Egypt’s Extreme Heat Is Ominous Warning for Global Economies This Summer

Egypt’s Extreme Heat Is Ominous Warning for Global Economies This Summer

The desert country is a bellwether for climate change

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(Bloomberg) — On a sizzling hot day in April, Cairo meteorologist Amira Nasser points to a written chronicle of Egypt’s weather in the 1800s. Outside, the temperature is 41°C (105°F), or 46°C in the sun — hot enough to have killed the battery on Nasser’s phone. Inside, the records at the museum of meteorology have a page from April 1874, when the temperature in Cairo was 24°C.

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“It’s only April and we’re dealing with heat waves already,” she says. “This was unheard of decades ago.”

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While the planet has now seen 12 consecutive months of record-breaking heat, global warming is a particularly severe problem for Egypt, a desert country heating up at one of the world’s fastest rates. Experts at the Egyptian Meteorological Authority worry this summer will be even more brutal than last year, upending commodities and agriculture while wreaking havoc on daily life. 

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s administration — which recently secured a $57 billion bailout — is already being forced into the highest imports of liquefied natural gas since 2018 to keep up with whirring air conditioners. The declining yield of the wheat crop due to heat and water shortages has meant more dependence on imports of a grain that’s vital for feeding Egypt’s population.

Meanwhile, perpetual power cuts are sharply denting productivity. Laptops shut down during Zoom meetings. When cuts are announced in advance, office goers rush home early to avoid getting stuck in elevators — which local media reports say has caused at least a handful of deadly accidents with people trying to get out during sudden electricity outages. 

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A bellwether for the effects of climate change, Egypt offers a glimpse of what awaits economies worldwide over the coming summer as well as future ones. Dubai has already suffered the effects of extreme weather after torrential rains left homes and roads flooded for days. India’s tech capital, Bangalore, has struggled with water shortages. And as hot weather arrives in Europe and the Americas, other nations will feel their own pain. 

Nasser — who is doing her Ph.D. on heat waves — fears other possible fallouts in Egypt. “One of the concerns we’re navigating is we start having a category of deaths that is death by heat,” she said. “Temperatures never reached 50°C and we’re not there yet, but we need to be prepared and have emergency plans like we have for floods.” 

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Egypt’s suffering is particularly acute because of its geographical makeup as a desert country with limited water resources. That’s making it warm up at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, showing the impact of extreme heat and highlighting the importance of accurately predicting extreme weather events for policymaking and business.  Already, economists and climate specialists are forecasting severe heat this summer in many parts of the world. 

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In particular, large parts of the north Atlantic are still well above usual temperatures, which is likely to fuel continued hot weather in Europe. That means spiking energy demand for cooling, and an elevated threat of wildfires in Greece, Spain and the French Riviera. Heavier summer rainstorms could bring the risk of flash flooding and disruption to agriculture. Then there’s the human toll. 

“We have seen over the last 20 years the heat-related mortality in Europe going up by 30% and this has affected the vast majority of European territory,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. 

Both Morocco and Mexico are facing droughts, while California and the US Southwest are looking at heat waves. In Thailand, more people have already died from heat this year than in all of 2023. In the US, experts are predicting a very active season for tropical cyclones.

In Egypt, another summer of massive rolling outages would pile pressure on the state budget and on a population already grappling with high inflation, a devalued currency and rising domestic fuel prices. The country only recently secured the bailout in the form of investments and aid packages. 

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Finance Minister Mohamed Maait said state subsidies on fuel amounted to 220 billion Egyptian pounds ($4.6 billion) in the current fiscal year and ending blackouts would require an additional $300 million a month to import enough energy. 

Climate officials fear that some of this year’s crops could be badly hit in Egypt. The orange crop was almost destroyed last year and growers couldn’t export much. The mango yield is also estimated to have dropped between 14.6% to 50.5% last year while the corn harvest in southern Egypt also declined by 30-40%, according to the Met.

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Holiday areas have also been hit. Aswan, a city with majestic Pharaonic ruins and temples, one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations and the inspiration for Agatha Christie’s famous Death on the Nile, recorded its hottest temperature ever with 49.6°C  in the shade on June 6.

The country has one of the world’s oldest traditions of monitoring the temperature. In 1829, i​t started measuring the temperature five times a day in conjunction with the five prayer times in one room in its School of Engineers. Its Met department’s museum showcases weather measuring tools used by ancient Egyptians. These days its meteorologists are in constant contact with ministries  from aviation and agriculture to navigation and energy. They provide forecasts essential for everything for urban planning to imports, seeking to mitigate the impact of extreme weather that in 2010 damaged Egypt’s crucial wheat crop, caused dozens of heat-related deaths five years later and in 2018 flooded homes and cut power and roads in one of Cairo’s most prestigious suburbs.

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Now, many Egyptians organize their daily lives completely around the agency’s forecasts.  In Cairo, Salwa Abdel-Azim, 49, doesn’t have an air conditioner. So, she’s been constantly checking the Met’s Facebook page to plan for heat waves, storing water in jerry cans to use for drinking and cooling the head and the back of the neck when the power is down. Her family tries to get everything done before electricity cuts off, finishing their studying, home chores, and charging the LED flashlight. She has to cook very early in the morning before rushing off to work.  

 “The only thing I’m looking forward to now is the time in between heat waves,” she said. 

Climate change is making many cities globally dangerously hot due to the ‘urban heat island effect’ which occurs because buildings and dense construction capture the heat. It’s a particular problem for cities like the Greater Cairo region, which has a population of more than 20 million. 

“My house is south-facing so it gets very hot,” said Sondos Ibrahim, a freelance graphic designer in Cairo. “So then I rush to a cafe in a shopping mall that I know doesn’t have power cuts, or I go and WFM — also known as Working From Mom’s — if she has electricity. But it’s a struggle to keep my business running.”

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