50 years, Egypt is projected to reach a state of serious country-wide fresh water and energy shortage by 2025."

Scientists said more dams planned in Ethiopia and Sudan would aggravate the situation.

If fresh water supplies continue to fall, experts say regions in the Middle East and North Africa could become uninhabitable within a few decades. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the region will see more than a 50 percent drop in accessible fresh water by 2050.

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"Competition between water-usage sectors will only intensify in the future between agriculture, energy, industrial production and household needs," UNFAO Director Jose Graziano da Silva said in Cairo last week.

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