The Future of Red Sea Protection in Egypt

With turmoil and even talk of civil war in Egypt, what are the potential consequences for the Red Sea?

Like most people around the world, I have been shocked by how quickly the situation in Egypt has deteriorated. Just last year, I was visiting the country and talking to Ahmed, one of my local contacts and friends, asking him about his view on the political situation. At this point in time, the original sense of victory and release by the resignation of Mubarak had worn off. And the people of Egypt were increasingly expressing their unhappiness with the new government. But Ahmed was still hopeful, saying that the ultimate test of the new regime would come at the time of the next election.

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“If they hold the scheduled elections in four years, Egypt has moved forward,” he told me, “Because that will show us that they respect the democratic principles of elections, and then it is up to the people. If the people don’t like what the government does, they can choose someone else. That would be progress. So in four years, we’ll know.”

But last time I spoke to Ahmed, he was no longer as hopeful.

The world has watched in horror over the past weeks as the violence in Egypt has escalated dramatically. And all political notions aside, the human tragedy cannot be ignored. But even as I watch the news reports covering the violence, the environmentalist in me also worries about Egypt’s marine environment. With Egypt bordering a large part of the Red Sea, what are the possible consequences for the marine environment?

The Red Sea has one of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world with more than 1,200 species of fish (some 10 percent of which are found nowhere else) and 44 individual species of sharks. The sheer diversity has drawn divers and snorkelers here for decades. However, as the ocean here is at once a major thoroughfare for shipping as well as a source of sustenance for the large populations living on all but three sides of it, this marine environment has been under pressure for a very long time. Overfishing, pollution and other forms of human impact have caused coral damage and the loss of species populations.

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Over the past decade and a half, however, HEPCA, the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, has worked tirelessly to increase the awareness of the plight of the Red Sea among visitors and residents in Egypt and other nations sharing a shoreline. This includes regulations for dive centers, the placement of mooring buoys at sensitive reefs and legislation to increase protection of the waters. The effort has worked, with positive results having been reported and giving everyone hope that this extremely important and amazing body of water can be rescued where it is being destroyed, restored where it is being damaged and, of course, protected where it is still pristine.

How this work is affected by the current unrest in Egypt is not entirely clear as of yet. The Red Sea’s shores are largely unaffected by unrest in the major cities. But with the political situation as it is right now, it’s hard to imagine that the previous backing from Cairo that HEPCA’s work enjoyed will continue unabated. And if the political situation further deteriorates, it is likely that the work that HEPCA is able to do will deteriorate along with it.

Even if the situation does calm down to some extent, the situation for Egypt’s underwater environment may not normalize any time soon. Egypt’s main source of income is the tourist trade, not least of which occurs in the Red Sea region. Tourism interests were hit hard by the original unrest during the Arab Spring, and the current unrest has been nothing short of devastating for the entire industry. As an old Army buddy of mine once said, it is hard to have high standards when you’re starving. So the amazing work that has been done to protect the reefs and their inhabitants may or may not be respected by an industry looking to make up for more than a year and a half of financial losses. There’s a good chance the best and largest of companies will continue to respect regulations about marine parks, mooring restrictions and other rules of the waters. But smaller companies on the brink of bankruptcy may be prone to take shortcuts that inflict long-term or permanent damage on the marine environment.

As a diver and an environmentalist, I hope for the best and that the situation normalizes as quickly as possible – especially for the sake of the Egyptians suffering from prolonged political unrest and the violent confrontations in the major cities. I also hope that the people of Egypt continue to work with international organizations to protect their aquatic resources and that HEPCA is able – both politically and financially – to continue the impressive work we’ve seen over the past years.

Whatever political situation results from the current turmoil, divers have to hold out hope that the political support for protection of the Red Sea will continue.