Salt resistant crops and the race to secure the resilience of smallholder farmers in Egypt’s Nile Delta

While water covers 70% of our planet, its abundance is a misleading testament to its availability and quality for human consumption and agriculture. Freshwater, the lifeblood of ecosystems and societies, is under threat from the increasing impacts of climate change – one of which is salinisation. This increasing salinity – or saltiness – of water and soil not only poses a challenge to agricultural productivity but also to the communities that live and work on the land. On World Water Day, discover a community-led project in the heart of Egypt that’s on a mission to protect food security and prosperity with the development of a salt-resistant crop. By Climate Champions | March 22, 2024

For Egypt’s Nile Delta, a critical area for the country’s agriculture and home to a quarter of its population the impacts of climate change are looming large, posing significant threats to farming, livelihoods and even the national economy.

A rise in sea level, as a result of global warming, increases the risk of saltwater intrusion, where seawater flows into freshwater aquifers and river systems. This process not only contaminates freshwater resources, but leads to increased salinity in the soil as the salty water gets absorbed. As sea levels rise, low-lying areas, especially those in the Nile Delta region, are at risk of flooding. This not only brings in more saltwater but also prevents the natural flushing of salts from the soil, leading to build up over time.

The Nile River’s flow is crucial for diluting seawater intrusion and flushing out salts from the soil. However, upstream water usage, changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change, and the construction of dams – for instance – can reduce the flow of freshwater to the delta. This is exactly what has happened in the Kafr El-Sheikh governorate located north of the Nile Delta, which is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. Agricultural lands have been suffering from extreme soil salinization and waterlogging as well as seawater intrusion. As a result, smallholder farmers in the region have suffered loss in the productivity of cultivated crops which has negatively impacted their income and livelihoods. Crops, in salty conditions can struggle to absorb water, leading to stunted growth, lower productivity, and in severe cases, crop failure.

Fortunately, an initiative is underway to maintain healthy and abundant yields and adapt to soil and water salinity. A regional network and R&D centre joined forces with a Community Based Organization (CBO) to help smallholder farmers in throes of this predicament. The Arab Network for Environment and Development (RAED) and the Egyptian Center of Excellence for Saline Agriculture of the Desert Research Centre joined forces with Al Nahda Association for Agricultural Development and Water Management in Sidi Salem, Kafr El Sheikh Governorate, to help build salt-resilient crops.


The objective of the project, partially funded by the Small Grants Program (SGP) of the Global Environment Fund (GEF) is to improve the standard of living of smallholder farmers through the restoration of  degraded agricultural land. RAED and Egyptian Excellence Centre for Saline Agriculture provided technical assistance to the CBO in implementing adaptive management of resources and ecosystem processes. Smallholder farmers were trained on growing non-traditional, salt-tolerant crops and grains such as wheat, bare barley, common barley, corn, and millet and also animal feed such as millet, sorghum, fodder beets, and maize.

“This is our best success story that we showcase worldwide, demonstrating how multi-stakeholder partnerships can support community-led adaptive action. This could not have been possible without the involvement of the right partners such as Egyptian Excellence Centre for Saline Agriculture and Agricultural Development and Water Management in Sidi Salem,” said Emad Adly, General Coordinator of RAED, adding:

“We saw first hand how knowledge sharing and capacity building can change peoples’ lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers, rural women, and the entire rural community of Sidi Salem. This technical assistance and training helped smallholder farmers who were suffering huge loss in their crops’ productivity to improve and sustain the productivity of new crops in quantity and quality, thereby improving their incomes and livelihoods.”

So-called “Agricultural Extension Agents” in Sidi Salem, a city in the Kafr El Sheikh Governorate, were also trained onsite with farmers to ensure the sustainability of these new agricultural practices. Crucially, these activities could not have been completed without developing rural women’s skills on agricultural processing for food production from new crops (especially millet and quinoa) and also dairy processing. As a result, they established small income-generating projects to produce healthy food that were sold inside and outside their city. Grains from Kafr El-Sheikh travelled all the way to Sharm El-Sheikh to be baked on-site at COP27!  The project has led to the production of eight  new crops. Some 366 farmers were trained in how to cultivate these crops with new means of irrigation. This project targeted an area of~200 ha. Roughly 100 rural women were trained on manufacturing the new crops and45 agricultural extension agents were trained on new practices.

MENA and climate change

The MENA region is becoming a climate change hotspot and the world’s most water-scarce region. Climate change is severely compromising water security, sustainability of lands, food security and ecosystems. These impacts serve as a  hunger multiplier since climate change will weaken countries’ agri-food systems, and can amplify the root causes of fragility in a highly vulnerable region, as well as acting as an impetus for climate migration.

Sea level rise alone could displace millions of people along the densely populated coasts and there could be up to 19.3 million internal “climate migrants” by 2050. More than 60% of the population in the region has very little if any access to potable water, and 70% of their GDP is vulnerable to water stress.

According to the World Bank, MENA countries must accelerate system-wide transformations and develop long-term pathways to build low-carbon, resilient societies, promote inclusive development, peace and stability in the region. This green, resilient and inclusive approach to development can usher in a new model of growth for MENA, creating jobs for the region’s youth bulge, while delivering the benefits of climate resilience, decarbonization, cleaner air and water, healthier oceans, and sustainable food and agricultural systems.

*Main image: Wikimedia Common


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