Project threatening Sharm reefs halted, for now
Courtesy: Sinai Reef

Following a meeting with concerned Sharm el-Sheikh residents, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb has halted work on a cliff restoration project until safety and environmental concerns are addressed.

The project, which began last month, was aimed at repairing cracks in the Umm el-Sid cliff in the South Sinai resort town Sharm el-Sheikh. The cliff overlooks the Ras Mohamed marine park, and famous dive sites including Ras Katy, Temple, Ras Um el-Sid, Pinky’s Wall and Tower. Activists claim the reconstruction plans could damage both the marine environment and the safety of buildings constructed near the cliff top.

According to a government study obtained by local NGO Sinai Reef the cliff has become unstable due to water seeping in from decaying sewer and water pipelines, as well as garden hoses and leaky swimming pools. Unless shored up, the cliff poses a threat to homes and resorts on top as well as the sea and reefs below.

The contract for the restoration was granted to mammoth state-owned firm Arab Contractors, which has received numerous contracts for public works projects in recent months. According to Hesham Gabr, co-founder of Sinai Reef and owner of the Cameldive Club and Hotel, the deal was made without a tender process or a proper public hearing.

A few residents were invited to meetings seeking investors in the project, Gabr says, but of the 6000 to 7000 residents in the area, he is only aware of two who received such invitations. Most only learned of the plans on April 25, when the city council asked residents to remove gates leading to the seafront in order to allow construction equipment to pass through. “Then I realized something is happening here,” Gabr said. Concerned, Gabr tracked down a copy of the environmental impact assessment for the project.

Alarmed by the scale and potential impact of the reconstruction plans, Gabr and other area residents hired prominent engineer Mamdouh Hamza to review the plans. An experienced geotechnical expert as well as a political mover and shaker, Hamza has worked on construction projects around the world, including several run by Arab Contractors.

“This project, if executed, would destroy a great part of the coral reef as well as the environment of the cliff itself,” Hamza told Mada Masr. “It will also threaten the stability and safety of the buildings and it will be a threat to the people living on the edge of the cliff.”

The plans would destroy much of the cliff, as well as creating four million cubic meters of debris, Hamza said. He also emphasized that, since Arab Contractors’ plans do not address the water intrusion that is the root cause of damage, they offer little more than a temporary solution and a second, equally damaging restoration would be required in the future.

On April 28, the day after Hamza reviewed the restoration plans, Gabr says he awoke to find heavy machinery approaching the cliff face outside his garden. “The only thing I knew is: they have to stop,” Gabr recalls. “I went underneath the pin of the first machine, until the guy stopped.”

His neighbor soon followed suit, stepping in front of a second machine. The workers, Gabr says, were surprisingly sympathetic to their cause, but local officials and representatives of Arab Contractors soon arrived insisting that work be restarted.

The situation remained tense until Hamza intervened, making phone calls to both the current Arab Contractor CEO and to Prime Minister and former Arab Contractor CEO Ibrahim Mehleb, whom Hamza knows from past projects. At around noon, work was brought to a halt.

The following day, April 29, a group of 17 area residents joined together to file a lawsuit at the Sharm el-Sheikh police station, demanding work be halted as it threatens both the residents’ safety and the marine environment.

However, on April 30, residents once again found work crews from Arab Contractors digging on the cliff face. And, once again, Gabr says, he stepped in front of the machine to halt construction.

“I left Cairo because it was polluted and crowded,” says Gabr. “I can’t allow that mess to happen here.”

The situation escalated, with low-ranking police officers arriving on the scene, followed by high-ranking police officers and finally South Sinai Governor General Khaled Foda, says Gabr.

Foda agreed to halt work until a meeting could be organized with Prime Minister Mehleb, Minister of Environment Laila Iskandar and representatives from Arab Contractors and local residents opposing the project.

Following the May 6 meeting, a statement on the Cabinet’s Facebook page said simply that work would be completed on the first and second stages of the project, which do not overlook the sea or pose an immediate threat to local buildings. The additional stages are to be completed quickly, “after necessary environmental studies.” 

According to a statement released yesterday by Sinai Reef, Mehleb also instructed Arab Contractors and the local government to provide Hamza and local residents with engineering plans and any other relevant data, “consistent with the rights of civil society to participate in the government’s decision making process,” and told Arab Contractors to work with Hamza, local residents and the Ministry of Environment to find engineering solutions that are acceptable to all parties. 

“The performance of the prime minister was more than I expected,” Gabr says. Although the fight is far from over, he says he feels that his and his neighbor’s concerns have been listened to, giving some hope that citizens’ concerns — or at least the concerns of the well-organized and well-connected — may actually be addressed.

Isabel Esterman 

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