Egypt’s environmental history offers a warning for COP27

For two centuries, Egypt’s infrastructure projects have realised some goals — but most also turned into disasters of different kinds. Alan Mikhail, author of My Egypt Archive, gives his perspective in this blog post originally published by The Washington Post.

Peatonal Sultan Qaboos, Sharm El Sheik, Egipto” by Edgardo W. Olivera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This week, the global environmental elite will gather in the Egyptian tourist city of Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the world’s largest coordinated initiative to attempt to address climate change. Egypt has a long history of environmental policymaking and, as host, it will influence the conference’s agenda.

Egypt is home to the world’s longest river and one of the largest cities in Africa and the Middle East. It possesses a written record of nearly 5,000 years of human interactions with nature, longer than most other places in the world. Egypt’s environmental history offers an important lesson for global policymakers today: Centralised authoritarian states are not equipped to address environmental change.

For the past 200 years, the Egyptian state has brought its power to bear on the management of land, water, infrastructure and agriculture. As governments in Egypt and elsewhere have centralised and monopolised power over the environment, they have distanced those who make decisions from those who must deal with the outcomes of those decisions. The result is an environmental policy that ignores individuals’ experiences with and knowledge of their environments in favour of silver bullet solutions that nearly always fail.

Environmental management became a priority for the burgeoning Egyptian state at the turn of the 19th century. As it sought to build a commercial economy that could extract value from the environment, it enacted unprecedented policies to control land and labor. The Egyptian government multiplied its military capabilities and Cairo’s political authorities entered into the lives of ordinary Egyptians in new ways. Instead of continuing to irrigate their lands or tend their crops and animals as they always had, Egyptians were now asked to manage land as the state and its experts, many of whom increasingly looked to European models, saw fit.

But every canal, field and water buffalo is different. No idealized central management system could possibly attend to such variation. This did not stop the Egyptian state from trying though. Since roughly 1800, it has attempted to meet myriad ecological particularities with a single national solution, usually in the form of some grand infrastructure plan, often financed through global capital with revenue going to Egypt’s elite.

Consider for example the construction of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1971. Riding high after his victory in the Suez War of 1956 and with his anti-colonial stock rising, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser styled the dam a symbol of freedom and resistance. He and his government touted the promise of Egyptian independence not only from imperial power but from the vagaries of the annual Nile flood as well. Taming the river would also generate hydroelectricity and increase the acreage to grow food for an expanding population.

Aswan High Dam, built to control the Nile floods, store water and produce 2,1 GW of electricity” by Jorge Lascar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In many ways the dam met these goals, but at a steep price. It flooded the historical homeland of Egypt’s marginalised Nubian community, bringing death, displacement and the loss of cultural autonomy. It robbed downstream farmers of water their families had relied on for centuries. It led to massive water loss through evaporation from the lake formed behind the dam, with the weight of that water also increasing the area’s seismicity.

Completed a century earlier, the Suez Canal, long a dream, produced similar consequences. It facilitated faster transportation between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, but the global financing behind its construction threw Egypt into debt, a contributing factor to the British colonisation of Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Today, the canal generates enormous revenue for the state, but much of this goes to servicing Egypt’s massive debt burden, up to half of its annual GDP by some estimates, money that might otherwise support badly needed social services. Egypt’s history of debt traces back to the 19th century and its grand designs of environmental manipulation.

Capesize bulk carrier at Suez Canal Bridge.” by AashayBaindur is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But, as always with economic development in Egypt, the country’s elites stood to gain from these efforts. In addition to the hydropower the state now controlled, the expansion of farming allowed by the dam lined the pockets of agribusiness executives, and the need to replace the silt lost behind it proved a boon to fertilizer and chemical companies.

In short, time and time again many of Egypt’s infrastructural projects over the last 200 years have realized some of their intended objectives in terms of revenue generation and nationalist rhetoric. But, most of them also turned into disasters of different kinds, leading to massive human displacement, coerced labor, the destruction of human habitation, the collapse of environmental resources, countless deaths during construction, unintended ecological consequences and often massive debt.

Today, the particular ways climate change is predicted to affect Egypt are dire — temperature rises on the order of half a degree per decade, desertification, coastal erosion and water scarcity. Doing more of the same by attempting an ostentatious solution implemented from on high would only repeat the policy mistakes of the previous two centuries.

This history matters because in all their language about COP27, Egypt’s leaders clearly see the lavish conference as another plan of environmental manipulation. One of Egypt’s primary goals for the conference is to secure debt-for-nature swaps — the cancellation of portions of its debt in exchange for promises to put that money toward green efforts. In other words, the Egyptian government sees COP27 as its latest silver bullet opportunity.

If history is any guide, such diversions of funds will almost surely benefit Egypt’s reigning crony capitalist class and their allies in the military, an elite that has today adopted the language of environmental sustainability and mitigation to meet its own ends. This money will almost certainly not be directed to addressing Egypt’s real and pressing environmental challenges, and it will definitely not benefit ordinary Egyptians.

Whether in Egypt or elsewhere, history teaches us that only with a government accountable to its citizenry — one in which resources go toward the people’s problems rather than into the pockets of a corrupt elite and wherein the ideas and experience of the collective are taken seriously — can a challenge like climate change be effectively addressed.

Alan Mikhail is the Chace Family professor of history and chair of the department of history at Yale University.

His new book is My Egypt Archive reveals the workings of an authoritarian regime from inside its institutions in the decade leading up to the Arab Spring and, in doing so, points the way to exciting new modes of historical inquiry that give voice to the visceral realities all historians experience.

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