Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 February 2009
Issue No. 935
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fishing for Lake Mariout's last hope?

he environmental degradation of Lake Mariout near Alexandria is continuing, apparently in direct contravention of the law, Amira El-Naqeeb investigates

Click to view caption
Scenes from the deteriorating Lake Mariout

Despite a 2003 court order ordering the Alexandria governorate to halt land filling or 2waste disposal at Lake Mariout near Alexandria, an Al-Ahram Weekly investigation has discovered that environmental damage to the lake is continuing, apparently in contravention of the law.

According to former attorney-general and head of the Friends of the Environment Alexandria Association (FEAA), Abdel-Aziz El-Guindi, land filling is still taking place at one of the Lake Mariout basins in contravention of the law. The basin is being filled in order to build a port on the lake, he said.

"I don't understand the situation at all," El-Guindi commented in an interview with the Weekly. "Surely it would be better to build on existing land, rather than to fill a natural lake that has an outstanding historical and national value."

El-Guindi said that the filling of the basin was being justified on the grounds that it was already polluted by sewage from Alexandria, which had killed any fish that it once contained and made it into an environmental blackspot.

However, "instead of filling this part of the lake, we should treat the pollution instead and aim to restore the lake to life so that fish can thrive in it again. The present policy is rather like killing a patient instead of trying to treat him."

Yet, according to Gihan Zaalouk, executive director of the FEAA, when the governor of Alexandria was approached on the issue he said that the port was a "national project" that would serve the country and therefore had to go forward.

It seems that the battering Lake Mariout is receiving will not end any time soon. In a recent announcement, the Ministry of Agriculture made public plans for a petrochemicals factory to be built in the Lake Mariout valley, potentially further degrading the environment.

According to El-Guindi, the FEAA has since managed to persuade Ezzat Awad, head of Egypt's General Authority for Fish Resource Development, to intervene and to ask for a meeting with the minister of agriculture to discuss the factory.

Yet, this is only a small, and possibly temporary, victory in the campaign to protect the lake. El-Guindi told the Weekly that another plan had recently been announced that would further degrade the environment, this time involving filling part of the lake to build a private compound.

"This time I stood up and said that we could not allow a billionaire developer to make profits at the expense of the poor fishermen for whom the lake is their only livelihood," El-Guindi said. "This part of the lake is one of the only sections left that has reasonable fish stocks, and filling it would directly affect the livelihoods of fishermen, as well as harming the environment."

More than 30,000 fishermen and their families depend on Lake Mariout for their only source of income. According to Zaalouk, the fishermen not only depend directly on fishing for their income, but many of them also work in fishing- related industries.

"Fishermen, carpenters, net-makers, all of them are now losing work," Zaalouk continued. "Conditions are going from bad to worse, since they usually do not have medical insurance, and although the retirement age is supposed to be 60, they always retire at 65. Though there have been recent increases in pensions, this has not been the case for fishermen," he said.

According to Salah El-Alfi, spokesman for the Fishermen of Lake Mariout (FLM), an independent association, the conditions of the fishermen in the area have changed dramatically in living memory.

El-Alfi, who also works as an Arabic teacher, recalled with nostalgia the days when he used to go fishing with his father on Lake Mariout during summer vacations. "He was able to support himself and the family from fishing. But now fishermen's children live lives of vagrancy," El-Alfi said.

Ibrahim Ali Basheer, born in the lake area, learned how to fish when he was a child. Now the father of six children, he has watched his standard of living fall, and all his children have dropped out of school since he can't afford to pay their fees.

"Ten years ago, the lake allowed us to live prosperously. Now I can barely make it from one day to the next. What can we do? Fishing is our lives and our livelihood. Perhaps we should all get boxes and polish shoes?"

Basheer also said that he had not had the money to renew his fisherman's licence. "It costs LE20 to renew the licence, and for me it is better to give that money directly to my children. Life is very hard. We don't have any insurance, so if one of the kids gets sick I can't afford to take them to a doctor," Basheer said.

Talking to the fishermen about their plight was also not easy. "We have talked to a lot of different people, but nothing has happened as a result," one man told the Weekly.

Haj Mohamed El-Alfi, one of the oldest fishermen on the lake, added that the FLM was also hard pressed to present their case.

Subscriptions from the fishermen themselves were the association's only source of income, he said, and if individual fishermen do not have the LE15 it costs for an annual subscription they do not come to association meetings.

"The association's resources are very limited," El-Alfi said, "people in authority come, make empty promises, and leave, leaving us in the same situation. It's all a vicious circle."

For ten-year-old Mohamed, the son of one of the fishermen, the lake's declining fortunes have negatively affected his future. Sitting barefoot on the bank of the lake, his shirt torn and a piece of bread in his hand, Mohamed looked out towards the horizon and said, "I wanted to fish, but now the lake is almost dead."

"So instead I carry bags of lime for a living."

Lake Mariout: facts and figures

- Lake Mariout is one of four shallow lakes lying in the north of the Nile Delta, the others being lakes Idko, Brolos and Manzala. During the Roman period, it was known as "Lake Marioutis".

- The lake was one of the main factors that caused Alexander the Great to choose the site of the present city of Alexandria, since it lies between the sea to the north and the lake to the south, facilitating the city's natural defences.

- During the Roman period, Alexandria had two ports, one on the sea and the other on Lake Mariout, named after the lake. At the time, the lake extended to the city of Maria, capital of the prosperous Mariout area. Remains of this city can still be seen in the Sidi Kreir area of Alexandria.

- At the beginning of the 20th century, Lake Mariout covered some 48,000 acres. Today, it covers just 15,000.

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