Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 July 2012
Issue No. 1105
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rising water: a necessary evil?

Can the new pumping system on the Giza Plateau help reduce damage to the Sphinx caused by leaking subterranean water? Nevine El-Aref looks at this, and what caused the high water level

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Within the framework of the Ministry of State for Antiquities's programme to preserve its ancient Egyptian monuments, Giza Plateau inspectorate has begun operating a state-of-the-art pumping system to reduce the high rate of subterranean water that has accumulated beneath the Sphinx and the underlying bedrock.

Ali El-Asfar, director of the Giza Plateau archaeological site, says that under the new system 18 water pump machines distributed over the plateau are pumping out 26,000 cubic metres of water daily at a rate of 1,100 cubic metres of water an hour, based on studies previously carried out by reputed Egyptian-American experts in subterranean water and ground mechanic and equilibrium factors.

The LE22-million project was initiated to reduce the high level of subterranean water under the Sphinx, which had increased because of the new drainage system installed in the neighbouring village of Nazlet Al-Seman and the irrigation technique used to cultivate public gardens and green areas in the neighbouring residential area of Hadaaq Al-Ahram and the golf course at the Mena House Hotel.

"All these have led to the leakage of water into the plateau, affecting especially the Valley Temple and the Sphinx which are located on a lower level," El-Asfar said.

Despite all the efforts taken to preserve the plateau and the Sphinx, some ecologists and hydrologists have raised doubts about the project, suggesting that it could further damage the Sphinx and lead to its collapse.

Kamal Oda, professor of hydrology at the Suez Canal University, said that under the latest project 9.6 million cubic metres would be pumped out the plateau every year at a depth of 100 metres beneath the Sphinx, which in its turn would definitely decrease the original level of subterranean water in the plateau and thus cause a drop in the ground level and of course increase the risk of decay and collapse of both the Sphinx and the Pyramids themselves.

"This absolutely is not the case," El-Asfar said. He explained that the pumping machines started operating when the subterranean water level exceeded 15.5 metres above sea level and stopped automatically when this level was reached.

He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Sphinx, the Pyramids and the Valley temples on the plateau were completely safe because the water level beneath them was determined and reached 4.6 metres below ground level, which was the same as the water level present in ancient Egyptian times.

"Such a level is a natural phenomenon," the Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said. He pointed out that the River Nile had once reached the plateau, and at the time a harbour was dug to shelter the boats transporting the pyramid blocks from the quarries in Aswan and Tura.

Mohamed El-Beyali, head of the ancient Egyptian Antiquities section at the ministry, told the Weekly that there were three reasons for the rise of the water table: the increase in the cultivated area around the Giza Plateau; the lack of proper drainage in the shanty housing area near it; and the heightened level of the Nile in July and August.

"We have noticed that the water table has risen since the High Dam was built," he said, adding that the most serious damage occurred during the Nile's former flood season, since the river continued to adhere to its natural cycle despite being regulated by the dam.

Most experts agree that even if the dam is the reason for the higher water level, it was necessary for Egypt. While antiquities are important, they say, we would have had the worst famines Egypt had ever witnessed had we not built the High Dam.

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