Under the (Un)Sheltering Sky – Living with Climate Change in Egypt

Published on 11 May 2021

As the day turned into night, Mai* sat across a sofa – dinted and torn in the middle from the impact of a boulder collapsing onto her living room. Plastic cover sheets are stretched below the ceiling, crumbling in the centre with cracked and exposed metal poking out at the hems. Trickles of water from the exposed sky dripped at the corner, leaving damp patches that lined her left wall. Her home, on the edge of Alexandria’s Egypt, has sustained repeated structural damage from frequent episodes of local flooding.

Mai’s family home is one of many residences in informal communities in the city reeling from an increase in extreme weather events and associated flash flooding on the Mediterranean coastline. Alexandria is routinely projected to be one of the world’s five most vulnerable major cities to climate-induced flooding, with a 2013 World Bank report suggesting that the so-called cosmopolitan entrepôt may become a major coastal flooding hotspot before the end of the century, with potential losses reaching $51 billion within two decades. At the tip of the vulnerable Nile Delta, scenarios also propose that Alexandria’s entire population could be displaced by a one-metre rise in sea levels, rendering the city “uninhabitable”.

A sweeping view of the city of Alexandria surrounded by sea

But against apocalyptic projections, routinely framed in a distant future, that depict people’s vulnerability to climate change as a mere statistical fact, little is known about how Alexandrians experience or understand environmental change today. Even more importantly, the inequalities within and between the city’s inhabitants are hardly captured or researched. For Mai’s family, the risks of floods are a lot more proximate.

“If you close the door too fast, too loudly, the top of the building starts crumbling. We are prepared to be buried alive at any minute,” Mai’s daughter reflected. At the literal and figurative margins of a city that houses two-fifths of Egypt’s industrial sector, Mai’s home in al-Matar Settlement in inland Alexandria is not formally registered and so they feel that there is no one to turn to for alternative accommodation or support.

The Frontline of Rising Sea Levels

A few hours after I left Mai’s home and made my way back to the city centre, an untimely April rainstorm began.  Like many others in the busy city, the rain may have seemed just an inconvenience for me as traffic built up on the roads with pools of water slowing down vehicles. But for Mai, the rain brought the remaining pieces of her ceiling crumbling down, missing by an inch her sleeping son. I received her call at three in the morning and all she said was “it happened” as though finally witnessing the inevitable roof collapse.

Mai spent the next few days scrambling for support from her neighbours, many of whom had their own damages to reckon with. After days of pooling resources, and mobilising support from a local charity, Mai returned to sleep in the same poorly constructed home, unable to know how long her new emergency tin roof will survive. But her everyday reality rarely makes its way into conversations about Egypt’s climate vulnerability.

By some estimates, informal settlements house a third of Alexandria’s citizens. More significantly, Alexandria’s population is likely to surge by 65 percent by 2030 – with most of this growth expected to take place in neighbourhood’s like Mai’s, which have expanded into the surrounding low-lying, rural areas of the Nile Delta. Egypt’s second-largest city has changed dramatically over the course of a few short decades, and its population growth has outstripped the city’s capacity to control it. Like many urban centres across the Global South, informal housing – on what was once agricultural land in the case of inland Alexandria – is home to thousands of the city’s poorest residents.

Alexandria is among hundreds of cities across the world on the frontlines of rising sea-levels. More than a dozen of the world’s largest urban centres are ports, and of the cities that have populations over 5 million, nearly two-thirds are in low-lying coastal zones. If roughly a quarter of the world’s population lives within 100 meters of a coast, researching questions of equality and justice in responding to rising sea levels and climate change must be a priority. It is widely understood that the impacts of climate change will disproportionately fall on the poorest and most vulnerable. It is also well established that the vulnerabilities of families like Mai’s are conditioned by interconnected socio-economic and political inequalities that do not occur in isolation from climate impacts.

Water that ‘comes out of the Floor’

Away from the coast many of Alexandria’s residents already live on land that is at or below present-day sea levels. For a lot of observers, these figures have translated into a focus on how long-term rising sea levels may ‘submerge’ the historic city, once the capital of Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Roman Egypt for a thousand years. Indeed, contemporary Alexandria stands over its predecessor, which disappeared due to a tsunami in 365 A.D. But for Mai’s next-door neighbour, living in a ground-level flat, worrying about the impacts of climate change at the end of the century is far less pressing in comparison to the experiential knowledge she has of the water “that comes out of the floor” with every unexpected rainstorm and extreme torrential flooding.

She is not occupied by the language of climate scientists, but by the recurrent reality of living with damages inside her home. For Mai, who lived with a crumbling ceiling for over two years while unable to finance repairing it, the fear of “losing everything” is not caused by changing geomorphological realities on the coastline of a city that barely knows she exists.

Government authorities have poured millions of dollars into hard protective coastal infrastructures, and local officials have made frequent pleas to expand and rehabilitate drainage networks to manage flooding episodes. But what Mai and her family need is an attentiveness to the realities of adapting to climate change in underequipped and poorly resourced urban neighbourhoods.

Mai has never been invited to share her experiences on how she and her family have coped and adapted to a changing environment. For her, the language around climate change does not capture the challenges she faces in accessing and claiming fair social and material rights. Living on the margins of the city, she fears speaking too loudly about what wintertime means for her sense of security and wellbeing may mean being forced to leave that shelter altogether. Without formal land registered and with her neighbourhood deemed by local authorities as “illegal”,  the risk of a crumbling ceiling seems better than an eviction.

Yet, Mai is among at least 1 billion  people worldwide and over a quarter of the planet’s urban population that lives in informal settlements. Despite being disproportionately impacted by climate change, they are least likely to have their needs and views represented in national and international climate conversations. In many places, their ability to join these conversations is also limited by political circumstances and the absence of mobilised community groups that can advocate on their behalf.

Ahead of COP26, centring a climate justice agenda entails acknowledging that as long as many of us go to sleep not worrying about a ceiling crushing us through the night, that our experiences of a changing climate are not the same. Climate justice, and the realities of Alexandria’s most marginalised residents, cannot be divorced from a conversation about how to finance and enable climate action. To adapt to climate change is to address and change the structural realities creating vulnerability, including the political and social conditions which inform those, and to ensure those most impacted are the ones setting the solutions. Climate justice in cities means asking questions about how Mai and hundreds of thousands of people like her experience the inequality of urban living, alongside the inequities of climate impacts.

* Names changed to protect the identity of research participants.

Dina Zayed completed her PhD at IDS. Her multi-scalar and multi-sited research on the politics of climate change examined public participation in adaptation governance processes in Egypt. This blog is based on part of her participatory fieldwork in Alexandria in 2018. 

For more information on climate justice read We need to talk about climate justice.


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