Hard times in Fayoum
With many Egyptian rural areas waiting in line for development, Mai Samih finds out how villagers in Fayoum are faring
the governorate of Fayoum south of Cairo about three km south of Fayoum's Karoun Lake and its host of five-star hotels there is a village named Southern Sanhour or Sanhour al-Qebleya. The village resembles one from mediaeval England, with its narrow, unpaved streets and its mud brick houses, and it suffers from a lack of clean water, piles of rubbish, and seemingly endless traffic jams. This is only part of what the inhabitants have to say about their daily problems, which reflect those of other villages in Egypt.
Seham Abdel-Aziz, 45 and the mother of five children, barely makes ends meet by selling falafel on her doorstep. "I have to pay LE20 for a cylinder of butagas, which is far too much as I am the family's only breadwinner and my husband does not work," she complains. Sanitation is another problem the family faces. "For three days a week there is no running water. We are trying to live like everyone else, but it is very difficult," she says.
Elham Eid, 60, sells fruit and vegetables at the roadside in the village and lives with her four sons and 12 grandchildren. Eid complains of the lack of healthcare for the poor. "50 days ago my son suffered an accident that left him paralysed, and I have had to pay LE150 for each of his injections. There is no one there to help us, not even the Muslim Brotherhood MPs," she says.
Ali Fathi, 38, a bus driver and the father of three children, complains of the constant traffic jams in the village. "A traffic jam can last three hours because there are five unofficial stopping-off points in the main street coming into Sanhour. There is a van stop, a car stop, a motorcycle stop, a microbus stop, and a Tock-Tock stop, all in the same square. This causes chaos," he explains.
According to Victor Wageeh, a former MP and a member of the local council, part of the village's problems is due to lack of experience. "An MP must have experience before he runs for election, something which is not apparent now," he says. The biggest problem the village faces is that its needs far outrun its financial capacity, he explains.
Osama Radwan, chair of the Southern Fayoum district, is aware of the area's problems, but has little power to solve them. "More than 40 per cent of the district I am responsible for is made up of slum areas having deficiencies in many services, including sanitation, drinking water, and gas cylinders. However, we still work under law number 43 of 1979, which restricts the responsibilities of local officials. This should be changed to give us more power," he says.
The population of the Fayoum governorate is close to three million people, 14th among Egypt's governorates according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). In 2009, the former governor, Jalal Mustafa, inaugurated the second phase of the Fayoum Water Utility in the al-Azaba district, which was supposed to provide drinking water for the entire governorate. However, unfortunately this has turned out to be overly optimistic, and according to Radwan the water supply in the area has been paralysed by social obstacles.
"Overpopulation is the main reason behind the scarcity of water, and the pipes are too small to provide water for the governorate's expanding population," he says.
It is not only a lack of clean drinking water that Fayoum is suffering from. Once referred to as the "green governorate" because of its agricultural land, Fayoum today is losing its green colour as buildings begin to take up some of the best agricultural land in Egypt. According to government statistics, in January 2011 446 cases of the illegal use of agricultural land were recorded in towns and villages in Fayoum, including Senouris, Tamya, Ebshaway, Yousef El Seddiq and Etsa. In February, the number had risen to 2,600.
Wageeh believes that those responsible for the illegal building are only partly to blame. "These figures are due not only to the perpetrators, but also to the authorities and police, who allow people to build houses and live in them without preventing them from the beginning," he says.
In 2011, former Fayoum governor Galal Mustafa decided to allow the vertical extension of homes by up to 25 per cent of the original height of the building in order to address the problem of illegal building. However, Wageeh questions the idea, saying that "nobody builds tall buildings in villages for profit, which was the idea the decision was based on. Also, the foundations of the houses here cannot take more than one extra floor."
Radwan disagrees, saying that Mustafa's decision was a correct one, as long as "people consider the ability of the building to bear more floors. Only five per cent of homes in the Fayoum are built with mud bricks, so sustainability should not be a problem."
The public buses in Sanhour are converted vans with a door at the end. Inside, benches on each side allow people to sit opposite each other, as they do in police vans, what are known colloquially as al-box. "Of course the current buses should be changed, as they are not a good form of transport. The government should give drivers loans to buy new buses," says Radwan.
"The process could begin with the older cars, though it will take time as they are the drivers' only source of income." Wageeh adds that the idea of improving village transport was considered before, but nothing happened as a result. "In 2005, there was the idea to move the bus station to a place on the outskirts of the village next to the Sanhour boys' school, but for unknown reasons this idea was not carried out," he says.
The shabby state of the streets is the result both of the carelessness of the villagers and the neglect of local officials, Radwan says. "People wash their cars in the streets and throw their waste water into the streets. If the water company digs up the road to fix a pipe, the workers often don't bother to pave the street over again, affecting the life span of the pavements."
The main reason for the rubbish in the streets is the lack of local services. "In the past, people used traditional ovens made of mud bricks to burn their rubbish, but now that everyone uses modern ovens they are unable to get rid of it." As for the butagas cylinder supply problem, Radwan says that moves are afoot to ensure that gas reaches those in need. "A cylinder should cost the consumer LE5. Ration cards will be distributed giving each consumer two cylinders a month," he says.
He has ideas that he would like to see passed on to the relevant authorities. "Wider water pipes should be installed, and the streets should be paved. A rubbish dump should be provided, or a recycling plant established away from people's homes. Before any houses are extended, a certificate should be obtained from an engineer."
Fathi agrees. "We need a proper bus station that would help avoid traffic jams. We need a public hospital for people to go to, not just a private clinic." "What our village needs," concludes Wageeh, "is leadership that is able to change things for the better and unite people."