Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Hope for Ezbet Al-Haggana

A new initiative is providing basic social services for Ezbet Al-Haggana, one of Cairo’s largest informal settlements, writes Mohamed Abdel-Baky

Al-Ahram Weekly

It takes Maha Abdel-Razek more than two hours every morning to get her family their daily needs of water from the public tap located far from her house in Ezbet Al-Haggana in eastern Cairo.

Maha lives in a small house of two rooms with 10 members of her family, including her four children, her mother, father and three of her husband’s cousins who have come from their village in Upper Egypt to work as construction workers in Cairo.

The lack of piped water is not the family’s only problem. Abdel-Razek’s house also does not have access to the mains sewage system and only has electricity for a few hours a day.

Home to an estimated 500,000 people living on about 750 acres, Ezbet Al-Haggana is one of the largest informal settlements in the country. The area, formerly military land and formally classified as underdeveloped, faces problems that are common in other such areas of Cairo, among them shortfalls in essential services such as water, sewage and garbage collection and grossly inadequate healthcare, education and security.

“The basic social contract between citizens and government seems to be ignored,” said Jennifer Bremer, a professor of public policy at the American University in Cairo (AUC) who has been working with Al-Nour Al-Mashriq, a local NGO working in the area, on a new project that aims to provide basic services to Ezbet Al-Haggana.

The area has only two primary schools and one elementary school, and it has no secondary schools either public or vocational. Children have to go to schools outside of their area in Nasr City, Almaza or Mataria. As a result, many children drop out before completing their schooling because of the long distances between the schools and their homes in Ezbet Al-Haggana. 

The Al-Shehab Institution for Development, a local NGO, reports that 77 per cent of the residents of Ezbet Al-Haggana are illiterate. “The root cause of many of these issues is the failure of the government to live up to its most fundamental responsibilities towards residents of the informal areas. It doesn’t provide enough schools, health centres, or even police stations and post offices, and it doesn’t pave roads or install streetlights,” the group said.

Bremer said that the Al-Nour Al-Mashriq project aimed to address this lack of basic services by mobilising private funds to build facilities on land adjacent to Ezbet Al-Haggana.

According to the project team, building social services in the area would be the first step to formalising the area by providing adequate access to water and sewage, and enabling all children to attend schools in their own neighbourhoods. 

The project consists of constructing schools, a hospital, a police station, a post office and other public services that are not currently available in the area. “Once built, each facility will be turned over to the authority responsible,” said Eid Abdel-Latif, president of Al-Nour Al-Mashriq.

Ezbet Al-Haggana lies some 4.5km outside Cairo on the Suez road. The area took the name of “Al-Haggana” as it was formerly a settlement for the families of coastguard soldiers stationed nearby. Before 1963, Ezbet Al-Haggana was a military zone, and part of the area was dedicated to soldiers and their families who were originally from the governorates of Upper Egypt and Sudan.

These began to expand the area and build new houses for their relatives in return for symbolic prices. They then started to sell land in the area to others. As a result, older Al-Haggana residents were able to rebuild their houses in brick, leading to a change in the character of the area. Officially, it was a suburb of Heliopolis until 1963, later being attached to Nasr City.

Ezbet Al-Haggana consists of four areas. The first is the original area in which the soldiers first settled, followed by their relatives, sons and grandchildren. This is the only area that enjoys basic services like water, sewage, electricity, and transportation. The second, third and fourth areas have few or no basic services and informal streets only one or two metres wide in some places. Many areas are covered with garbage.

“It is rare to see cars in the third area, and the streets are very narrow and unpaved, meaning that most houses do not see the sun,” said Farid Mustafa, a 16-year-old tuk-tuk driver. Mustafa dropped out of school when he was 10 years old to work in a local bakery until he got his tuk-tuk. He said that the residents’ only option in dealing with the garbage was to burn it and that sometimes it blocked the roads.

The houses in all the areas are of poor quality, and one-storey houses or rooms are common. Many areas of the third and fourth districts do not have access to clean water, and there is no sewage system in the houses in these parts, meaning that sometimes raw sewage spills out onto the streets. Some residents pipe water in illegally from Nasr City, but only a limited number of families benefit.

In addition, high-voltage cables feeding Nasr City with electricity cover the fourth area, and local NGOs have reported hundreds of deaths, mostly of children, over recent years because of these wires. Cairo governorate officials announced in 2009 that a project was underway to place the cables underground, but this has not yet started.

Prices of apartments in the area start at LE50,000 and reach LE100,000, while rent is between LE300 and LE800. Many families sell their houses to contractors who build apartment buildings from eight to 11 floors high.

“The urgent need at this point is to find ways of integrating informal areas like Ezbet Al-Haggana into the formal system by providing essential social services and granting them a secure status, thereby giving residents of these areas a stronger incentive to build for the future,” Bremer said.

The implementation of the project for providing social services would be complex, Abdel-Latif said, and it was subject to the approval of the government to allocate the needed land.

“We are working with the governor’s office and the military to finish all the paperwork needed to allocate the land for the project in the coming few weeks,” he said. The next step will be to raise private funds and mobilise local resources to construct schools and other facilities according to government specifications and in collaboration with the relevant government departments.

“The idea is to fill in part of the deficit in public services serving the area, not to develop private facilities,” Abdel-Latif said.

The informal housing problem began in Cairo in the mid-1960s, when unregulated urban encroachment on agricultural land started, often with little resistance from the government. It was not until the mid-1970s and 1980s that the government paid attention to the burgeoning informal areas, which had by then become a vast problem.

Recent statistics from the Ministry of Housing show that there are 1,221 informal areas similar to Ezbet Al-Haggana, in Egypt. These house approximately 12 to 15 million people, and in addition to their non-compliance with building and planning regulations, they also suffer from a lack of amenities, poor infrastructure and high crime rates.

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