Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 September 2008
Issue No. 914
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No flow

Fresh potable water is becoming a scarce commodity, reports Reem Leila

This summer has seen severe water shortages throughout the country, leading to numerous protests by frustrated -- and thirsty -- citizens. Egypt has seen its share of political demonstrations in recent years, but the latest water protests are the first time that ordinary people have taken to the streets to demand a basic service.

Water scarcity led to demonstrations in Suez governorate 10 days ago, in addition to Saft Al-Laban, Al-Marioutiya, Al-Remayah, Al-Haram and Faisal in Giza where residents have been frustrated by months-long shortages. In Heliopolis and Nasr City in the Cairo governorate tap water stops for hours on end. In a number of villages in Gharbiya governorate and Port Said angry residents struggle to quench their thirst. Many have lost faith in endless government promises to provide them with adequate drinking water.

Hussein Elwan, head of the Water Nile Distribution Department at the National Research Centre, says, "until now, very little has really been done to solve the water scarcity problem, which grows worse every year."

According to Elwan, the breakdown of state- run water distribution networks is an all too common problem. "Water purification projects often cease functioning for long periods due to under-funding by the state, and official neglect," he said. Elwan went on to attribute the increasing incidents of water deficiency to provincial corruption, insufficient planning and slapdash construction. "Meanwhile, everyone is suffering from shortages of drinking water. Those belonging to the high class, middle and lowest-income classes are complaining constantly but with no response from officials," Elwan added.

After continuous reports of shortages throughout the country, according to Abdel-Hamid El-Shaer, press consultant to the minister of housing, utilities and urban communities (MHUUC), President Hosni Mubarak called on the cabinet early this year to draw up an "urgent plan" to ensure that all Egyptians enjoy sufficient access to potable water. The cabinet swiftly announced that LE1 billion would be allocated to the construction of small water purification centres and water pumping stations in and around shortage prone areas, in addition to LE17 billion over the next four years for upgrading local water distribution networks. El-Shaer said 100 local water projects across Egypt were scheduled for completion within the coming months after having begun 18 months ago.

Nevertheless, the next few months will still witness severe water shortages in several other areas of the country where local water distribution networks have functioned erratically for months. During the past months, popular demonstrations were reported in the governorates of Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh, among others.

Potable water has become a daily concern in many parts of Egypt. Manal Masoud, a 45- year-old housewife with three children, says her life during the days of no water is not at all easy. On waterless days, Masoud must take her children to the homes of her parents or in-laws in Agouza or Garden City. From there, she has to bring enough water in big containers for her cleaning lady to wash the bathroom and kitchen.

Masoud is lucky. Her experience with sudden water shortages began only the past couple of years. Before that she never had a problem with fresh potable water. Masoud, who has been residing in Heliopolis since her marriage, recalls that during the 1990s there were times when there were water shortages. "But it was every now and then. Now we really have a problem. Since the beginning of this summer it has become an acute problem because it is quite recurrent. Towards the beginning of the summer we had three days where there was not a single drop of water," added Masoud.

Mona Mahmoud, a 32-year-old banker, who lives in Faisal in the Giza governorate, is perhaps worse off. "We haven't had any potable water for the past month. This is too much. We are human beings. We deserve to have water. Fresh water is not available for at least 10 hours throughout the day, " Mahmoud said. Mahmoud faces a daily struggle to manage the water problem. Early in the morning, she has to swiftly fill up all her cooking pots with fresh water essential for cooking and cleaning. "If I oversleep in the morning, I'll miss the water and won't have my daily supply necessary for cooking and cleaning," she complained.

In early July 2007 hundreds of residents of the Nile Delta's Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate, frustrated by months-long water shortages, blocked a nearby highway for several hours. According to reports in the local press, angry protesters brought traffic to a standstill, demanding clean drinking water for their villages and households. A few days later, another protest for the same reason was held by nearly 3,000 residents of Gharbiya governorate, also in the Nile Delta.

According to a study conducted by the Cairo Centre for Rural Studies, an estimated five million Egyptians out of the country's 80 million population lack sufficient access to fresh drinking water, and 85 per cent of Egypt's total potable water production is wasted due to the poor state of local water distribution systems.

In spite of these dire findings, the head of Al-Haram water network Mustafa El-Said confirmed that Giza "was not suffering from any water shortages in any of its districts".

According to El-Said, Al-Remayah, Faisal and Al-Marioutiya districts receive their water from a huge 30,000 cubic metre water tank. "This means that none of these areas will suffer from any water shortage," claimed El-Said. But this belies the findings of Abdel-Qawi Khalifa, head of the Holding Water Company (HWC) who admitted that there was a water shortage in many of Giza's districts.

"A water pumping station in the area is currently under renovation due to maintenance and expansion works which will end by February 2009." Khalifa says they are working around the clock to follow up on complaints and pursue what they qualify as an ambitious plan not just to resolve the current disturbing problems of water supplies but also to once and for all ensure that every Egyptian will have his or her full requirements (officials do not like the word 'adequate') of clean water met.

Khalifa is urging the public to be more patient. "The plan set for Nasr City, Heliopolis and Giza is scheduled to be completed during the month of Ramadan. Other areas, including Manial, will find water supplies improving within two months at most," said Khalifa. Areas such as Al-Remayah and Hadabat Al-Ahram in Giza will, however, have to wait until February 2009.

Samir Salib, head of the western Nile sector at the HWC, said the water shortage in the country was due to excessive pressure on water networks. "It is summer time which unfortunately coincides with Ramadan when most of the country's population uses excessive amounts of water. The problem will automatically end after Ramadan," Salib claimed.

Currently, Khalifa said, the total production of clean water is 20 million cubic metres per day. "This amount should be sufficient to provide mostly everyone with enough drinking water." The reason this has not been the case, he argued, is that the distribution is not entirely equal. According to Khalifa, this is not a problem resulting from any deliberate attempt to provide upscale neighbourhoods with "plenty of water" at the expense of economically disadvantaged districts. Khalifa underlined that some of the areas with a high level of complaints over the level of water supplies include some of the newer and upscale neighbourhoods. The problem, he argued, is rather one of difficulties involved in providing all the necessary networks that can transport clean drinking water to everyone. Khalifa said this was primarily due to the fact that "for a long time there were not enough resources allocated to upgrade the networks and stations that provide clean water supplies to the country."

An increase of 40 per cent of the amount of clean water produced daily is the prime objective that Khalifa said, if achieved, would signal a real end to the water problem. "We want to go from 20 million cubic metres a day to 28 million cubic metres. This is what we are targeting," Khalifa said, promising that "every citizen will have a steady flow of clean water with no problems at all. Indeed, each person's share of clean water per day will rise from the current 422 litres to 540 litres." Until then, he acknowledged, problems can occur and reoccur.

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