Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Murky waters

Officials say there is no connection between the sinking in the Nile of a barge carrying phosphate and this week’s cases of water poisoning in Sharqiya. Reem Leila reports

Murky waters
Murky waters
Al-Ahram Weekly

 “My brother drank water from the tap. A few hours later he was showing symptoms of water poisoning — convulsions, vomiting and diarrhoea. He was hospitalised and two days later he died. The Health Ministry said he had underlying health problems but this is untrue.”

The brother of 54-year-old Ahmed Kamal Zaki dismisses health officials’ claims that Zaki died of severe pneumonia.

“My brother had no history of illness or any symptoms apart from water poisoning,” he says.

On 21 April Egypt’s Irrigation Minister, Hossam Moghazi, declared a state of emergency at his ministry following the capsizing of a barge carrying 500 tons of phosphate in Upper Egypt’s Qena. The barge sank after hitting a pylon of the Dandara Bridge. It took the army and the Ministry of Irrigation six days to salvage the barge and its cargo, during which time more than 700 residents of Sharqiya governorate were hospitalised after showing signs of poisoning.

Amr Qandil, head of the Health Ministry’s department of preventive diseases, says all but 21 patients have now been discharged from hospital.

“Twelve patients are still receiving medical treatment at Al-Ibrahimiya hospital, one at Derb Negm hospital, and the remaining eight cases at Al-Zagazig hospital,” said Qandil.

Qandil told Al-Ahram Weekly that Zaki “was suffering from hepatic diseases which caused his death.” Yet the medical report issued by Al-Zagazig health directorate states that Zaki’s death was due to poisoning, according to a report published in Al-Watan newspaper.

Ministry of Irrigation spokesman Khaled Wassef dismisses any possibility of a connection between the barge sinking and the mass poisonings in Sharqiya.

“The distance between Qena and Al-Sharqiya is more than 700 km. A number of governorates lie between. It is inconceivable that the sinking of the barge should have poisoned people living so far away and no one in between,” he says.

More than 500 samples of Nile water have been analysed at Health Ministry laboratories, says Qandil. “No sample showed a concentration of phosphate higher than 0.5 mg per litre, while the safety threshold is 2mgs per litre.”

Meanwhile, Wassef said the sunken barge has been pulled by the Armed Forces winches and was located in a safe place away from the course of the river and its banks. “Armed Forces are using very advanced equipment to suck the phosphate which drowned in the Nile. They have finished the suction process on Tuesday,” said Wassef.

Ayman Abdel-Qader, head of Al-Sharqiya governorate’s Water and Sanitation Company, has issued a press statement confirming that samples of water taken from the site of the poisonings did not show abnormal concentrations of phosphate. “All samples were well within the safety limit of 2mg per litre,” said the statement.

Most phosphates, inorganic chemicals mined for use in agriculture and industry, are only slightly soluble, or are insoluble, in water.

Raw phosphate, says chemist Rabab Hassan, does not dissolve in water.

“To make it soluble in water the phosphate needs to undergo chemical processing. And the temperature of water must be at least 50 degrees Celsius. The temperature of the Nile currently ranges between 20 to 27 degrees making it impossible for the phosphate to dissolve.”

Mohamed Magdi, head of the Ibrahimiya Youth Centre in Sharqiya, stresses that the governorate has had problems before with its provision of potable water. Supplies, he says, are very contaminated and the filters used by the National Water Holding Company insufficient to remove all the impurities. According to Magdi, “many people resort to buying drinking water from local companies which sell artesian water that may well not be tested at all.”

“For years we have been complaining. We have repeatedly asked officials to improve the system of filtering so residents can drink water in safety. No one has responded to our calls.”

“Contaminated water produced by the national company and water of dubious, and often unchecked, quality pumped by local companies are what lies behind these repeated cases of poisoning,” says Magdi.

In October 2014 more residents of Sharqiya governorate were poisoned in a similar incident. Officials at the time insisted the governorates drinking water was clean.

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