IF CLIMATE CHANGE DOESN’T SINK ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT’S OFFICIAL INCOMPETENCE WILL...

Concrete blocks intended to break waves are all that's left to protect the 15th-century Qaitbey Citadel from rising seas. (Photo: Sima Diab)

It's not alone among World Heritage Sites facing encroaching seas....

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt—In late October last year, a vicious storm rolled in off the Mediterranean and buried Egypt’s second city in a weeklong flurry of high winds and driving rain.

Entire neighborhoods found themselves mired in sludge and pitched into darkness after the authorities shut down substations to protect fallen electricity lines. So furious were the incoming waves that shoddily built apartment towers three blocks inland collapsed amid the relentless barraging by rain and waves from the encroaching sea.

Rising seas and harsher storms associated with global warming have been cited as causes of the recent advance of the Mediterranean on this historic city’s shores, but for many of Alexandria’s roughly 5 million residents, it was as much a glaring illustration of the crumbling infrastructure. Few were surprised that the street drains turned out to have been closed, preventing the waters from flowing back out to sea. Nor were they taken aback when security chiefs, intent on deflecting blame, insisted the banned Muslim Brotherhood Islamist group had sealed manholes with cement.

But to Alexandrians with a good grasp of history, the sight of the sea lapping the streets struck a particularly unnerving chord.

They understand well the power their port town wielded from its promontory on the North African coast before a series of earthquakes and tsunamis dashed its fortunes in 365 A.D. They keenly recount how this city of Alexander the Great once broadcast its civilization to the world through its great library and lighthouse—until both buildings disappeared into the briny shallows.

With the cobbled thoroughfares that once echoed to the footsteps of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar now hundreds of meters out to sea, Alexandrians are gloomily aware of the fate that might befall their homes and the remnants of the classical city if the waves continue their advance. Global seas are estimated to have risen by four to eight inches over the 20th century as average temperatures soared by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius, melting polar ice caps and contributing to more severe storms. When cyclone-like conditions strike, as they did in northern Egypt last year, higher water levels lead to more furious storm surges and destructive breakers. The continued emission of greenhouse gases and a carbon dioxide buildup that will likely persist for centuries has many fearing for the long-term prospects of this coastal metropolis.

All of this will be an underwater museum one day. Is it any wonder then that we all live in this nostalgia?

Omar Koreich, antiques dealer

“All of this will be an underwater museum one day,” said Omar Koreich, an antiques dealer and a longtime witness to the city’s troubles, as he swept his arm in an arc from the 15th-century citadel to the rebuilt library, which bookend the harbor. “Is it any wonder then that we all live in this nostalgia?”

Alexandria is not alone in grappling with the coastal damage under climate change. Scientists announced Monday that the current rate of sea-level rise is the fastest it’s been since 500 years before this city was founded in the 4th century BCE. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s population lives within a day’s walk of the sea. Two-thirds of our big cities are on the coast, and many may the same fate as Alexandria’s library, abandoned to the climbing ocean. Seaside settlements from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to Bangladesh’s low-lying interior have been forced to adapt to a fast-evolving environment. In most Pacific island nations and the Maldives, where the highest natural point is two meters above sea level, ministers are pushing the panic button. From Venice, Italy, to South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, to Jamestown, Virginia, the site of the first English settlement in the United States, heritage authorities are struggling to safeguard historic sites. Even affluent New Yorkers and residents of Miami and New Orleans have watched in horror as elevated ocean levels amplified the ferocity of hurricanes and tacked billions onto their cleanup bills. Around the world, flooding could cost $1 trillion per year by 2050, according to the World Bank. Guangzhou, China; Miami; New York; Mumbai, India; and Nagoya, Japan, are among those most at risk of elevated oceans.

In the Abu Qir neighborhood, on Alexandria's eastern edge, beachfront property is becoming somewhat less desirable. (Photo: Sima Diab)

Along the Egyptian coast, rising sea levels have combined with a sinking landmass. Meager sea defenses have proved unable to keep the waters at bay. As in other developing countries, in Egypt inept and corrupt officials have been found wanting in their response to what many experts see as an existential crisis.

“There’s a very serious threat from the sea, yet nobody’s actually carrying out work,” said Mohamed El Raey, a professor of environmental studies at Alexandria University, when we met in a busy downtown café. Citing research from the World Bank and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he added, “How can it be that Egypt is among the 10 most vulnerable countries and yet is number 104 in terms of adaptation measures?”

Saltwater intrusion routinely causes flooding among low-lying structures throughout Alexandria. (Photo: Sima Diab)

It isn’t difficult to see why Alexandria’s founders thought it an appropriate site to showcase their architectural and cultural riches. Surrounded by the sea on three sides and mostly cut off from the mainland by the brackish Lake Mariout on the other, it was highly defensible. The natural harbor, ready access to the Nile Delta’s lush farmland, and a commanding position overlooking the Eastern Mediterranean, around which so much international trade once revolved, must have made it irresistible to the Ptolemies, the Hellenized pharaohs who governed the Egyptian empire in its final few centuries.

But the same attributes that made the city’s location so enticing have also left it brutally exposed to the whims of the sea.

Until 1993, the Mediterranean was rising by 1.8 millimeters per year on average, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, before accelerating to around 2.1 millimeters over the following two decades. Since 2012, it’s risen by 3.2 millimeters every year and looks set to climb farther. All told, scientific and U.N. forecasts predict an increase of a meter to 1.8 meters by the time many of today’s first-graders meet their life expectancy.

On their own, such numbers should be enough to inspire deep unease in the corridors of government coastal research centers. But when combined with swift soil subsidence and rainfall that appears to be getting more intense, it’s no wonder some reckon modern Alexandria is living on borrowed time.

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“The consolidation of the soft clay on which the delta is built has been a big problem,” said Yasser Raslan, vice-chairman of the Egyptian General Authority for Shore Protection. “Until the early 20th century [when the first Aswan Dam was built], the Nile deposited 10 centimeters’ worth of silt every 100 years in the delta, but now much less gets through.” While the Mediterranean rises 3.2 millimeters a year, without regular replenishments, the ground level in the Alexandria area is dropping by around 2 millimeters annually.

“Is this safe?” I asked a doorman as he sized up a series of gaping cracks that looked to have recently opened up in the foundations of his tower block, steps from the sea in the Sporting neighborhood. “Only God knows,” he said, shrugging, before wandering back to his stoop. He’s probably right: There is no official body tasked with investigating the condition of buildings, as far as anyone can tell, nor has any money been earmarked to ameliorate the problem since subsidence became severe.

Architect Mohamed Awad in his office in Alexandria. (Photo: Sima Diab)

For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Alexandria enjoyed a reputation for bustling cosmopolitanism. Italianate architecture sprang up along the seaside corniche as the city’s Greek, Italian, Jewish, and Armenian communities vied to outdo one another. Cotton barons, fortified by bumper crops, built elaborate villas and endowed downtown cultural institutions.

But with the military’s 1952 overthrow of the monarchy, which had treated Alexandria as its summer capital, followed by the introduction of extreme nationalist policies that drove off the foreign business classes, the port’s fortunes began to plummet. Former agricultural laborers migrating from the delta boosted the population beyond the infrastructure’s capacity. When the new government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser centralized power in Cairo, three hours’ train ride to the south, it relegated “Alex” to second-city status once and for all.

“We’ve been deliberately neglected,” said Mohamed Awad, a renowned local architect and director of the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “There’s a state of imbalance in this city. It’s all become a disaster zone.”

Many hardy Alexandrians have had no choice but to take the dysfunction in stride, surfing—literally—their flooded streets behind donkey carts and offering inflatable-raft taxi services when the roughest weather hit last year. But for most, the environmental difficulties have addled their lives with a measure of difficulty they can ill afford.

Notorious for their poor construction, local tower blocks are disintegrating amid rampant saltwater intrusion into groundwater. At least 20 are reported to have crumbled during one six-day period last year—there is now a website called Egyptbuildingcollapses.org—as the sitting floodwaters ate away at the inadequate foundations. The death of a boy, killed by a falling balcony in January, was the latest in a rash of casualties with similar causes.

Dams upriver on the Nile have diminished the amount of sediment replenishing the land in and around Alexandria. Resulting ground subsidence and the lack of any inspections by an official building authority have led to dozens of collapsed buildings, such as this one in the Abu Qir neighborhood. (Photo: Sima Diab)

“Living in these buildings is like playing Russian roulette,” said Amro Ali, a researcher and an Alexandria-based political commentator. “It’s not unusual for people buying houses to ask if the building is pre-revolution or post-revolution.” In the years following the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, law enforcement tailed off and contractors took even greater liberties with building codes.

For inhabitants of Abu Qir, at the eastern edge of Alexandria’s long linear development and perched on the edge of the bay where the British torched Napoleon’s fleet in 1798, more frequent rainstorms are almost the least of their problems. It’s here, more than anywhere else, that one feels Alexandria’s proximity to the abyss. Fierce waves routinely batter windows even several floors up, inundating the neighborhood’s main shopping street and washing away its prized beaches.  

“If there’s a big flood, all of Abu Qir will be underwater. That’s why we consider ourselves an island,” said Wael El-Shams, a neighborhood resident, outside a celebrated seafood restaurant on an unseasonably warm January day.

Some residents blame the authorities for abandoning unfashionable outer districts to the elements. “Any repair work begins in Anfushi and ends in Montazah,” added Ayoub Mohammed, a friend of El-Shams’, naming two quarters closer to the governorate offices. “It was like Venice here two or three days ago, and the government didn’t pay attention.”

But with wave levels cresting at new heights—recently reaching 7.5 meters for the first time in 100 years—and builders ignoring an ordinance prohibiting construction within 100 meters of the sea, experts are uncertain what else can be done.

“Buildings in Abu Qir are 20 meters from the water. Recent events suggest waves are getting bigger. It’s not a good situation,” said El Raey.

From the Roman amphitheater, which stands only partially excavated and almost wholly ignored by visitors, to the ancient catacombs, discovered in 1900 when a donkey cart fell through the ground, Alexandria is a rabbit warren of archaeological gems. As with much of the city’s more modern construction, these sites are struggling to keep above the water line.

“All monuments in Alexandria are suffering. There are no exceptions,” said Awad.

Some of the Greco-Roman tombs at Anfushi are soaked, having spent much of the winter a foot deep in water from the Mediterranean. The frescoes and patches of Latin graffiti are fading fast, eaten away by the humidity. It’s all characteristic of a threat that hadn’t previously existed, said Jean-Yves Empereur, who has directed the French National Center for Scientific Research for 25 years. “Until 20 years ago, these tombs were above the water table, but now they’re not only flooded when there’s a lot of rain but all year round,” he said.

The situation is even worse a mile away at the Roman catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa, where not even six diesel-powered pumps, working around the clock, have been enough to keep the almost 2,000-year-old burial chambers dry. Most of the tunnel system is no longer accessible, swamped by at least 10 inches of water. Padding across boards through greenhouse-like humidity, it’s hard to imagine the sarcophagi, painted walls, and fragile relief sculptures being around for future generations of tourists and scholars to gawp at.

Empereur and Awad reserve much of their ire over the city’s disappearing heritage for unscrupulous local building firms, whose cutthroat business practices have claimed colonial-era villas and Roman temples alike.

“The fight of the archaeologist and the ministry of antiquities versus the developers is very unequal,” Empereur said.

But as seen at Abu Mena, half an hour out of the Alexandria city center and well away from sky-high land prices, surging water levels are perfectly capable of destroying these splendors without human help. The former cathedral complex once housed the body of Saint Mena, a fourth-century Coptic Christian martyr, but with the crypt flooded to the brim, water bubbling up at regular intervals, and nearby villages rendered uninhabitable, not even UNESCO World Heritage status has afforded a measure of protection.

“Dig down anywhere, and you get water after less than a meter,” said the young caretaker from southern Egypt who guards the site from looters with the help of a dozen street dogs. “It’s bad for the stone, bad for the soil.”

Saltwater intrusion has flooded the ruins at Saint Mena's monastery, an ancient Christian pilgrimage site outside Alexandria. (Photo: Sima Diab)

Faced with such a multitude of challenges and the weight of the past, it’s hard to be optimistic about Alexandria’s future.

A proud history of combating threats to the coastline, which culminated in the construction of the Muhammad Ali seawall in 1830, one of the first of its kind in the world, has fallen by the wayside. Cement and petroleum companies are alleged to have punched holes in the 20-mile-long barrier to facilitate access to the sea. Not even when the wall’s much-delayed renewal is complete do authorities expect it to match its earlier effectiveness.

“The work in the past was much better than now,” said Raslan of the shore protection agency. “It lasted almost 200 years.”

Despite the analogies of some Abu Qir residents, Alexandria hasn’t resigned itself to prolonged periods underwater as its Venetian counterparts in Italy seemingly have. Unlike Micronesia, Tuvalu, and other Pacific islets, whose leaders lobbied for urgent action at last December’s climate change conference in Paris, only a small geographic portion of Egypt is at imminent risk of sinking beneath the waves. However tragic the situation among the city’s Greek and Roman treasures might be, they can surely still be salvaged, given sufficient willpower.

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But the country’s size and the potential consequences of its failure so far to get a grip on the problem place it in its own category. An estimated 40 million people—nearly half Egypt’s population—live in Alexandria and the rest of the low-lying Nile Delta, much of which is up to five meters below sea level. With a 2011 study suggesting that climate change could cost the Egyptian economy up to $20 billion, or 7 percent of GDP, the stakes are high.

“We’ve had no interest in science and technology for 70 years, and we’re paying the price,” El Raey said.

Even after Alexandria’s worst brush with nature in recent memory, experts say that funds for preventive measures are too low. The solutions require the nation’s disparate ministries to come together, but the body formed for that purpose, the Committee for Integrated Coastal Zone Management, has never met since its formation several years ago. “The decision makers are not in harmony,” El Raey said, sighing.

But he remains somewhat hopeful that the pace of change will shake ministers from their reverie: “Sea levels are rising, and we will have no choice but to adapt.” After record heat in 2015 and unusual cold over the past few winters, he feels his concerns “are being taken seriously for the first time.”

Residents of Alexandria aren’t holding their breath, though. They’ve seen official mismanagement up close for too long and heard too many promises to believe this time will be any different. Their ancient town, some believe, is almost bound to plumb the depths before it gets another lease on life.

“This is a city that is cursed by its past. It’s cursed by its giants,” said political commentator Ali. “It cycles between rebirth and death. Hopefully we’ll get to see the rebirth in our lifetime.”

Feb 26, 2016
Based in Cairo, Peter Schwartzstein covers regional geopolitics of the Middle East for National Geographic, Foreign Policy, Politico, Quartz, and others.

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