Children of the Nile go activist
As the world celebrates Water Day on 20 March, Serene Assir sees children work with UNICEF and local government to put a stop to pollution of the River Nile and their own lives in Upper Egypt
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School girls washing their hands before lunch in Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, Abu Teeg District, Assiut governorate
Poverty takes many forms in Upper Egypt, where people have been marginalised from policymaking by central government for decades at least. Deprivation of clean water is one of the many forms of poverty. While government statistics indicate that 98 per cent of Egyptians in urban areas vs 82 per cent in rural areas have access to water, period, the fact remains that in Upper Egypt access to water more often than not means access to use of an ageing water-pump, access to a shared household water connection belonging to a kind neighbour or relative, or access to water straight from the increasingly polluted River Nile.
No accurate statistics are available to indicate how many people in Upper Egypt have individual, direct access to clean water. However, to any visitor, it is overwhelmingly plain to see that in Upper Egypt this kind of access is the anomaly -- not the norm.
What makes this situation tragic is not the lack of access per se. It is the confounding reality that, for thousands of years, the people of Upper Egypt have, with the characteristic pride and dignity for which they are known across the country, managed just fine. After all, they lived and continue to live in harmony with nature. They are not responsible for the pollution that is destroying their river, or for the poverty that is bringing under attack their way of life that by its very nature defies and contradicts the onslaught of global economic and ideological empire.
Today, a lack of clean water delivery not only means that children are deprived of healthy drinking water, but also that good hygiene and sanitation cannot be practised. Bad sanitation leads to increased pollution, particularly water pollution, as families continue to utilise the river to get rid of waste. In effect, the longer the lack of safe water delivery lasts, the worse the relationship between villages and the Nile, especially as the river grows increasingly polluted by the escalation of industry and urbanisation on its banks.
But over the past few months, a significant number of village communities -- with children at the heart of the effort -- have been holding up, bravely taking it upon themselves to change things. Moreover, children and their families are taking on, in complete dignity, the responsibility to tackle a problem beyond their creation.
For six months now, UNICEF Egypt's Water, Environment and Sanitation programme section has provided technical and financial support for the implementation of its School Sanitation and Hygiene Education project (SSHE). The goals of this project include, primarily, efforts to raise children's awareness of better environmental and hygienic practices. Involving over 300 public elementary schools in Assiut, Sohag and Qena, 200,000 children have become direct participants in a programme which utilises art, sports, religion and social sciences education as well as extra-curricular activities to learn how to practise and promote better hygiene, nutrition and environmental awareness.
Though the project is new, the impact is already clear. In the Sohag district of Dar Al-Salam, the children in Zarazra Elementary showed enthusiasm towards implementing the messages in their daily lives. For one, they take turns on a system of rotation to clean up their own classrooms. While some of the parents were initially against this idea, school headmaster Hussein Ahmed Mohamed was in direct contact with the families to convince them that this would teach their children how to become more responsible adults. "Although our resources are limited, we have found ways to make the school much more environment-friendly and a safer, better place for the children to be," Mohamed told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The children are participating enthusiastically, both within the school grounds as well as beyond."
Indeed, many children say they have taken the message of environmental protection and better sanitation to the streets. "Now, when I see people throwing things away on the streets, I tell them not to do that," said 13-year-old Islam, who attends Zarazra Elementary.
One of the programme's strengths is the way in which it has utilised different methodologies to convey multiple messages. Children cite passages from the Quran and the Bible to emphasise the importance of cleanliness, for instance, while they also perform poetry, music and theatre that they have put together either alone or in association with their teachers to discuss what they are doing to get their whole village involved in their effort.
It appears to be working, too, for parents are proud of their children's enthusiasm and effort. "My daughter, who is 11 years old, comes home every day to tell me about what she has learned, and her excitement about being involved in such a project is clear," said Abdel-Radi Abdel-Hamid, head of the parent-teacher association at Zarazra Elementary. "I think it's natural that when children become responsible for something positive, they try extra-hard to make sure that those around them follow suit and see the beauty in what they are doing. I am very proud of her."
The level of responsibility is heightened in the implementation of the project by the designation of tasks through a volunteer-based student committee to oversee progress. According to 11-year-old Asmaa, who has volunteered over recent months with her school's committee, she feels confident when she asks other children whose schools are not directly benefiting from the programme not to swim in the Nile "because they may get sick. I have also convinced my mother not to wash our clothes in the river, because by doing so she is polluting the water."
Most critically, levels of active civic participation appear to be rising -- and this is an effect which will no doubt also have repercussions on aspects of life which are unrelated to environment and sanitation altogether. For, through the volunteer-based committees, children are demanding that local administrations keep up to speed with the consciousness they have gained, and are seeking support to make it possible for them to implement their messages effectively across the village.
So far, local administrations in target villages, whose participation in implementation is by default integral for the furthering of the project's goals, as well as officials in Cairo, are showing high levels of positive responsiveness. "As far as we're concerned, the project has produced very good developments, and we wish it could be implemented more widely," said Mustafa Abdel-Samie, director of the National Centre for Education and Development Research.
It stands to reason that without a household water connection, no child can effectively implement any amount of education on environment and sanitation. Barring sharing with neighbours, the alternatives are in themselves environmentally unsafe. While using the Nile waters directly either to bathe, wash clothes or dispose of sewage and rubbish all entail their own dangers -- both to personal health and to the cleanliness of the river itself -- so too does the continued use of ageing groundwater pumps. Not only do groundwater pumps deliver contaminated water because of the water's interaction with sewage, but it is also the case that they contribute to soil degradation.
That a question as basic as direct water connections for thousands of families in Upper Egypt and elsewhere was not solved, it is barely surprising, given the gaping, endemic rich- poor divide that the country suffers from unnecessary water- related diseases. Thousands of families in Upper Egypt, particularly those whose heads of households work as day labourers on farms for as little as LE5 a day, live well below the UN poverty line of $2 a day, particularly as it is extremely rare to find a day labourer lucky enough to secure work every day of the year. Consequently, while central government has not provided this access, an inestimable number of households have been unable to afford the cost of household water installation.
In a mid-way effort to tackle this problem, the governorate administrations of Assiut, Sohag and Qena are working in collaboration with UNICEF and local government to assist in the establishment of a revolving fund for each target village. The idea is that families apply for participation, and they receive a direct household connection within weeks. Then they effectively pay back the whole sum in instalments set at the governorate level, at which stage a new set of families starts to benefit. So far, 2,870 families have been identified across the three governorates. In Assiut, the monthly instalment is set at LE40, while in Sohag and Qena it is set at LE10 and LE30-40 respectively, payable in all three cases to the governorate.
The reception of this programme has been positive, even amongst the poorest of families. For Harbi Ali Ahmed and his wife Neamat Ahmed Selim, who live in Jalawiya village in Sohag, the establishment of a revolving fund was "a real opportunity. We can't afford to pay instalment all at once. But we can afford LE10 a month, God willing."
In spite of the success of the SSHE programme, it bears mention that the effects of poverty in Upper Egypt continue to be unfathomable within the scope of a single action or initiative. At a central government level, statements regarding the need to involve Upper Egyptian communities more and to reduce their marginalisation have been delivered far too often, without direct results. It appears to be the case that so long as the people of Upper Egypt are viewed as a burden on an urbanising economy, their suffering will not be reduced but rather heightened. This is because even if the material development of their villages does happen, they will still be perceived as "behind" from the centre.
An alternative strategy involves a change in perspective, entirely, whereby their mode of living can start to be viewed as model in many ways. "Environment is the essence of life in Upper Egypt -- people's livelihoods depend on it and thus they realise the link between their lives and nature far more than we do in the cities," said Rania El-Essawi, UNICEF Water Environment and Sanitation officer. "Perhaps what the SSHE project does is that it highlights the need for communities as a whole to be active to protect their own resources and brings environment again to the centre of their lives."