In November 2022, the COP27 climate change summit was hosted in Egypt. It’s a country where the environment and its vital resource, the Nile, were once protected by the ancient people and their gods. The Pharaohs lived in harmony with the land, understanding the natural variations and seasonal changes, creating the most incredible civilisation in history. 

But today that historic bond is severely fractured - with unprecedented population growth and urbanisation, combined with a changing climate, having an almost irrevocable effect on Egypt’s monuments and the environment. The contrast between the ancient and the modern could not be greater.

Travelling in Egypt while world leaders were deliberating at COP27 gave me a clear context for exploring the contrasts and challenges facing the country. In Cairo and Luxor, and while sailing the Nile to Aswan, I became keenly aware of the difficulty in balancing preservation of the environment and ancient monuments (so vital to tourism), while managing rapid growth and urbanisation.

The Great Pyramids, once visible from afar, are now surrounded by urban development in almost every direction. Cloaked in air pollution, overrun by tourists, and in poor condition, some commentators say they now symbolise Egypt as a whole, where overpopulation, failed policies, corruption, and resource mismanagement has eroded its illustrious past and chewed up its fertile land.

The Nile, that lifeblood of Egypt, is under enormous pressure due to population growth, but also because of the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970 and hailed as the panacea to water and food shortages, it removed seasonal floods thereby encouraging further urbanisation. The dam also stemmed the flow of vital nutrients for agricultural land, reducing productivity and encouraging water and fertiliser misuse.

And now climate change is amplifying the impacts of human activity. Reduced rainfall is accelerating the Nile’s problems and water supply issues. And extreme temperatures are having a visible effect on ancient structures (already struggling due to mass tourism) with severe cracks and structural deterioration becoming a major concern.

At the end of 2022 Egypt’s population stood at 107 million (rising by 1 million in 7 months), so it won’t be easy slowing the country’s trajectory. But equally it will be difficult halting the damage being caused by this growth and by the changing climate. How the country balances these competing forces will determine its future

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