COASTAL CITIES SUMMIT 2008 – VALUES AND VULNARABILITIES
Saint Petersburg, Florida, U.S.A., November 17-20, 2008
Harmonizing the past, the present and the uncertain future: the challenge facing the City of Alexandria, Egypt
Dr. Makram A. Gerges
Professor of Oceanography, National Institute of Oceanography & Fisheries
The City of Alexandria, once the capital of Egypt, is now the second largest city in the country, and is recognized as one of the world’s major coastal cities. Alexandria has developed and flourished throughout history on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. With its historic Library of Alexandria and Pharos Lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – Alexandria has long been considered a beacon of culture and enlightenment, and is often referred to as “the Pearl of the Mediterranean”.
The key challenge that the city faces today is how to preserve its rich cultural heritage in the face of contemporary urban, industrial, and developmental realities, taking into consideration the uncertainties related to global environmental changes.
The present paper highlights the main elements of this challenge, reviews the city’s remarkable history and cultural legacy, and evaluates the present status of the city, its current rate of growth and the related development needs. It also sheds light on the possible scenarios that the city may be confronted with in the future, with the expected climatic changes and sea level rise not so far on the horizon.
The paper also calls for urgent attention by all the Government’s concerned authorities and the relevant stakeholders in both the public and private sectors in the country. To this effect, concrete actions must be taken at all levels. Such actions should be aiming at firstly, developing an inclusive understanding of the complex problems facing the city; and secondly, setting up an integrated and comprehensive management strategy that engages an inter-sectoral group of national experts, stakeholders and decision-makers. These national efforts should also be supported by the international community; given that the city’s at-risk cultural patrimony is admittedly a part and parcel of the “World Heritage”.
In the year 332 BC, as the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great gazed out toward the Mediterranean, where the City of Alexandria-Egypt now exists, his eye was caught by an Egyptian fishing village along the Mediterranean called Raqoda or Rhakotis – just opposite of which lay the small island of Pharos. He whispered “Here, shall my dream capital erect”- invoking a spirit of charm, wisdom and passion that remains alive more than 21 centuries later. Alexander ordered his engineers to draw up plans for a city with a great harbor that would include the village and the island within its boundaries.
Our City of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great at his selected spot on the shores of the south-eastern Mediterranean in 331 BC, ruled by Cleopatra, and once rivaling Rome, has also witnessed the arrival of Napoleon in 1798 and the departure of King Farouk, the last of the kings of Egypt, in 1952. In the course of these centuries, Alexandria has inspired civilization throughout, and became home to many illustrious cultures and peoples, who have all left their traces.
Today, some 55 cities or more around the world bear the name “Alexandria”, but there is only one original, that is, Alexandria of Egypt, which is the focus of this paper.
2. Alexandria, the Past
2.1 Exposé of the Alexandrian History and Cultural Heritage:
Alexandria-Egypt that eventually became a beacon of civilization was originally intended as a new port for Egypt. It started as an obscure village near the island of Pharos, just off the coast, with a few temporary harbors, located on the Delta at the mouth of some branches of the Nile River. Later, Alexander’s engineers joined the Pharos, to the mainland by a land bridge, a narrow causeway that they named “Heptastadion” because it was seven stadia long (about 1,300 m). This causeway divided the waters of Alexandria into two parts, the Eastern Great Harbor or “Portus Magnus” and the Western Harbor or “Eunostos”. Over time, the causeway was enlarged to form the curved western arm of the Eastern Harbor. At the tip of that arm was the Pharos, the mammoth lighthouse that Herodotus listed among his seven wonders of the ancient World.
The Eastern Harbor was the main port, and the city’s palaces, gardens and government buildings were built around it. It handled the more important naval and commercial vessels. These were guided by the celebrated Alexandria Lighthouse “The Pharos”.
During Alexander’s lifetime, several developments took place that turned Alexandria from a village to a much larger city, hosting a major system of harbors that confirmed the function of Alexandria as an international trading center. Records show that around the middle of the third century BC, there was a great foreign demand on the supplies of the markets in Alexandria and Egypt.
Pharos, the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, is long gone, toppled in a severe earthquake that hit the region in 365 BC, but its place is now marked by the Fort of Qait-Bey, built at the end of the 15h century AD, by the Mameluke Sultan Qait-Bey at the eastern tip of the island of Pharos. It stands as a beautiful example of Mameluke military architecture at its best. At present, the Fortress houses a marine museum and a unique collection of weaponry recovered from sunken ships from Napoleon’s fleet.
At another site in the city, there still exists the only Roman amphitheater in Egypt, dating back to the second century AD. The site also is home to the Villa of the Birds – four well-preserved floor mosaics with images of birds, where a modern museum has been built over the artwork to protect it rather than taking the risk of damaging the mosaics by moving them to the city’s Greco-Roman Museum. The latter is another landmark of the city that consists of 27 halls and a lush garden, offering a distinctive collection of artwork that beautifully introduces the Greek and Roman art of Egypt.
The list of historical sites that demonstrates the wonderful heritage of Alexandria goes on, and is endless. It includes places such as the Pompey’s Pillar – a 30 meter tall pink granite column that has become the symbol of the Alexandria Governorate. It stands on a hill in the remains of the acropolis known as “Serapeum”, for the temple of “Serapis” that was found there. This monolith pillar, built from Aswan granite with a diameter of 2.7 m at its base and 2.4 m at its peak, was erected in honor of Diocletian, and is one of the few monuments of ancient Alexandria that are still standing.
As a witness to the modern history of Egypt, stands the “Montazah Palace”, surrounded by the Montazah Royal Gardens, located at about 15 km east of the Eastern Harbor. Situated on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, it was built over an area of 115 acres as a summer home for khedive Abbas II and for his successors of the Royal families of Egypt until 1952.
Another similarly fascinating site is the “Antoniadis Palace”, which is considered one of the most beautiful examples of European architecture in the country. In 1860, Greek Baron John Antoniadis commissioned French architect Paul Richard to build a miniature version of the Palace Versailles on a 50 acre of land. The meticulously landscaped palace gardens were and still dotted with priceless statues of great thinkers and explorers of old and modern history.
2.2 Alexandrian Underwater Heritage:
What is really fascinating about the Alexandrian heritage is that it is not limited to what has existed, or what we can still see existing on land, but it extends beyond that to what we can’t see of valuable archeological remains, submerged under water at several sites along the coast. These sites stretch from the Eastern Harbor “Portus Magnus” to Abu Qir Bay (Canopus).
At the site of the Eastern Harbor, submerged ruins of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, together with thousands of other pieces of stonework of archeological interest were recently discovered (between 1961 and 1998) (Empereur, 2000). These pieces were found scattered over an area of 2.5 hectares of the Harbor’s bottom, including hundreds of columns of all sizes, column bases and capitals, sphinxes, statues, and some immense blocks of granite which, given where they lie, certainly came from the famous lighthouse. Surprisingly, several sculptures belonging to the pharaonic era, including 28 sphinxes, bearing the insignia of the Pharaohs Sesostris III, Sethi I, Ramses II , and others, as well as obelisks with hieroglyphic inscriptions, were also found at the underwater site of the Eastern Harbor.
At the site of Abu Qir Bay (located at about 22 km east of Alexandria), the town of Abu Qir is now situated on an ancient site that was once occupied by three towns: Canopus, Heraclium and Menouthis (Morcos, 2000). The best known of these was Canopus, which stood at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile, the westernmost of the then seven distributaries of the Nile Delta.
At this very site, and under the calm waters of Abu Qir Bay, reposes part of the fleet that carried Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. The history tells us that the “Battle of the Nile” in Abu Qir Bay was a crucial turning point in the struggle between Britain and France during the 18th century, where the British naval units under the command of Admiral Nelson sank most of the Napoleon’s flotilla on 1 August 1798.
In the sixties and eighties of the last century, some dedicated team of enthusiastic French and Egyptian divers led by a gallant and committed diver and archeologist Kamel Abul-Saadat of Egypt and the French lawyer and Diver Jacques Dumas, with the help of a French minesweeper, working in close collaboration with the Egyptian Navy, were able to locate the site of the disaster of Napoleon’s famous ship “L’Orient” in Abu Qir Bay, at about 8 km from shore.
They were also able to detect the sites of the 74-gun “Le Guerrier” and the 4-gun frigate “L’Artémise”. Several other objects were found scattered on the seafloor around the wreckages, including large items such as cannons and anchors, and much smaller items such as coins, cups, pots, pistols and swords, and other household items. They practically discovered a miniature world of the things needed in daily life of the late-18th century (Morcos, 2000). Many of these items were salvaged and transferred to a temporary exhibition in Qait Bey Fort.
With the unfortunate death of the two leading divers and explorers, Abul-Saadat of Egypt (in June 1984) and Dumas of France (in March 1985), the initial plan for an ambitious project was scaled down, put on hold, and apparently cancelled. These plans included the Egyptian project (with some pledged French support) of building a museum in Abu Qir to house the recovered objects, and of maintaining two laboratories, one for the treatment of metallic finds, and the other for the non-metallic.
The above exposé of the Heritage of Alexandria cannot be complete without highlighting the modern “Bibliotheca Alexandrina”, which is more than a landmark of today’s Alexandria. It is a real achievement of modern architecture, inspired by the original “Library of Alexandria” which was considered one of the greatest of classical institutions that enlightened the whole world in all disciplines of science, history and all kinds of knowledge in the early years of human civilization.
3. Alexandria, the Present
3.1 Alexandria today:
Throughout the years, the city of Alexandria has gone through tremendous urban and demographic evolution. Its present population has already exceeded the 4 million of inhabitants (the estimated permanent population of the city in the early 2000s), occupying an area of about 300 km2, compared with merely 370 thousands, that lived in an area of about 4 km2, in 1905. This represents an increase in population of over 1000 percent. The present population density on Alexandria has been estimated at about 1,200 per km2. (Halim, 2000)
In addition, Alexandria attracts an increasing number of tourists every year, who often come to the city and its neighborhood seeking their leisure and recreation, particularly in the summer season, which has now become hotter and longer due to the climate change and global warming phenomena.
3.2 The present-day challenges of the City of Alexandria:
Alexandria today, like any other major coastal city in the world, witnesses huge social and economic development. While the urban infrastructure in and around the City has obviously needed to grow to meet the ever-increasing demands of the public, Alexandria is also faced with an unprecedented rate of industrial development, particularly in the eastern part of the city, near Abu Qir Bay and to the west of the city at El-Mex Bay.
Abu Qir is the most industrialized area of the city. It embraces several industrial complexes of varying sizes and nature, including food processing plants and canneries, chemicals and fertilizers plants, paper mills, an oil refinery and an electricity-generating station.
Similarly El-Mex area hosts another set of industries, including chemical factories, cement, iron and steel plants, tanneries of various sizes and an oil refinery. These industries in the above two areas put a tremendous pollution load on the environment of Alexandria and actually represent major environmental hot-spots.
In the mean time, the area to the west of Alexandria has in recent years perceived a high pace of tourism development, including seasonal homes and tourist resorts. These, also add a huge burden on the environment in view of the resulting domestic solid wastes and liquid discharges.
It is estimated that a daily volume of more than one million cubic meters of mixed sewage water is drained from the city into the marine environment (Halim and Abu Shouk, 2000). About one-third of this amount is either untreated or only partially treated. The other two-thirds of the city waste-water is released into the nearby Lake Maryout and subsequently pumped into El-Mex Bay, together with some agricultural runoff drained from the north-western part of the Delta. The mixed waste-water undergoes primary treatment before being pumped into the Lake.
All the above, and other land-based activities that are taking place in the coastal zone of Alexandria, obviously add colossal pressures on the coastal and marine environments and resources of Alexandria, whose environmental tolerance has already been stretched to the maximum. This represents a major concern for the city and its inhabitants.
Another important concern is the long-standing problem of beach and coastal erosion that has been observed along the coast of Alexandria over the past few decades. The geomorphologic features of Alexandria coast show that its beaches are relatively narrow with a maximum width of about 50 m, to the east of the Eastern Harbor and wider, to the west. However, some of these beaches are suffering from erosion, with an estimated shoreline retreat of 20 cm/year (Fanos, 2000). The net result is that bathing beaches, which represent an important resource for such a summer resort, are subject to continuous erosion. Each year a large amount of desert sand are spread over the beaches to compensate for the lost material, but the added sand will gradually be removed by the unending wave action and by winter storm surges.
In addition to the problems caused by beach erosion, the coastal erosion further threatens some of the city’s major engineering works, the most important of which is the recently and beautifully built waterfront highway “the corniche”, extending along the coastline for abut 16 km from Montazah to Ras El-Tin. The highway represents a significant investment of over L.E. 200 million.
Of further concern are the far-reaching consequences of the ill-conceived engineering works which modify the coastline, in response to the pressure for economic development. This obviously calls for a better and more comprehensive strategy for the city’s development that is based on sound and integrated management.
4. Alexandria and the uncertain future
4.1 Expected impacts of climate change and sea level rise on Alexandria:
Since the early 80s of the last century, when the scientific community noted, through numerical models and observations, that there are trends of sea level rise that are at variance with the normal changes we have come to expect, there has been great concern about possible inundation of several low-lying coastal areas in many parts of the world. Of even greater concern was that local changes in sea level rise in many subsided deltaic areas for the following 50-60 years may be far greater than the global rise of sea level.
The Nile Delta of Egypt was the focus of some early studies by the Global Resources Information Database (GRID) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which produced several scenarios for the various magnitudes of sea level rise and their expected impacts on the northern coastal zones and cities of Egypt, as shown below.
The above studies indicated that the northern coastal area of the Nile Delta, just to the east of the city of Alexandria, is one of the areas of the world that is most vulnerable to rising sea level. Besides, it is well known, geomorphologically, that this area of the Nile Delta has observed continuous land subsidence over the years of its history of existence.
Although Alexandria is not considered as part of northern Nile Delta proper from a geomorphologic point of view, serious implications of the sea level rise on the city must be expected. Most of Alexandria lies above 2 m; low areas are present, however, between the west and east harbors, as well as at the outlets of the Mahmoudia and Mex canals. The areas along the Alexandria coast that are vulnerable to the rise of sea level, will be the lowlands, including beaches and summer resorts, harbors, Lake Maryout and its surroundings (El Sayed, 1991).
An extensive study on the implications of climatic changes for the Nile Delta by Sestini (1992) concluded that the main problems to be envisaged as a result of sea level rise are damaging to the cities of Alexandria, Port Said and New Damietta. It was further indicated that along the Alexandria to Abu Qir coastline, increased wave overtopping of harbor structures and the waterfront road “the corniche”, and the gradual shrinking of the city’s beaches can be expected with even a mere 10-20 cm rise of sea level. This is the range of the expected increased sea level by the year 2030, with an average temperature increase of 1.5° C (Milliman, 1992). As a result, there would be increasing damage to touristic and other housing and a gradual deterioration of the more exposed, seaside parts of Alexandria.
It has to be mentioned, however, that the various scenarios concerning the expected accelerated rise in the sea level resulting from global warming and the associated climate change phenomena along the Egyptian Mediterranean coast are largely based on assumptions and uncertainties concerning the impacts of the global climatic changes at the regional and local scales, particularly in the Mediterranean region.
Due to these uncertainties, the degree and extent of the potential impacts of sea level rise on the Egyptian coastal cities, including Alexandria, has been the subject of a serious, and, as yet, unsettled debate amongst local marine scientists, coastal engineers/developers and coastal managers.
4.2 The development plan for the city of Alexandria:
The foreseen plans of the Egyptian government called for an expansion of the axes of activities of Alexandria towards the west and the southwest from the year 2005 onward (Governorate of Alexandria/University o Alexandria, 1984).
However, with due regard to its morphological sitting and the actual distribution of population and activities, the low-lying areas along the coastal stretch of Alexandria will presumably be affected by the rise of sea level. Even the rise of 10 to 20 cm, predicted for the year 2030, would magnify the impact of storm waves and surges and the extent of inland flooding during high tides, especially in those areas, where no protective works against erosion and flooding have been undertaken (UNEP/WMO, 1989).
4.3 What is at stake with the uncertain future of climate change?
The interest in the problems relating to the expected climatic changes stems from the fact that the anticipated sea level rise by the middle of this century, according to the above-mentioned scenarios, will most likely make the life in the city more difficult. In addition, it will eventually put at stake the city’s urban and industrial development and growth described above, along with its historical heritage, that the city of Alexandria has always offered to the world to cherish and enjoy.
A comprehensive report entitled “Africa Environment Outlook” (UNEP/GRID- Arendal, 2002), summarized the potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise on Alexandria as follows: “The Egyptian city of Alexandria would be severely affected, losing most of its infrastructure, the country's most popular beaches and cultural and scenic monuments. There would be associated losses of revenues from tourism and of industrial, residential and agricultural land. Alexandria's population is predicted to grow to eight million by 2030, by which time half the residents would be at risk from inundation and displacement, with fewer than 20 per cent of residents prepared to move away, and the majority of the population regarding it as the government's responsibility to provide protection. In addition to inundation of land, sea level rise would also increase coastal erosion, flooding and saltwater intrusion into underground aquifers. The coastal zone is likely to suffer increased impacts from wave action and storm surges due to sea level rise. The average rate of coastal erosion in Alexandria is currently only 20 cm/yr, but three beaches have disappeared since the beginning of this century and eight of the other twelve are showing signs of erosion”.
In view of all the above, several socio-economic activities and structures, relating to the major present-day usage of Alexandria are likely to be affected by sea level rise and the predicted inundation to a lesser or greater magnitude (see map below for the worst case scenario). The major types of today’s land use in and around Alexandria include: human population and settlements; industry and industrial infrastructure; agriculture and land reclamation; fisheries and aquaculture; communications and harbors; and bathing beaches and recreational areas.
Predicted inundation of the Nile Delta for the worst case scenario of 1 m rise of sea level
(Sources: adapted from Otto Simonette, UNEP/GRID Geneva; Prof. G. Sestini, Florence; Remote Sensing Center,Cairo; DIERCKE Weltwirtschaftsatlas)
The year 2050 has been used often as a marker for predictions and that is not so far away. Awakening the public and political leaders, and bringing this timeline to the attention of coastal cities governments and decision makers is becoming more and more vital for securing the future of coastal cities like Alexandria. However, this task should not be one of creating panic about global warming and its consequent sea level rise. Rather, it should be the task of understanding the additional problems created by the anticipated sea level rise in an environment and socio-economic setting that are already overwhelmed by the population growth, the increasing pollution and irrational utilization of resources.
5. The Challenge
The foregoing challenging problems clearly point to an unmistakable trend. Natural and cultural environmental resources are often irreversibly damaged by decisions taken and implemented without prior assessment of the consequences. This is a universal dilemma. Economic development often outweighs the concern for conservation and management of natural and cultural resources.
Such challenge, be it in Alexandria or elsewhere, should provide much useful food for thought, for the concerned managers, who are confronted with the task of finding an equitable balance between the preservation of the cities’ natural resources and economic assets, including the invaluable heritage and historical treasures, and their protection against the present pressures and future threats on the one hand, and the pursuit of sustainable coastal development on the other.
In the case of Alexandria, addressing this dilemma requires in the first place a long-term and integrated solution to Alexandria’s coastal problems.
6. Strategic Solutions
The above-mentioned complex array of environmental, socio-economic and cultural concerns, which are among the peculiarities of the city of Alexandria-Egypt, but are common to many other coastal cities in the world, brings integrated and inter-sectoral approaches to managing coastal cities to the fore.
The integrated management of a coastal city like Alexandria, with such complexities, can only be achieved through the adoption of a sound policy supported by adequate institutional and legal arrangements.
The policy will aim at ensuring that the protection of the coastal resources, living and non-living, as well as the conservation of the social, economic and heritage values remain an integral part of the development priorities of the city. It will also aim at the coordination of the sometimes conflicting interests and uses of the coastal zone and its available resources. In such approaches of integrated management, a comprehensive understanding of the existing as well as the anticipated problems is of the essence. Such policy should come within a long-term development strategy for the city.
6.1 Strategic thinking for integrated and harmonized solutions:
With the City of Alexandria as an example, the following are some general but key elements of thinking towards achieving harmonized solutions to the challenges facing any coastal city:
1. The appropriate management regime would demonstrate conceptually, then practically, that stakeholders can work together and that they add value.
2. The stakeholders in both public and private sectors must collaborate with marine scientists, coastal engineers, archaeologists, and natural- and cultural-resource managers. In doing so, there is a need to identify and characterize impacts, clarify issues of professional responsibility and standards, and improve cross-disciplinary understanding and awareness of the diverse concerns associated with the various coastal resources and their uses.
3. The expected accelerated rise in sea level along the coastlines of a coastal city should not be looked at as a separate problem, but rather as a part of a series of problems created by our neglect of both the local ecosystems and the global environment.
4. At the local level, in order to deal with such threats to the survival of cities, it is necessary to rethink our present methods of planning, management and governance of urban areas. In this respect, emphasis should be put on the integration of planning, management and governance rather than the present separation of, or lack of these functions. The traditional master plans that manage only the physical growth of the city are no longer sufficient. City administrations must begin to look at the full set of actions that would be required, in an integrated manner.
5. In practical terms, “Integration” should mean: Geographic integration; Integration across time scales (short-, medium- and long-term); Integration across sectors; Political and institutional integration; Integration across disciplines; and Integration of policy, management, education and research (Gerges, 2002).
6. Integrated management is indeed the most appropriate tool for the sustainable development of the eco-social system of the coastal cities. It reconciles development with the good ecological health of the resources, and effectively links environmental, social, cultural and economic issues.
7. Any effective coastal management program must be founded on principles that can be repeated in time and space. It must not rely solely on any individual, public official, or conservation leader, but must be founded on a series of goals and objectives established for the wise use of the coast.
8. The protection works should be aimed at protecting not only the coastal infrastructures but also the city’s invaluable archaeological sites, including the submerged underwater heritage.
9. Finally, but most importantly, it is necessary to raise awareness, through education, of the local population and of their decision-makers to plan and to take responsibility for the solution of local problems and local impacts of global issues. This awareness must be based on the best scientific information available worldwide, and integrated into locally gathered and constructed models of natural and socio-economic processes.
10. Plans and actions must be based on local conditions and should include considerations such as local way of life, social structure, community livelihood, cultural heritage, financial resources, and political setup.
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