World Water Day: Egypt’s polluted waters

Along the Rosetta branch of the Nile, Kafr al-Sheikh recently suffered a “mass fish die-off.” Given the almost annual regularity of such die-offs it was surprising to see a picture of the dead fish floating on the surface of the water circulating on Facebook and social media, getting over 1,270 shares on Facebook alone.

The exact cause of this latest die-off is still unclear, exemplifying the structural problems through which water pollution is dealt with in Egypt.

The multiple news reports all offered a different possible cause: industrial pollution of the Nile, fish-farming polluting the water, lack of oxygen in the water to untreated sewage. The confusion it stirred up highlights the extent of the lack of monitoring and data on water pollution publicly available in Egypt.

Testing the dead fish, as the Commission of Fisheries immediately did, they found the cause of death to be ammonia poisoning, along with dangerously high concentrations of lead and other solids in the water. Kafr al-Sheikh Governorate is home to 26,964 hectares of commercial fish farms which (if badly managed) can lead to an ammonia overload in the body of water housing the fish. Ammonia is also associated with dyeing processes and chemical factories producing pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and detergents.

Turning up after the crisis point has been reached and finding the cause of the death does not tell us what caused the high levels of ammonia in the first place, and what the source is: it just tells us what the fish died of. As a result, these mass fish die-offs will continue to happen until the monitoring of the sources of water pollution up and down the Nile are carried out regularly, and feed into a regulatory system that consistently enforces the violations to prevent repetition of such poisonings. To this day, any or all of the reasons the media offered could be contributing factors to the die-off, we still don’t know.

There are three main categories of pollution affecting Egypt’s waterways: untreated industrial waste water, the water that runs off agricultural fields, and untreated domestic sewage. Each source has its own set of issues and controversies; for example preventing pollution from agricultural run-off requires tackling how farmers could use their fertilizers and pesticides more wisely, a thorny discussion when most farmers are roundly congratulated for their role in feeding Egypt despite the adversities they face.

The laws and regulations protecting the waterways engage a large web of governmental actors, including nine ministries and one regulatory authority. In Egypt’s spaghetti bowl of ministries, the more working relationships between ministries that are required to monitor, implement and enforce regulations the greater the chance that data, funding, accountability and enforcement of violations disappear between the cracks, never to resurface. An informal discussion with an employee of a government water testing laboratory in Cairo confirmed that one part of this chain isn’t effective. According to them, they test all the water samples referred to them, passing on violations to the Ministry of Interior as the enforcement authority. However, the violations are rarely followed up and the test results have a tendency to go missing after they leave the lab.

The overall result is a patchwork of relatively unabated pollution by industrial facilities, and bad control of agricultural and domestic sources of polluted waste water. In 2008, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency officially recorded that there was 50 percent more wastewater being discharged into the Nile that is polluted beyond the legal levels than there is discharged within the legal levels.

The combined impact of a lack of monitoring and then enforcement of pollution violations is manifested in a myriad of ways.

In 2008 the World Health Organization found that 5.1 percent of all deaths and 6.5 percent of all annual diseases and injuries in Egypt are attributable to unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, insufficient hygiene and inadequate management of water resources.

Chronic renal failure is one such disease and cause of death, affecting roughly 500 in every one million people in Egypt. Doctor al-Sabaie, head of the Nephrology Department at the International Medical Centre identifies the cause of chronic renal failure from water pollution as the buildup of heavy metals found in untreated waste water which enters the Nile and is then used as the primary source of drinking water. Public health researchers based in Minya identified drinking unsafe water and exposure to pesticides as the cause of renal diseases for an estimated 72 percent of patients. Sabaie confirmed that the renal disease hotspots tend to correlate with areas of unsafe drinking water; he identified Qalyubiya in northern Egypt and Minya and Beni Suef in the south as the places he most frequently receives patients from.

Egypt’s population has centered itself around the Nile Delta, following the curves of the Nile as it snakes its way through Egypt’s surrounding desert. It is no secret that rural populations live closer to their surrounding environment, often relying on agriculture, fishing and animals for their livelihoods and their fresh food and water needs. For all these life forms however, unpolluted water sources are key to survival and wellbeing.

The Habi Center for Environmental rights has mapped sewage and drinking water investments across Egypt. Researchers at Habi said: “Analysis of the water and sanitation investments from the financial year 2013/2014 shows us that more than 55 percent of the investments in both water and sanitation goes to the new cities.”

Habi found that “while LE713 million is allocated for drinking water infrastructure in 6th of October, the drinking water station in Damro al-Mahalla and the surrounding villages, which would benefit 700,000 people, only received LE7 million of the 30 million it needs to finish the whole project.”

Allowing industrial facilities to pollute in order to drive Egypt’s economic growth and development fundamentally undercuts the ability of the poorest parts of society to survive whilst providing economic gains to the upper echelons of society profiting from not being forced to internalize the cost of polluting. This vicious cycle contributes to the maintenance of the gap between rich and poor in Egypt. Water pollution negatively affects the poorest’s ability to live more healthily and develop their communities, but it also makes being poor more expensive. Whilst the rich can place themselves as far away from the sources of pollution as they please, the poor have the water and air pollution imposed upon them and must pay the treatment costs resulting from the diseases brought on by the pollution, or in some cases, pay the ultimate price: death. If it is the death of the working man or woman in the family, this further grinds down their ability to lift themselves out of poverty and raise their standard of life. Add to this that the government treats the drinking water and sewage of the richer urban areas so that they don’t suffer the same diseases, giving them a head start in moving up the economic ladder unhindered.

The key message the government is giving out: polluting pays – as long as you live in the right place, we will protect you.

The lack of publicly available information and data on water pollution and its sources – particularly industrial – maintains the opaque facade that a nexus of nine ministries competencies fosters. It is easier to ignore what is happening on the ground when there is insufficient data to prove anything and the lack of information prevents successful litigation, advocacy, civil society scrutiny and local mobilization of affected communities unable to identify their enemy.

Annexing the rural and poor population in their silos of polluted plight deactivates these people by illness, and sometimes death. Although water pollution is an old issue, it is one that deserves attention as one of the key ways to address inequality in Egypt, every person has the right to clean water; currently however, the Egyptian government only recognizes this for certain parts of its population.

Isabel Bottoms