The endangered farmland of the Nile Delta
During the time of the Pharaohs, the fertile soils along the Nile were probably home to a civilization of about 3 million people. Today, there are 30 times as many people living in Egypt, with 95 percent of them clustered in the towns and villages of the Nile floodplain. Much of the growth has occurred in recent decades, Egypt’s population has grown from 45 million in the 1980s to over 100 million today.
Only 4 percent of Egypt’s land is suitable for agriculture, and that number is declining rapidly due to a wave of urban and suburban development accompanying population growth. “It’s no exaggeration to say this is a crisis,” said Nasem Badreldin, digital agronomist at the University of Manitoba. “Satellite data shows us that Egypt is losing about 2% of its arable land per decade due to urbanization, and the process is accelerating. If this continues, Egypt will face serious food security challenges.
The Landsat image pair below shows how much farmland was lost to development around the city of Alexandria between the 1980s and 2021. Cultivated areas appear in green; cities are gray. According to an analysis of Landsat observations, the area of land near Alexandria devoted to agriculture decreased by 11% between 1987 and 2019, while urban areas increased by 11%. The images above show urbanization eating away at farmland around the towns of Tanta and El Mahalla El Kubra and between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile.
While the conversion of agricultural land to human settlements has occurred here for decades, several researchers have observed a sharp increase in the practice after the ‘Arab Spring’ shook the political and economic climate in Egypt starting in 2011. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have pledged to end unlicensed construction on farmland, although it remains a difficult practice to eradicate.
Urbanization is not the only process putting pressure on Egyptian farmlands. Sea level rise of 1.6 millimeters per year has contributed to problems of salt water intrusion and salinization of agricultural land in Egypt, especially in the delta fringes southwest of Alexandria . According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, around 15 percent of Egypt’s most fertile agricultural land has already been damaged by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion . While global warming is responsible for about half of the sea level rise affecting the Nile Delta, land subsidence (subsidence) is responsible for the other half. Natural compaction, along with the extraction of groundwater and oil, contributes to subsidence.
One response to the loss of farmland has included efforts to reclaim and re-green parts of the desert. For example, Farouk El-Baz, a Boston University scientist and member of the Apollo 11 field team, has long promoted a plan to build a vast corridor of highways, railroads, pipelines water and power lines to stimulate the development and establishment of new agricultural land in the deserts west of the delta.
Although this project has not yet come to fruition, large swathes of desert have been converted to agricultural land in recent decades. The pair of images below show new farmland and the emergence of several new towns along the Cairo highway. A mixture of center pivot irrigation and drip irrigation, fed by groundwater pumps, makes agriculture possible in this region, Badreldin said. While small-scale subsistence farming is common in the main part of the delta, most producers on the desert edge grow grains, fruits and vegetables for export abroad.
“It is certainly possible to establish new agricultural land from the desert by tapping into groundwater resources, but it is a difficult, resource-intensive and expensive process,” Badreldin said. “Poor soils and the intensive resources required to farm in the Western Desert are a poor substitute for the richer and more fertile soils in the Delta. “
Boston University researchers Curtis Woodcock and Kelsee Bratley analyzed decades of Landsat observations as part of a Boston University effort to track changes in the availability of farmland in the Delta over time. “We are certainly seeing an expansion in the wilderness, but there are nuances to this story,” said Woodcock. “After being cultivated for a while, we also see a significant amount of this new farmland being declassified and becoming desert again. “
NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the US Geological Survey. Story of Adam Voiland.