Houses claimed by the canal: life on Egypt's climate change frontline
Houses claimed by the canal: life on Egypt's climate change frontline Global development Houses claimed by the canal: life on Egypt's climate change frontline
In Alexandriaâs âLittle Veniceâ, a poor fishing community faces the demolition of its homes and loss of its livelihood thanks to rising seas â" and a local government keen to clear its slums
On t he banks of the El Max canal near the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, one man untangles fishing nets in his turquoise-painted boat as the sound of a sledgehammer hitting bricks ricochets down the waterway.
Others lean out of their windows on one bank of the canal, staring at the growing piles of rubble of what was once rows of homes on the opposite bank. The previous occupants as well as those looking on are a harbinger of thousands who will be forced to leave their homes due to climate change.
Abir Mohamed Abdel-Salam says she doesnât remember exactly when the canal water first rose above the height of her front window, pouring into her house. âIt would reach the top of my thighs,â she says. Black fumes rise overhead from the adjacent petroleum factory.
For years, flooding has been a regular occurrence, and now she knows her emergency response by heart.
âFirst I would send someone to turn off the pumps,â she says, referring to the nearby pu mping station designed to prevent flooding on an adjacent coastal road, one driven by wealthy Egyptians en route to their summer homes. âThen we would build a fort inside our house with the furniture.â
The three tiers of crumbling cement houses in El Max once formed the backbone of a 1,000-strong fishing community. But since March, the local authorities have forced half the residents out of their homes and into bleak tower blocks overlooking the canal they once depended on for their livelihood. Those that remain await the demolition of their homes, gazing at the rubble on the opposite bank as a reminder of what awaits them.
Alexandria is a city on the frontline of climate change. According to United Nations figures, even a 50cm sea-level rise will destroy its beaches entirely, while âthe Alexandria lowlands â" on which the city of Alexandria originally developed â" are vulnerable to inundation, waterlogging, increased flooding and salinisation under accelerated sea-level riseâ.
The UNâs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that global sea levels are expected to rise by as much as 68cm by 2050, flooding parts of Alexandria and seeping into the groundwater. It will also cause building collapses and force saltwater into vital farmland in the nearby Nile Delta region, destroying livelihoods and forcing more internal displacement.
The plight of El Maxâs residents is an early warning sign, the firs t wave of thousands who will be forced to move due to the effects of climate change on the area, in particular nearby Lake Mariout.
âThere are many areas around the lake that are located at least 3m below sea level,â says Alexandrian climate scientist Mohamed El Raey. â[They] will have to be abandoned and the people relocated. In these low-lying areas, there will be hundreds of thousands of people affected by flooding.â El Raey estimates that the government will be forced to move residents in less than 10 years.
These displaced people will form part of a growing global problem. The UN estimates that since 2009, one person every second has been displaced by a climate-change related disaster.
El Max is an unknown corner of the city to many Alexandrians, tucked away between a tangle of concrete overpasses, flat planes of polluted industrial wasteland and dust-choked streets where thick, dark clouds from nearby factories have coated every visible surface. Much of the surrounding area appears almost hostile to human life, despite its placement between the fertile Nile Delta and the Mediterranean coast.
The area is known as Alexandriaâs own Little Venice, a community of people dependent on the water for their way of life and the rows of pastel-coloured homes that once sustained them. The decades-old informal dwellings are considered âslumsâ by the local government. The area has also featured in Eg yptian film as a place of gangsters and illicit trading, generating rumours of real-world crime.
âThis is Venice-El Max!â laughs Ahmed Saber, guiding his boat through the soupy brown water on the canal. Pollution from nearby factories has turned it into thick sludge, killing off many of the fish needed for the fishermen to survive. âIt feels like Venice â" I have a boat like they do in Europe. But itâs all about to be destroyed,â he says, as his boat passes another with rows of teeth painted at the bow to resemble a shark.
Saber, like many others in El Max, has repeatedly refuted signs of flooding that are all around them, from layers of rust on the bars on windows and doors to the water-worn steps that run between the houses. It seemed that admitting to the problem meant taking the side of the local authorities, who they said had been threatening the move for several years.
But by June this year, when half the community were forced to relocate, som e residents were willing to be more open about the flooding.
The original problem, explains El Raey, stems from Lake Mariout. âThe lake is almost 3m below sea level, so waste water dumping there causes fluctuations in the canal,â he says. âThe buildings along the canal are also located below sea level.â The situation is worst in the winter, when the sea level rises.
Annual rainfall on Egyptâs coast has recently reached unprecedented levels, such as in 2015, says Dr Khayal Zahra of Egypt âs Coastal Research Institute. âClimate change-related problems meant that the amount of rainfall exceeded 227mm in two days.â The average rainfall had been 250mm a year, for the past 100 years. Excess rainfall exacerbates the rising levels of polluted water in El Max, overloading the nearby pumping station and raising the water levels of the canal until it floods residentsâ homes.
But the rising waters on Egyptâs coastline will not affect everyone equally: Egyptâs poorest, living on the waterâs edge or dependent on its resources, are vulnerable to the first and worst effects of climate change. They are also the authoritiesâ frequent target for forced relocation plans aimed at alleged illegal construction in areas they seek to reclaim.
âThe state is working to end the issue of slums by 2022,â says Mohamed Sultan, a spokesman for the governor of Alexandria, referring to a state-wide initiative by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to eradicate informal h ousing, known as ashwiyyet â" urban working class centres often associated with both poverty and social discontent. Although several generations of families live in El Max and have paid rent for decades, the government claims the homes were built illegally and that the only solution is forced relocation, and demolition.
âThe governorate has already started relocating the residents to a much safer area,â says Sultan, in reference to an austere cluster of red and sand-bricked tower blocks. The buildings are closer to the nearby beach, putting them in the path of future rising tides. âThe previous houses were considered dangerous for the lives of the residents, as the water level increased and entered the homes, risking the lives of those who lived there,â he says.
The governorate insists that a new port will allow residents to fish, and store their equipment. But none of the residents the Guardian speaks to in El Max seem aware of the opportunity, viewing the move as a blow to their way of life and a shove into potential unemployment. They also cite a steep rise in rent, from under Â£1 a year to almost Â£9 each month â" a sum that is untenable for many. It will mean packing extra family members into homes that residents like Abdel-Salam brand tiny compared with the houses they had before.
âThe water is an excuse for the government to relocate people,â says Ali Abdel Rahman, a 63-year-old fisherman who sits inside the small blue-and-white-painted hut where he stores his fishing equipment. The room smells of saltwater, and most surfaces are encrusted with either salt, or rust. Outside the shop he sometimes cooks his catch on a small grill, and chats to his neighbours. He is cynical about government promises.
âIâm 63. Thereâs nothing I can do other than fish,â he says. âThey say theyâre building us new homes â" but these houses arenât homes, theyâre just offices,â he adds bitterly.
Abdel Rahman, Abdel-Salam and other residents are certain that their lives in the new tower blocks might be a reprieve from the floods, but that the move will tear them away from their way of life.
âThere, we have a sea view â" but nothing else,â says Abdel-Salam.Topics
- Global development
- Climate change
- Middle East and North Africa
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