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Rising bread prices, water scarcity and a climate crisis, Egypt is on the brink

March 30, 2022 at 3:36 pm

An Egyptian man weighs potatoes at a market in Cairo, Egypt on 17 March 2022 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Last week Egypt turned to the IMF for the third time in six years to apply for a loan as the cash strapped nation reels from an 11-year autocratic regime, a climate crisis and now the Russian war.

Impact on food insecurity across the MENA region has been one of the big talking points as the conflict unfolds in Ukraine and Cairo has not escaped this. The price of cooking oil, petrol and wheat has soared in Egypt since the fighting began.

Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat with Russia and Ukraine accounting for 80 per cent of imports and 73 per cent of its supply of sunflower oil. At the beginning of March, a packet of five loaves of bread in Egypt had already risen from five Egyptian pounds to 7.5 EGP.

Before the war food prices were already at a 10 year high because of the global coronavirus pandemic and other political tensions. Add to this an impending climate crisis and things don’t look good for the North African country’s food supply.

Rising sea levels will affect Egypt’s fertile land whilst climate change has already raised the temperature of the water in Egypt, is killing off the fish and devastating its fisheries. 

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Research group Climate Tracker recently recorded how locals have dumped waste into lakes in the northeast of Egypt. Along with the toxic chemicals released into the water by factories, fish are no longer fit for human consumption.

In 2020 high temperatures across Egypt halved its agricultural production and one year later Egypt’s olive harvest dropped up to 80 per cent. The World Bank has predicted that by 2050 Egypt’s wheat and maize production will fall between 15 and 19 per cent.

An Open Democracy article on the subject estimated that failed crops in Fayoum, south of Cairo, costs the country 250 million Egyptian pounds a year.

Desertification is also a major problem because it makes farmland infertile due to lack of water for irrigation. Jobs and livelihoods are at stake, with almost a third of Egyptians being employed in the agriculture sector.

According to an Atlantic Council blog, the pressure on Egypt’s water supplies primarily comes from its expanding population which the River Nile is struggling to hydrate.

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Egypt’s dictator Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has previously said that overpopulation is a threat to national security and one of the biggest dangers Egypt must contend with. In 2018 he launched itneen kefaya, two is enough, in a bid to curb the birth rate by openly talking about contraception.

Yet it doesn’t appear to have helped. There are now over 100 million Egyptians and counting, which not only strains water resources, but also adds to poverty and unemployment. Nearly a third of Egyptians already live below the poverty line.

Construction is swallowing up farmland – roughly 415,000 acres of agricultural land in 40 years – and disrupting the country’s food production, yet it continues unchecked.

North Sinai once produced some of the best vegetables and fruit in the country, particularly olives and olive oil products, but under the so-called war on terror there the army has destroyed fertile farmland in the governorate.

As its agricultural land withers away, the Egyptian government continues to invest millions in vanity projects, most prominently the new capital, which at a staggering $45 billion will provide glitzy residential units that most Egyptians cannot afford to live it.

As the North African country declines economically, the project is a last-ditch attempt to appear as though it is thriving.

Egypt imports 40 per cent of its food making it the most food import dependent country in the world. With the recent disruption to supply, global warming and an autocratic regime with no clear plan for reversing food insecurity, Egypt looks set for an even more unstable future.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.