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How Climate Change, El Niño and Ethiopian Dam Endanger Egyptian Agriculture

By Mirna Fahmy
A market in Cairo, Egypt (photo:

Sweltering temperatures in the summer of 2023, caused by a combination of global warming and the El Niño weather phenomenon, fried Egypt's crops, reducing harvests. Walking down the streets, at every shop, olive oil-bottled products would always flourish on the market’s shelves in a mesmerising stack. The heap would capture the glares to choose from among the varieties.

Suddenly, out of the blue, the shelves are empty. Asking regularly about the products, “We still don’t have any,” is the standard answer.

After three months, merely three to five are in the showcase and, upon request. The price of a 0.5-litre bottle is crawling up towards 200 Egyptian pounds (EGP) (4.13 USD), though in the past it was only around 80 EGP (1.65 USD).

“Most of the olive trees that are cultivated in Sinai have dried out due to the high temperature that spanned this year’s summer,” market owner Abo Hatem in one of Cairo’s oldest towns said.

Abo Hatem has been running his small store for decades, since his father was still the head. He brings in various products, such as dairy, oil, and juices, from farms across different places, including El-Arish in Sinai Peninsula.

For many months, oil extracted from olive trees has been cut down, and the market couldn’t sell any. When there was finally hope for its return, Abo Hatem was urged to double the 0.5-litre bottle price of olive-oil from 85 EGP (1.75 USD) to around 165 EGP (3.41 USD).

Not only at Abo Hatem market, which is suffering from oil plant paucity, but many other markets are grappling with the same issue. Supermarkets have aggressively raised the price to 300 EGP (6.19 USD) for the one-litre, and the varieties are no longer an option as before. It is also one of many reasons why many stores don’t permit customers to purchase more than one-litre bottles of oil, amid the several wavering economic circumstances the country is experiencing. The scarcity issue has expanded to include many other commodities, like sugar, rice, and others. Not to mention most of the commodity prices are associated with dollar value, which has recently soared to around 50 EGP on March 6, 2024, when it was still at 31 EGP since the last pound devaluation on January 4, 2023. The dollar's value will continuously change based on demand, as stated by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) when the pound’s value got depreciated by around 50.

The summer of 2023 has witnessed high temperatures all over the planet resulting from El Niño, a climate pattern that occurs in the Pacific Ocean roughly every 2–7 years. El Niño is characterised by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

This climate pattern has affected Egypt, inflicting warmer and drier weather than usual. The weather was scorching with blistering heat waves that were long-lasting for weeks, according to the Egyptian Meteorological Authority (EMA), across much of Egypt, reaching over 40 degrees Celsius.

In July 2023, Cairo experienced a heatwave that lasted for 12 consecutive days, with temperatures reaching up to 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit). Egypt’s agriculture was devastated alongside health problems and power outages that would extend to an hour and a half or even more in every district daily.

Agriculture is a fundamental component of the Egyptian economy, contributing 11.4 percent of the country’s GDP and providing up to 23.3 percent of employment, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The main agricultural commodities include rice, wheat, maize, cotton, sugarcane, and horticultural crops such as vegetables, fruit, and dates.

“I didn’t sell a single lettuce this summer because it was burnt and foul,” Um Hamed, a veggie merchant, said. Um Hamed’s vegetables were damaged by the heatwaves. Besides the fresh and garish salad components she sells, she also sells other local vegetables including okra, and molokhiyya which were also affected by the weather condition.

Though the UNDP states that Egypt’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is only 0.61 percent, climate change will continue to negatively impact agricultural production and productivity, aggravate water scarcity, and result in fragile agrifood chains.

Mentioning impaired crops, the Climate Change Information Centre and Renewable Energy and Expert Systems of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation in Egypt confirmed in a report that the country's exposure to severe heat waves during summer 2023 hampered many types of crops such as mango, olive, dates, and citrus fruits. The risk of infected rice blight has increased as well. The rice crops saw poor growth, yellowish colour, failure of pollination and reproduction, and a very early appearance of the spike, increasing their sensitivity to infection with fungal diseases.

Regarding mango, the research centre explained that “mango is a tropical crop that cannot tolerate any fluctuations in climate, and if it is planted in unsuitable climatic conditions, it is ripped”.

A sizeable portion of the mango crop had been ruined by sunburn, reducing the amount of harvesting, recording only 60 percent in 2023 in comparison with 2022, when the production would hit around 70 and 80 percent, according to local newspapers. This, in turn, triggered the mango prices per kilo to slightly rise compared to the previous year.

Even though crops are dwindling from this hazy climate change, the research centre pointed to the wheat crop for its ability to grow and yield amid these striking heat waves.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is another troubling factor in that its operation and the surrounding geopolitical issues have the potential to worsen the effects of climate change. This would clutter the Nile River flow by 12-25 percent during the filling period, which has been the main component of Egypt’s irrigation since ancient times up until today. Ethiopia has reached the final fourth filling in 2023 and it started it in 2020 though the filling is expected to take 4-7 years gradually depending on hydrologic conditions, according to the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) report.
Besides, the GERD reservoir, located in a hot, arid region, could lose significant amounts of water through increased evaporation, further reducing downstream flows to Egypt. This could lead to more frequent droughts, impacting agricultural production and food security in Egypt. All of this has disrupted the energy supply to Aswan’s High Dam, which generates electricity for almost all of the country’s sectors. This might increase the country’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions if sustainable alternatives aren't available.

So far, the Ministry of Agriculture is working on a large scale to find practices for farmers to grow varieties adapted to climate change so that crop production won’t be further affected.

The government has partnered with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and UNDP through the SCALA programme to accelerate climate solutions in the most vulnerable sectors. These measures include investing in irrigation infrastructure, developing drought-resistant crops, and providing training to farmers on climate-smart agriculture practices.

In July 2022, Egypt’s Nexus of Water, Food, and Energy (NWFE) was launched with the support of the World Bank’s CCDR to protect Egypt from the adverse effects of climate change and make it more competitive globally by integrating climate action aspects into all relevant projects.

Moreover, Egypt will benefit significantly from the COP 28 roadmap programme regarding the agrifood system. A roadmap programme was issued at the United Arab Emirates (UAE) COP 28 summit to revolutionise the perception of agrifood systems with regards to adaptation to climate change. The programme promotes innovative and smart agriculture practices like crop diversification, improved breeding, and efficient water management. It also enhances the adoption of a circular economy approach to managing crop residues. This can create opportunities for generating renewable energy, producing biofertilizers, and reducing dependence on non-renewable resources.

Egypt’s membership to BRICS in January 2024, will also assist the country in tackling climate issues that affect agriculture through knowledge sharing and technology transfer. BRICS members like China and India are making significant strides in renewable energy development and climate-resilient agriculture. Egypt can learn from these practices that include drought-resistant crops, water-saving irrigation techniques, and precision agriculture technologies.

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