Nile view overhaul
For large stretches in Cairo and Giza, the River Nile is girdled with high-rise buildings and other encroachments. Reem Leila
looks at means to preserve Egypt's principal lifeline
Due to lax enforcement of environmental and building laws, the Nile has been the victim of many aggressive activities such as the dumping of industrial waste and construction of unlicensed buildings along its banks. A massive campaign was launched in June to remove all infringements on the Nile, based on instructions by President Hosni Mubarak to Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) Mahmoud Abu Zeid in May. The campaign is undertaken by water police and officials of MWRI.
The presidential directives included suspension of issuing new construction permits which might harm the river's course; revision of current permits to ensure there is no drainage into the water body under any circumstances; taking all necessary measures to enforce the law protecting the Nile and preventing any violations.
The River Nile, which supplies 96 per cent of Egypt's water needs, extends for more than 1,600km, with two main branches downstream. It discharges into the Mediterranean Sea and has many small branches and canals covering a great area in the northern region of the country. Independent MP Gamal Zahran told the People's Assembly's Culture, Tourism and Media Committee three weeks ago that corruption is one factor that has led to the Nile's pollution and illegal constructions along its banks. Zahran accused local officials of receiving bribes to turn a blind eye to urban violation on the Nile, and not enforcing demolition orders for illegally constructed buildings.
"The law is only applied on ordinary citizens," claimed the MP, "but enforcement turns lax when it comes to organisations or people who consider themselves above the law." Zahran also charged that some organisations in question are affiliated to the Interior Ministry, and that the responsibilities of MWRI and local administration had overlapped. "I found that some buildings along the river were licensed by the Cairo City Council," he stated. "We have to deal with this overlap and construction on the river bank should be completely banned."
Emadeddin Shanab, chief of the irrigation sector at MWRI, insisted that his ministry has the right to license activities on the river banks. "Licences are provided to a variety of social clubs, hotels, tourist marinas and river police forces," asserted Shanab, "and all within the legal range distance of 30 metres." He did concede, however, that coordination is necessary between city councils and MWRI, as well as other ministries such as tourism, environment and interior. "Coordination is necessary to ensure that buildings on the Nile conform to the required specifications and agree with the river's aesthetic qualities," Shanab added.
The official revealed that there is an ambitious plan to demolish all illegal buildings constructed along the banks of the river, and to ensure more efficient use of Nile water in order to increase the area of land under cultivation to 11.4 million feddans by the year 2017. This will include 3.4 million feddans provided with water from the Al-Salam and Sheikh Zayed canals in Sinai and Toshka, respectively. Shanab added that LE16 million will fund a plan to beautify the banks of the river and protect it against pollution and encroachments. The plan's first phase started two months ago and comprised of planting flowers for exporting along the river banks between Qasr Al-Nil and Abul Ela bridges. It cost LE10 million and was completed on schedule.
Safwat Abdel-Dayem, former irrigation and drainage expert at the World Bank, suggested the establishment of an independent watchdog to protect the Nile which would be empowered to regulate activities on the river. But Shanab rejected the idea, saying that MWRI is doing a good job. "Despite detractors, let me emphasise that the ministry's new plan will completely remove violations along the Nile's banks within three months," he asserted. According to Shanab, violations only cover a stretch of 200km, out of a total of 2,400km, on both sides of the river. MWRI has already allocated LE150 million to buy new bulldozers to help in the demolition process, and already 38 illegal buildings were removed between Helwan until Imbaba in August, in addition to 15 in Aswan.
MWRI spokesman Hassan El-Atfi believes that Mubarak's interest caused all concerned authorities to work harder. "MWRI has already planned to remove all floating hotels and restaurants beyond Helwan within the coming two years," stated El-Atfi. Meanwhile, Minister Abu Zeid is currently reviewing all fines imposed on violators, which are expected to spike to LE20,000 and LE50,000 instead of LE5,000, in addition to one year in jail.
At the same time, MWRI began washing the course of the river by flushing 40 million cubic metres into the Nile daily. This will continue for 10 days to remove all accumulated pollutants, and is considered "the largest amount to be flushed into the Nile in a long time, due to this year's flood which registered the highest rates in 60 years," explained El-Atfi.