Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Protecting Alexandria’s heritage

Farah Al-Akkad describes efforts to help preserve the coastal city of Alexandria from challenges threatening its future

 

Whatever happened to Alexandria’s legendary corniche, once described as the most splendid in the world? Today one cannot pass along the corniche without taking in major construction sites, concrete blocks, excavators and cranes that almost if not completely block the sea view.

Despite the drastic changes to the coastal city that have taken place over the decades, a walk along Alexandria’s corniche on an autumn morning remains a joy for the soul. One can catch glimpses of the city’s former glory and the faces of those forgotten Alexandrians, Greeks, Italians and Jews and others from around the Mediterranean and from Egypt itself, whose energy helped to develop the city.

This was the evocative city celebrated by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and the British novelists E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell remembered by author Michael Haag in his book Vintage Alexandria (2008).

Haag describes Alexandria as a city that “belonged as much to the Mediterranean as did Athens, Naples and Marseilles. In the hinterland beyond the waters of Lake Mariut, the ancient Mareotis, lay Egypt, from which the cosmopolitan city stood apart. Alexandria ad Aegyptum was what the ancients called it, Alexandria near Egypt, like an island off the shore, not in Aegyptum but absorbed into Egypt.”

“In 331 BCE, Alexander the Great himself laid down the plan of the city that was to bear his name, but as there was no chalk to mark the ground he sprinkled barley to indicate the alignment of its streets and where its markets and temples should be and the circumferences of its walls. Then suddenly huge flocks of birds appeared, and to Alexander’s alarm all the grain was devoured by the birds, interpreting the occurrence as a sign that the city would have not only abundant resources of its own but would also be the nurse of men of innumerable nations.”

Today Alexandria residents are split between those who believe in the benefit of the new construction projects on the corniche, such as the recently opened Al-Salam Bridge in the Sidi Gaber district, opened last May as part of a number of projects aiming to develop this part of the corniche, and those who don’t. The bridge aims to raise the level of the corniche, building a new road without any intersections completely separate from it. Other projects include a 30-storey hotel, a garage, and an amusement park.

However, the bridge leaves a number of Mustafa Kamel residents with no view of the beach, particularly those living on the first three floors. Instead of opening their windows to take in a beautiful view of the corniche, today they look at ugly concrete blocks that are part of a huge construction site that has deprived them of their view. Officials say the new projects will have a major effect on the city’s revenues and will create thousands of new jobs as well as help eliminate traffic congestion.

But others have termed the ongoing projects “architectural scandals”, with various rumours circulating on social media. Former governor of Alexandria Reda Farahat apologised for not “clarifying some facts about the construction taking place on the corniche” when discussing the new bridge, and he stated at a press conference attended by some MPs last November that “the public has every right to know how the project will benefit the city.”

The bridge opened to the public in May, and it is only part of a major tourist development under the supervision of the government that includes a multi-storey garage, an amusement park and a hotel.

Despite efforts by professors at Alexandria University and heritage professionals to stop the construction of the project, claiming that it will ruin the city’s architectural design, it has gone ahead.

Rasha Al-Tahawi, a resident of the Mustafa Kamel buildings in Sidi Gaber, said “I cannot imagine opening my balcony windows each day to see a bridge instead of the beach. What has happened to our rights as residents of this area who have grown up here? What have we done wrong to see our beautiful heritage taken away from us just for the sake of a project that we do not know the first thing about?”


Alexandria

However, Youssef Zuweil, also a resident of Sidi Gaber, believes the project will be an asset to the city and will attract more tourists. “I already feel the difference in the traffic, but I do blame the government for not announcing the start of the project more clearly. We just woke up one morning to be surprised by what was going on. We should have been informed earlier,” he commented.

Haitham Awad, a professor and researcher at Alexandria University, stated in an interview with the Al-Shorouk newspaper last December that “the ongoing projects are huge. They may have a temporarily negative impact on the look of the corniche, but people are starting to feel the good side. This is becoming more tangible every day, and it will be clear to all after it is finished.”

 

NO WARNING: Former dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Alexandria University Hisham Seoudi explained in an interview on CBC that “Alexandrians were devastated by the Sidi Gaber project because they were not given the details before the beginning of the construction.”

“I was one of those, but when the governor explained the project, starting with the Al-Salam Bridge in May and the rest of the projects currently being constructed in the Sidi Gaber district, and how beneficial they will be to the city, I was relieved. The governor also said that the residents will retain their sea view.”

Ayman Al-Alfi, an environmental policy professor at the University of Minnesota in the US, said the problem was not about one specific project or another, but rather about the long-term impact of projects that had not been researched thoroughly before the beginning of the construction.

“We have a civic responsibility and an environmental responsibility to our country. Do we really know enough about the studies conducted on these projects? Has the public been informed of how long it took to research the impact of such projects on the coastline,” Al-Alfi asked. He said the government had ignored people’s right to enjoy the beach and had allowed businessmen to buy up parts of the corniche in the Al-Shatbi district and build restaurants and cafés that average Egyptian families could not afford.

Another project that opened in May and has taken up a large part of Al-Shatbi beach where people used to enjoy sightseeing and fishing or just sitting by the sea is the Casino Al-Shatbi. This part of the beach and corniche was apparently sold to a businessman in 2010 and part of the contract included building a garage.

“The construction of the garage does not violate the terms of the contract,” Ahmed Hegazi, head of tourism in Alexandria, said in an interview with the Al-Youm Al-Sabea newspaper in March. However, Al-Alfi said that while the construction may not violate the terms of the contract, “it violates public property rights and destroys the nature of the coastline.”

Salah Haridi, coordinator of the Save Alexandria’s Beaches campaign, a local group, explained in an interview with Al-Nahar TV that the group was not against investment to help the tourism sector, but it did want to protect public property rights. Al-Shatbi used to be a public beach, but today it had been taken into private ownership, he said.

“We are calling for a new strategic plan for the whole corniche. We need to work hand-in-hand with civil society, environmental groups and experts to ensure real development for a city that has more than six million residents who have very few public beaches left for them,” Haridi said.

Nadine Al-Sayed, also a member of the Save Alexandria’s Beaches group, said she had been shocked by the sight of concrete during the construction of the Casino Al-Shatbi. “It was horrifying particularly because all the residents of Al-Shatbi district know that there used to be a beach suitable for swimming in this area. I am devastated by this playing with nature. We should be able to develop and invest in our coasts without damaging them. We are not being grateful for the treasure God has granted us,” she said.

A study conducted by the National Water Research Centre in 2014 found that the coastal city was very attractive for tourists and entertainment. However, the beaches along the coast were not always fully suitable for recreational activities due to their physical and morphological characteristics. And this situation had led to the unsupervised construction of artificial facilities along different parts of the coast.

Much of the work has had negative impacts, and available satellite images from the last 10 years have been used to evaluate shoreline changes as a result of the artificial structures, along with coastal surveys. The latter have identified problems, summarised research efforts on sustainable development and specified research for the future.

The coastline can be divided into two main parts, undeveloped and developed. The undeveloped areas are divided into flood-affected and flood-unaffected areas, with the developed areas representing the major towns along the coast. Monitoring of the undeveloped areas shows that they have dynamically stable shorelines. But observing the developed areas reveals that the coastal structures in these areas have had a significant impact on the shorelines, the report said.

Another study on coastal protection and development carried out in the Netherlands in 2002 explained that as the second-largest city in Egypt Alexandria was facing two main problems resulting from natural and human activities: beach erosion and pollution.

“Significant erosion occurs along most of Alexandria’s beaches as a result of sediment starvation, coastal processes and sea-level rises. One of the most serious threats to the coastal zone comes from inland pollution sources, including the Mariout Lake and sewage pipelines. As a result of increasing population and industrial development, untreated industrial waste, domestic sewage, shipping industry effluent and agricultural runoff are being released to the coast,” the report said.

“With the rapid increase in industry and population, changes in water quality could have potential consequences for the rapidly growing population of the Alexandria region. Recommendations for environmental recovery and restoration are proposed for the preservation of Alexandria’s resort beaches and harbours in order to facilitate the development of environmental and tourist activities.”

A number of studies for the protection of the Alexandria beaches followed, and priority has been given to the problems of the corniche.

A study was carried out for the Ministry of Housing in 1998 on the redesign of this coastal highway, indicating the need to widen the corniche road. “A new design for the seawall protection was made, in order to overcome overtopping and erosion problems. The widening of the coastal highway extended between Montaza in the east to Al-Silsla in the west over a length of approximately 16km. The highway protection has been completely redesigned in order to limit erosion and overtopping problems,” the report said.

“The parapet wall should not exceed 60cm for aesthetic reasons. There was a requirement from the public to increase the width of the coastal promenade. Those practising fishing as a hobby required some access to the sea. New coastal highway protection has been selected in the form of slope protection. Concrete cubes, of volumes of 2.45m3 and 4.9m3 depending on the water depth, have been used as armour protection placed on a slope. The parapet wall, 60cm high, has been placed on the inner edge of the quarry run bund. Seaward of the wall, concrete has been placed on top of the quarry run bund and the under-layer. The berm in front of the slope protection is used for those practicing fishing as a hobby. The widening of the highway and construction of coastal protection works started in 1998 and was executed in phases, each phase extending over 5km.”

“In 2001, the project was completed. In 2000, a very severe storm occurred, and a small amount of overtopping discharge was noticed on the landward side of the new parapet wall, proving the effectiveness of the design,” the report said.

Al-Alfi comments of the 1998 study that “of course some of these developments were necessary and were studied thoroughly before being put into effect. We all remember what it was like driving along the corniche before it was widened. We may not see the short-term effects of the developments, but we do not have a clear view of the studies conducted for them”.   

 

GLOBAL CHALLENGES: Environmental challenges to watch out for in many coastal cities of the world today include the effects of global warming on water levels.

According to UN estimates, “global sea levels will rise between 13cm and 68cm by 2050, and the Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable — by 2080, up to 120,000 people living near the sea could be affected by rising waters if no action is taken to protect them.” In 2007, the World Bank estimated that 10.5 per cent of Egypt’s population could be displaced by rising waters caused by climate change.

Many of the businesses by the coast in Alexandria have taken precautions against extreme weather conditions, but mostly without paying attention to climate change. “The coastal waters are inching closer to buildings and flooded ancient structures, including the Graeco-Roman tombs at Anfushi. Seawater seeping into the groundwater has also made the fragile ground more unstable, resulting in the alarming collapse of some of the city’s buildings,” one report said.

Last May, Alexandria residents were devastated by the sight of the demolition of the cabins at Stanley Beach, known for their unique architectural design. In August, the governor of Alexandria announced that the company in charge of restructuring the Stanley cabins had damaged the beach by not removing solid sand. He said the Alexandria Tourism Company has won the tender to restructure the Stanley Beach in an auction held by the Central Administration for Tourism, with a bid of some LE15 million.

Officials have said that the removal of the cabins has meant that people from all social classes can now enjoy the Beach. According to the newspaper Al-Mal, some 10 other beaches in Alexandria will be put out to tender with the aim of building new cabins for people to enjoy.

However, Al-Sayed commented that “we still have only a very vague idea of what is going on. We need transparency in order to be able to work together, both with the government and civil society, to help preserve our beaches and to develop them.”

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