Annual water crisis: broken promises and local action

In the village of Hamamda, a half-hour ride from Beheira Governorate’s capital city of Damanhour, the signs of a chronic water shortage problem are pervasive.

Lined up in almost every street and loaded with empty containers are donkey carts that people use to search for water in neighboring villages. Barrels of water can be seen outside the few houses that were able to get enough water to flow from their faucets to stock up for the day. As soon as the intensity of the sun abates in the afternoon, residents set out on their daily search for water, carrying containers or riding in carts.

The village of Hamamda is among several areas facing a severe water shortage, a shortage that has recurred each summer for the past few years. Shortages have been reported in villages across the country, from Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta to parts of Giza close to Cairo. As the government reiterates explanations and pledges similar to those it has given in previous years, those who face the annual crisis are growing impatient.

Unrest over the water crisis has reached volatile levels in some areas. Twenty people were arrested in Daqahlia Governorate’s Marsah village on Thursday after they attacked technicians to prevent the installation of a new line that would redirect water from their network to a neighboring village. According to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, the residents held a police officer hostage in a house. They were eventually dispersed when police fired tear gas. Al-Masry Al-Youm has reported unrest in the Sharqiya Governorate as well, where residents formed a roadblock on the main road on Thursday and threatened to start a hunger strike to protest water scarcity.

“Our problem here is water. We have never complained about anything else, and we don’t want anything else, but we can’t live without water,” saysHamamda resident Nora Zakareya, as she waits in line to buy bread for iftar at the local Hamamda bakery. The residents live in red brick houses among schools and clinics that are poorly equipped. Despite the general lack of services that plague many remote villages, the residents only mention water.

Zakareya says that due to the scarcity of fresh water, she has had to resort to cooking with salt water. Her children end up not wanting to eat the food she cooks, even after long hours of fasting.

“If you manage to get a liter of fresh water you have to decide whether to use it to drink, cook, bathe or help the bakery,” she explains.

The people of the village communally replenish the water tank above the bakery with fresh water that they manage to acquire so that there is enough water to allow it to continue to produce bread.

During a hearing with Parliament’s agricultural committee in May, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Atty attributed the water shortage to the Nile River’s low water level this year, which he says has affected all Nile Basin countries. Simply put, the minister said at the time, Egypt’s water supply is insufficient to cover its needs.

According to Atty, Egypt’s is supplied with an annual 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, which he says is not enough to cover demand from the public for drinking water, in addition to that from industries, agriculture and electricity plants. Official figures indicate that Egypt’s annual per person water supply has dropped from 2,526 cubic meters in 1947 to 663 cubic meters in 2013, putting Egypt below the United Nations’ water poverty threshold. The UN predicts that, by 2025, Egypt will approach a state of absolute water scarcity, with supply dropping to as low as 500 cubic meters per person.

But Diaa al-Kousy, the former adviser to the irrigation minister, sees recent years’ deteriorating situation as a problem of management rather than resources. He says that Egypt has been suffering from a water deficit for over 20 years and has been accounting for the shortfall by recycling water.

“If the shortage were being distributed evenly, it would be more bearable and people wouldn’t complain. But what’s happening is that some people are getting more than their share and others suffer the shortages alone,” he says, pointing to the fact that water shortages are concentrated in specific areas.

This is not to say that there isn’t a resource issue. In addition to managing shortages better, Kousy says that new sources of water must be found as the population continues to grow and the water supply remains the same.

Although the responsibility for managing water is divided among various ministries and authorities, the most important entity for ensuring Egyptians receive clean water reliably is the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater (HCWW).

Figures from the company and other officials have announced plans to construct new water stations to address the shortage.

Ahmed Moawad, the vice chairperson of HCWW, tells Mada Masr that the problem comes down to a lack of funds. He says that, after 2011, there was a need to bring in new water projects, but these were hindered by the government’s budget. In addition to diminished water levels, officials often cite the new, unlicensed water lines that were laid in the security vacuum that followed the 2011 uprising as a reason for the current shortages.

Giza Governor Mohamed Kamal al-Daly announced this week that LE85 million has been allocated to start expansion work on the Ayyat water station in South Giza to address the water problem in 23 villages. However, promises like these ring hollow for residents who heard similar pledges last year and while their situation continues to deteriorate.

Last summer, in the midst of water shortages, Mamdouh Raslan, anHCWW chairperson, and Giza Governor Khaled Zakareya al-Adly pledged to have new water plants ready within months. The same areas that these plants would have serviced continue to suffer from prolonged water cuts this summer.

The people of Hawamdeya in South Giza have little faith in the pledges that MPs and officials have made at local meetings and Friday gatherings throughout the past year, promising that new pipelines would be installed by June 30.

“Every few days a group of us go and complain at the water company, but they only give us empty promises. What are we going to do — kill someone? No, we’ll just live with it,” says Khaled, who lives on Ismail Askar Street, ironically located immediately in front of the local water company premises and known in the area for having terrible water access.

Hawamdeya has been suffering from a shortage of water that intensifies with the start of each summer for the past few years. In most households, the water can be out for days and when it returns it is often for no longer than an hour, giving people just enough time to fill their containers.

“The water smells bad. It’s like sewage water, but Egyptians are used to it by now,” Khaled says.

The problem in Hawamdeya is not one of water supply but of worn out pipes that need to be replaced. Days before the June 30 deadline, the promises repeated by MPs at local gatherings had only progressed as far as to the installation of main lines on the central street.

Earlier this month, as local shortages spread, Giza’s governor stated that the governorate was already acting upon a plan to renew Giza’s pipelines that haven’t been changed for over 10 years, asserting that the process would address all affected areas in turn.

Not all residents of Hawamdeya are equally affected by the water shortages — those with the means have been able to buy access to water. According to residents, the water company responded to their complaints by offering to install direct lines for households willing to pay LE2,000-3,000. Those who can afford this option now have a constant flow of water. As for the rest of the area, they still pay upwards of LE50 a month to be supplied with water for a few minutes a day. In an attempt to reduce the water company’s financial deficit and decrease state subsidies, the government approved a 25 percent increasein water tariffs last January.

Those who can’t afford private lines survive largely through a community support system.

Back in the Beheira village of Hamamda, the water usually returns briefly in the middle of the night with the help of motorized pumps installed by residents, and locals use this time to fill up their containers.

The only other source of fresh water is neighboring villages, which have become the destination for the people of Hamamda who make a daily pilgrimage to fill their water containers.

Since the fresh water they manage to obtain is barely enough for drinking and cooking, groups of households have collaborated to install pipes to extract ground water for other functions, such as bathing. This water contains a salinity level that is harmful to skin and health. Given that both fresh and salt water sources are limited, the villages resort to a green water from the still lake that cuts through the village for certain daily tasks, such as washing dishes.

Translation: We’re washing our dishes in sewage water, and we beg for water from people who have it. Their motors are getting burned because we ask them for water so much, and they’re getting sick of us. We don’t have enough water to cook. It’s an unbearable life. Those who bring a container of water, would they drink with it, cook or clean or do what? This has been our life, for three years. As soon as the summer comes, we can’t find water, not even a little bit.

Dire as the situation in Hamamda may be, the village is the envy of the neighboring village of Hussein Amr, where residents say there has been no water for over three years.

“I can’t remember the last time water flowed out of my tap, and the pipes have rust on them,” says Rania, a resident of Hussein Amr village, pointing to signs of an allergic reaction on her daughter’s face from the use of salt water. The women of the village say that the constant use of salt water has made children sick.

Hussein Amr residents

Hussein Amr residents

Even the floors of the mosque’s bathroom are darkened, showing corrosion from the effect of the salt water that runs over them.

Hussein Amr Mosque

Hussein Amr Mosque

While not off the water grid completely, the two villages are situated in the middle of main water lines and often receive an attenuated water flow as they are one of the last access points to be serviced, just like several locations across the country which suffer shortages at the start of every summer.

The people of Hussein Amr and Hamamda blocked the Dosouk-Damanhour road earlier this month to protest the prolonged crisis.

Farid Shawky, a resident who has been leading local efforts to fix the problem, relates how, following the protest, a messenger from the police station told him that charges had been filed against him and 15 others for leading the roadblock.

With a basic life necessity having been gone for over three years, Shawky and the others have no intention of backing down.

“We have been running around with papers for three years to no avail, and that’s why we ended up blocking the street,” says Shawky.

The papers that Shawky keeps show that correspondence between residents, the water company and other relevant authorities started in 2014. Shawky showed Mada Masr a letter from the water company where it informs the local police that the company has approved the installation of a new line from the neighboring village of Abu Tawila, asserting that the move’s technical viability has been verified and that the company has already issued the necessary pipes. The company requested that the police forces of Rahmaneya, under whose jurisdiction Abu Tawila village falls, secure the installation process.

Water company's letter concerning water shortages

Water company’s letter concerning water shortages

The locals say that the Rahmaneya Police Station’s lack of cooperation has delayed a process that was scheduled to start in August 2015, a commencement date stipulated in the company’s letter. They speculate that powerful Rahmaneya residences who do not want their share of water diminished have influenced the police.

After residents formed a roadblock on the highway, the water company promised to direct a line to service the neighboring villages from Sharnoub in the area to the north of them. Walid Abdel Satar, a resident in contact with local water company authorities, says that even when the lines were installed, at a cost to locals of LE1000 as they paid for the equipment, the water has not returned.

Having endured three years without water and having exhausted all official paths, the people of Hussein Amr are increasingly frustrated but are not about to back down.

“We’ve been patient, but the security officials are giving us a dead end,” says resident Ashraf Eissa. “If we don’t get the water back, we’ll protest again, but it won’t be like last time — we don’t care if we don’t come back. Prison is better than this. Even death is better.”


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