News FocusClimate Change

The Nile Delta's Sinking Future

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Science  19 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5972, pp. 1444-1447
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5972.1444

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As Egypt celebrates the 50th anniversary of the start of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, some scientists say that this wonder of engineering is contributing to an environmental catastrophe that could force millions of its citizens to abandon the lush, fertile delta. The worst of these is coastal erosion and subsidence, the compacting of the delta soil. For millennia, the untamed Nile compensated for these natural processes by delivering fresh sediments along with its fresh water. The dam, however, now blocks the sediments far upstream of Cairo. As a result, the delta is sinking. At the same time, the Mediterranean Sea is expected to rise as a result of global warming. Deciding on a course of action is easier said than done, however, because the rates at which the sea is rising and the delta is sinking are subjects of fierce debate. As a first, cautious step, Egypt and the United Nations are this year launching a 5-year study of the options for protecting the delta from the encroaching sea. But as Egyptian scientists rush to provide those data, the government is steaming ahead with a series of "megaprojects" to boost the country's habitable area. In the most ambitious of these, the largest pump in the world is diverting 10% of the Nile into an uninhabited region of the desert to create a new delta.