Egypt and the Nile 5 – Climate Change and an Uncertain Future

Detail of the a Ptolomaic aged stele on a small island above Aswan telling the story of drought and famine during the Old Kingdom reign of Djoser - some 4700 years ago.

With drought in Ethiopia and East Africa comes famine in Egypt. Rainfall is sparse and cannot replace the water of river. The failure of the Nile can have profound impacts on a land with so many people dependent on one source of water. The Old Kingdom of Egypt ended at around 2200 BC – a period which experienced widespread drought in many parts of the Bronze Age world (See Syria Blog Entries). There may have been other issues promoting instability at this time, but there is evidence people lost faith in the divine abilities of the Pharaoh. The crown of Upper and Lower Egypt no longer represented a strong and unifying government and the country split into smaller satraps – this was the time of the First Intermediate Period. A time of extinguished central government and uncertainty. both contemporary carvings of famine and Ptolomaic era carvings provide evidence of severe drought and famine in Old Kingdom Egypt well before the collapse of the last dynasty.

Detail of carving from Saqqara showing famine in Old Kingdom

What does the future hold for Egypt in terms of climate change? It is difficult to predict at present in some ways. Climate models suggest that with increasing greenhouse gasses the Northern Africa and the Near East will become drier. However, for Egypt the critical question is what will happen with the flow of the Nile and this depends on conditions in Ethiopia and East Africa – here it is not as clear what will happen with increasing greenhouse gasses. It is possible that conditions will be become so dry that not even the High Dam and Lake Nasser will provide complete insulation against drought and famine.

In addition to decreased flow of the Nile, drying in the desert will drive nomadic herders off the land and put additional pressure on the Nile Valley.  Finally, drought can destabilize adjacent countries such as Sudan, exacerbate social tensions and cause carnage. The bloody and bleak situation in Dafur could be a taste of things to come.

Although what will happen to the climate and hydrology of the upper reaches of the Nile as greenhouse gasses increase remain a question – the impact of the inexorable rise of sea level if climate continues to warm is more certain. Even a modest rise of sea level would produce a loss of a significant proportion of this productive farm land – not to mention the inundation of coastal ports such as Alexandria. A rich  and technologically sophisticated nation such as the Netherlands, might be able to produce extensive dike systems to protect low lying lands, however, Egypt with a small average per-capita annual income and much less in terms of financial resources would be helpless to confront such a challenge alone. For a nation with a growing and still relatively poor population  it seems all too possible that climate change and rising sea levels could produce profound social disruption and unrest – with potential repercussions far beyond the rim of the Nile Valley.  Much to ponder as I returned to California in late November at the end of the 2008 portion of my Guggenheim Fellowship.

One thought on “Egypt and the Nile 5 – Climate Change and an Uncertain Future

  1. i love history but i have yet to finish school but history calls me so i want to know on my own out look, egypt where did every thing go? you know what i think hmmm? between water and a need for food it was hard. the artifacts is very

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: