CAIRO – 15 September 2017:Walking down the Alexandria Corniche, you can’t help but gaze over to the historical castle that stood witness to the city’s rich history for over 500 years. Qaitbay Citadel was built in 1477 by Sultan Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaitbay on the original site of the Alexandria Lighthouse, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World, to guard against Ottoman invasions. Since the times of the Mamlukes, the citadel has stood the test of time, rising strong as a bastion protecting the old city. Nearby, exactly 15 meters away, lie the sunken monuments, 2,500 archeological pieces dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty.
But climate change is putting these heritage sites, and several others, in danger.
Rising sea levels due to climate change have caused the partial collapse of Qaitbay, with seawater found beneath the northern part of the citadel and waves hitting the upper northern part and boring holes into the walls. This has prompted the government to start considering solutions to protect against the inundation or collapse of the citadel.
“The movement of the sea has pulled sands away from the citadel, exposing it to danger,” Osama el-Nahas, head of the Sunken Monuments department at the Ministry of Antiquitiestold local media in July.
Partial collapse in the Citadel due to the climate change- photo courtesy of the National Authority for Shore Protection
Ahmed Abdel-Aal, head of the Egyptian Meteorology Authority (EMA), believes that changing sea levels would affect a part of the citadel if the sea level rose by 1.5 to 2 meters; something that June 2016 report by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expects to happen by 2100. “If the government does not take all possible measures to protect the citadel, a big part of it could be influenced by the climate change.” He ruled out that the fort could totally be inundated, adding that, “If sea level rises by 4 meters, which could be in the very long run, the citadel and whole Delta will inundate.”
But the threat of inundation is not caused by the sea level rising alone; erosion is also a threat. Abdel-Aal adds that if the citadel erodes beneath the sea waves and the government doesn’t take action to protect it, it could, in fact, collapse. The Supreme Council of Antiquities had previously put in place a total of 180 cement stones, each weighing several tons, along its northern part in the early 1990s to protect the northeastern perimeter from erosion, according to UNESCO data.
Egypt is signatory to the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement aiming to keep global warming “well below” two degrees celsius and has been working on strategies against climate change threats for several years.
The Authority of Shore Protection (ASP) is setting up a LE 100 million project to protect the fort from collapse, Water Resources Minister Deputy for Shore Protection Affairs Taha el-Erian tells us. “Breakwater poles will be installed in a very thin passage between the citadel and cement stones before its northern ramparts,” el-Erian explains, noting that this passage is the only place where poles could be set without damaging the ancient sunken monuments around the citadel.
A map shows where water break poles to be installed in a narrow passage in front of the citadel- photo courtesy of the Authority of Shore Protection
The authority is waiting for approval from the permanent committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities to start the project; a committee formed by the prime minister has already agreed on the project, el-Erian says, adding that the Cabinet’s committee said the authority should coordinate with the Ministry of Antiquities to begin work.
After the Ministry of Antiquities found water at the citadel, it sent a team to restore the area where the sea had created a hole, the head of the ministry’s Islamic Monuments Sector, Saeed Helmy, tells Egypt Today. “I inspected the citadel myself. It is in good condition and it is safe and there are no threats,” Helmy says. But experts agree that climate change’s impact on important sites lying by the sea needs to be addressed, with historical sites like Qaitbay already seeing some damage, albeit minor ones.
“The Ministry of Antiquities initiated a project to fix the place of holes, which were found in upper northern part of the citadel,” Helmy says. “Specialists, geologists and experts are conducting studies on the citadel’s lower part, which extends into the water.”
Concerning the ministry’s mitigation strategies against sea level rise, Helmy says that one of the solutions under discussion is to build a wall about 15 meters away from the citadel, separating it from the area of the sunken monuments. “The citadel or any vital institution should be completely isolated from any sea waves or currents; then there should be dewatering process in the places where water is found,” Ahmed Fawzy Diab, water expert at the Desert Research Center, says.
After the dewatering process, the citadel’s floor should be refilled to strengthen the ground beneath the fort, Diab says, noting that the detach breakwater process (building a coast-parallel construction inside or outside the sea surf as a shelter from sea waves) should be carried out at this time. Diab says the center can coordinate with the Ministry of Antiquities to protect the citadel using modern techniques.
Citadel of Qaitbay- Google map image
Racing against the elements
Qaitbay Citadel is not the only Alexandrian monument that is vulnerable to the sea, particularly with increasing sea levels. The 800-meter-long Alexandria Corniche, which is opposite the Unknown Soldier Memorial, is also vulnerable to collapse due to increasing sea levels, Erian says. “We also found collapsed parts that form holes along this part of the Corniche,” he reveals.
The ASP is working on an eco-friendly dike, a sheet of rock that is formed in a fracture of a pre-existing rock body, to create a wall in front of the shores, says Salwa Abdel-Basset, head of the Central Administration at the Shore Protection Authority. Abdel-Basset adds that the project, which runs from Burullus City to Rosetta in the governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh with a total length of 46 kilometers, aims to protect Egypt’s low-lying shores.
The authority has hired a company to build another wall into the sea, at a cost of LE 17 million, to protect El-Abd village in Rosetta from the rise of sea levels, Erian says. The projects are conducted with the Shore Institute, which is affiliated with the Water Research Center, to monitor sea levels, Abdel-Basset adds. Egypt will also receive a financial aid from the Global Environment Facility to protect the shores from inundation.
With increasing carbon dioxide emissions leading to global warming, the melting ice around the earth as well as the El Nino phenomenon (releasing ocean heat into the atmosphere) are causing sea levels to rise. In the period between 1910 and 2010, Egypt’s sea level rose by a total of 11.3 centimeters, increasing by an average of 0.113 centimeters annually. In the past seven years, however, increases have slowed down, rising by 0.3 to 0.5 centimeters in most areas, with an average of 0.04 to 0.07 centimeters annually, compared to the former rate of 0.113, according to Abdel-Aal. “That does not mean we are safe; we still face threats to Egyptian coasts,” he warns. “The Egyptian General Authority for Shore Protection is doing well and we have to take all possible measures to protect the shores.” That also doesn’t mean that the general trend is not going upward; despite some fluctuations between one year to the other, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that the sea level is rising at an overall increasing rate.
“However, it’s uncertain whether that acceleration will continue, driving faster and faster sea level rise, or whether internal glacier and ice sheet dynamics—not to mention natural climate variability—will lead to ‘pulses’ of accelerated melting interrupted by slowdowns,” the report outlines, adding that in 2012 scientists expected that the global sea level would rise at least 20.3 centimeters but no more than 2 meters by 2100.
A recent study by the University of Illinois in Chicago argues that the increasing sea levels could double the number of water-related natural disasters in the tropics by the middle of this century. The study, which was published in Nature journal on May 18, 2017, estimates the rate of sea level rise to accelerate from the current rate of 3 to 4 millimeters annually due to ocean warming and ice melting. “ The 10 to 20 centimeters of sea-level rise, expected no later than 2050, will more than double the frequency of extreme water-level events in the tropics, impairing the developing economies of equatorial coastal cities and the habitability of low-lying Pacific island nations,” the study warns. et