The Nile Delta Symposia is postponed until further notice. Plenaries planned for this symposium include the following:

1st Plenary: Deltas under the threat of rising sea levels
2nd Plenary: Renewable Energy
3rd Plenary: Climate Change and Africa: Land and Biodiversity
4th Plenary: Climate Change and Africa: Water
5th Plenary: A New Outlook for the Global Environment

More details on each, below: 

1st Plenary:
Deltas under the threat of rising sea levels

A delta is at once the richest and the most vulnerable part of a river. This is true both in terms of a water biosphere, and in terms of the use offshore that human populations make of river deltas. The delta is the flower or blossom of a river, where a narrow water flow proliferates into countless and multicolored forms of natural growth. Here many different ecospheres intersect, in seasonal rhythms, and in effect fertilize each other in the manner of bees exploiting a flowering bush.

In human terms, deltas tend to carry large and exceptionally dense populations. It follows that climate change through global warming will lead to major disturbances of delta ecology. For example, a permanent rise in the adjacent sea level, or temporary flooding, carries catastrophic human consequences: huge loss of life, and/or displacement of populations which may become permanently homeless.

Deltas fulfil a number of functions which are vital to the biosphere and to human ecology. These include silt deposit, which accounts not only for the exceptional fertility of delta soils, but provides rich nutrients above all for species of breeding fish. Deltas (the Danube provides a well-known example) are probably the richest concentrations of biodiversity on earth.

Deltas, like other wetlands, can absorb, dilute, and sometimes neutralise harmful deposits carried downstream. Among other benefits, this protects the life systems in the shallow seas offshore, close to the delta. A second filter function is the way that river deltas can absorb or mitigate sudden exceptional water flows: storm surges or rain-caused flooding. A Mississippi river in better condition might have headed off some of the damage caused by the Katrina hurricane.

Deltas also have great biological and ecological significance as interfaces between fresh and marine/saltwater systems. Global warming and the degeneration of deltas will see this interface moving rapidly inland, ending another ancient function of river deltas: the creation of new land out of silt and mud deposited at the outer rim of the delta fan.

Deltas of great rivers often have an international personality. They present human political institutions with difficult choices. Just as river lines are frequently used as apparently permanent and unchallengeable demarcations between states or regions, so the same attempt at demarcation is often applied to deltas. This often leads to absurd situations in which one ‘frontier’ channel silts up and a nation-state demands ‘sovereignty’ over channels which are essentially changing and impermanent.

The anthropogenic threats of river deltas are mainly three. The first is massive deposit of downstream toxic materials, which undermines the organic structures of the delta. The second is the expedient, tempting in countries with soaring urban populations, of draining large sections of a delta and putting its rich soils under industrialised agriculture for food production. The third threat is the indirect problems created by large-scale upstream dams. These have several powerful and negative consequences. The first is to reduce or abolish the seasonal flow and deposit of silt through delta flooding, a process which is the very life-rhythm of a delta. This rapidly reduces soil fertility, and can lead to progressive depopulation. The second malign outcome is to accelerate river flows, thus increasing scour and bringing material downstream at a rate which may overwhelm the delta’s absorbent ‘filter’ capacity. The last negative effect is on the ecosphere, not only of the delta itself but of the whole region. High dams make it impossible for ‘anadromous’ fish species (salmon, sturgeon etc) to run upstream to breed, with a disastrous impact on biodiversity and on local and regional fisheries.

The local issues concerning the Nile Delta involve the predicted sea level rise associated with climate change, which would have dramatic consequences on the area. Much of the Delta would be submerged, spelling the loss of Egypt’s main food-producing region and its agricultural land. Also, parts of Alexandria would be submerged, leading to the migration of huge numbers of Delta population, possibly numbering up to 6.5 million.

Many measures are being taken by the Egyptian authorities to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the Delta, and on Egypt generally. The future of the Delta as an ecosystem is in the balance.

2nd Plenary:
Renewable Energy

Using a change in energy production methods as an opportunity to redefine personal and common values, technology can be combined with the will to create alternative energy systems that benefit everyone.

Current energy systems based on fossil fuels benefit few and are directly harmful to many. Alternative energy sources (solar, wind, wave, etc.) are by their nature common. They inherently suggest a more cooperative attitude towards energy production and use.

The deserts of North Africa hold the potential for enormous amounts of power, thousands of times more than are needed regionally. If that solar energy were properly harnessed, it could not only supply current energy demands for many nations, but also power desalination plants on many coasts to alleviate global water shortages.

This plenary will address the possibilities of implementing both large and small scale energy plants, according to the available resources of particular regions. For countries with capital and stable infrastructure, large scale systems create substantial amounts of power from a renewable source while simultaneously fostering positive international relations. Stability and security will result from the abundance of energy, without the negative effects of environmental degradation.

Small scale systems generate independence for rural areas, eliminating reliance on unstable, overstrained, or nonexistent centralized services. There are tremendous opportunities to apply renewable energy technologies to benefit the rural areas of Africa, India, China, and Latin America. Modular units could bring electricity to homes, schools, and hospitals; with health benefits through the decrease of bio-mass burning, and increased education opportunities created. If micro-finance assistance programs were created, villages all over the globe could implement renewable energy sources.

The general condition of weak economic development provides an opportunity for ‘leaps of progress’ in renewable energy and modern communications, bypassing interim stages experienced by other parts of the world. These efforts not only help local people, but can have a noticeable impact on emissions responsible for global climate change. Africa is well positioned for a significant transformation, with benefits not only for local communities, but the entire world.

There are exciting examples from sub-Saharan Africa, India, and other developing areas that can teach us about these promising improvements as well as a growing body of research and analysis of their economic, sociological and political dimensions.

Just as the problems of the current fuel production/consumption system have infiltrated many other aspects of our lives through global warming and climate change, the beneficial implications of these new energy systems would be enormous and far-reaching.

3rd Plenary:
Climate Change and Africa: Land and Biodiversity

Dryland ecosystems constitute 41.3% of earth surface area and are highly vulnerable to land degradation. Drylands support the livelihood of over 2 billion (1/3 of the world population - 2000) in over 110 countries. 70% of Africa depends directly on such systems for their daily livelihoods.

Drylands have great biological value and are home to many of the world’s food crops and livestock (rangelands support about 50% of the world’s livestock - cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goat: FAO 2001).

It is estimated that over 3.6 billion hectares (25% of earth’s land) are affected by land degradation, including many of the least developed countries in Africa and other regions. The global economic cost of land degradation was estimated by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification at 52 billion dollars per year (UNCCD, 2002).

Drylands ecosystems have developed unique strategies to cope with harsh climatic conditions. They are highly resilient and can recover quickly from disturbances like fires, limited rainfall and drought. However, these ecosystems as well as other natural ecosystems become fragile when they are abused by humans. Over-exploitation of resources driven by high demand due to population increase, coupled with inappropriate agricultural practices and poor management, are key drivers for land degradation and biodiversity loss. This situation is exacerbated by climate change, a mainly man-made global problem.

4th Plenary:
Climate Change and Africa: Water

Water is an element that binds and connects diverse ecosystems and peoples. It is also an element that will be greatly affected by climate change which will in turn directly affect the ability of people in Africa to draw on the water resources necessary to maintain agriculture and important ecosystems. Freshwater is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, ensure development and the ecosystems upon which we depend. Former UN Secretary-General Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali once commented: ‘The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.’

Global water resources are estimated at 1.4 billion Km3, only 2.5% of which is freshwater, unevenly distributed. 68.9% of freshwater resources are in the form of ice and permanent snow, 30.8% in the form of ground water including soil moisture/ swamps/permafrost, and 0.3% as rivers and lakes. Usable fresh water for ecosystems and humans is +/-200,000 km3 (less than 1% of all fresh water, 0.01 % of all water on Earth) mostly located far from human populations.

Population growth and consumption patterns have decreased annual water share per capita from 12900m3 in 1970, to 9000 in 1990 and to 7000 in 2000, and this is projected to drop to 5100 m3 by 2025.

Water scarcity drastically affects the world population. Over one-third of the world's population is under moderate or severe water stress, with African countries mostly affected. Per capita share of <1700m3 defines water stress and <1000m3 defines scarcity (UNPD, UNEP, WB, and WRI, 2000). Three billion people will, it is estimated, suffer water stress by 2025, with 80 million extra people ping into the water supply yearly.

Polluted water affects the health of 1.2 billion people and led to 3 million deaths in 1990, 85% of whom were children. In 2000, 1.2 billion people lacked access to safe water sources and 2 billion lacked access to adequate sanitation.

Water scarcity coupled with poor management and climate change leads to land degradation and biodiversity loss, and would, if continued, result in devastating impacts on ecosystems’ well being.

This plenary will address the water crisis and its global and regional implications on water resources and economic/social/environmental implications. Also to be discussed are Integrated Water Resource Management tools (IWRM is a process ‘to promote coordinated development of water, land and related resources, in order to maximise the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems’) and alternative non-conventional water resources and technologies for water harvesting and conservation.

5th Plenary:
A New Outlook for the Global Environment

By late 2008 it could be argued that after several years in which humankind seemed impotent or merely indifferent in the face of an onrushing catastrophe of climate change, circumstances have altered in ways which might be seen to offer hope.

The first factor is the sudden downturn in the international economy. Though it is undoubtedly set to deliver widespread human misery, it has achieved what international environmental action over more than a decade had failed to accomplish: it slowed the growth of the carbon-burning economies worldwide and offered a breathing space to the planet.

Second, as governments around the world agree on the need to support their economies by spending, it has become possible to imagine that they might spend their money on the environment. Thus we have an opportunity for very large-scale international investment in the green projects and technologies that are essential to climate change adaptation.

Third, the US presidential election replaced an administration which was a significant obstacle to coordinated international action with one which has promised “a new chapter in American leadership on climate change”.

These developments were unlooked-for and indeed unimaginable even at the time of the 2007 Symposium in the Arctic, but is the opportunity they appear to present real or illusory? Is it too late to make a difference? And if it is not too late, how can we ensure that the opportunity is seized?

The final plenary of the Symposium, falling as it does mid-way between three important changes and the Copenhagen conference of 2009, offers a valuable opportunity to take stock. This plenary, moreover, takes place in Africa, the continent which has done least to provoke climate change and is likely to feel its consequences first in terms of hardship, dislocation, and hunger.

Some of the questions to be addressed in this plenary will be: What is the relationship between the economic downturn and the environment? Does it offer an opportunity, or is too late? Are governments seizing the opportunity to spend their money on climate change adaptation? What has been the impact so far of the new US administration? Are we doing enough to ensure that when economic growth returns, we do not repeat our earlier mistakes? Does Africa, as the most exposed continent, have the priority it should?