The Death of a Canal: Urban Water Supply in Egypt
Built in 1817 upon the order of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, the 77-kilometer Mahmoudiyah Canal was conceived to convey fresh water from the Nile to Alexandria and to transport goods to the coastal port city. Ever since, the canal has been the city’s main source of drinking water. However, today heavy pollution from agricultural wastewater and raw sewage combined with general neglect of the canal are endangering Alexandria’s water supply.
Located on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, Alexandria is the country’s second-largest city and its most important seaport. It is home to over 4.5 million people, and the population rises sharply in summer when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians flock there to enjoy the sandy beaches.
Driving along the Mahmoudiyah Canal today, it is barely recognizable as a waterway, with garbage bags and solid waste rising up along its banks as far as the eye can see. The government has launched repeated campaigns to clean up the canal by removing thousands of tons of waste, but it only takes a few months for the garbage to pile up again. In the parts that are relatively clean, water hyacinth – an aggressive invasive species from South America – covers the canal completely, consuming large amounts of water, clogging the waterway and decreasing water flow.
“The canal has been neglected for several years and now it has literally become a garbage dump,” says Hisham Farid, a 36-year-old civil engineer who has lived in Alexandria all his life. “It’s not just people throwing trash in; garbage trucks also use it as a dump.”
In fact, the canal’s troubles began long before people started throwing in garbage. As the Nile River nears the end of its 6,853-kilometer course, it splits into two branches, the Rosetta Branch and the Damietta Branch, to form a delta that flows into the Mediterranean Sea. This is Egypt’s breadbasket – one of the country’s most fertile areas – where over half of the agricultural crops are produced.
The water in the Mahmoudiyah Canal comes from the Rosetta Branch. Three large drains – channels that carry wastewater from agricultural lands and urban centers – feed into that branch, releasing all kinds of pollutants into its waters. “This pollution is mainly from agricultural waste, both treated and untreated, but it also includes large amounts of raw sewage released directly from slum areas that do not have proper sewage networks,” explains Sayed Mostafa, the head of the freshwater pollution unit at the Ministry of Environment.
The Al-Rahawy Drain, the largest and most polluting of the drains, pumps over 200,000 cubic meters of sewage daily into the Rosetta Branch without even primary treatment. “At the end of the Al-Rahawy Drain where it meets the Rosetta Branch, the ammonia concentration reaches 50 mg/L, about 100 times the widely accepted international limit of 0.5 mg/L,” says Ali Abdullah, a researcher at the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater.
Additionally, a large number of illegal fish farms along the waterway increase pollution and reduce the amount of water reaching the Mahmoudiyah Canal. “The law bans fish farms in fresh water and we keep removing them, but a few months later they spring up again,” says Mostafa. He says laws are often not enforced and claims that the lucrative return on these fish farms means owners can usually pay their way out of trouble.
The intensification of agriculture along the canal has also decreased the total amount of water that reaches Alexandria. Farmers tend to use poor and wasteful irrigation techniques, such as flood irrigation, which can waste up to 90% of the water. As a result of the intensive fish farms, the reduced inflow of water into the canal and garbage obstructing the waterway, water flow has slowed considerably.
When pollution levels are high, the city’s water distribution stations – from where the water of the canal is transferred into the network – shut down to prevent damage to the station and stop polluted water from reaching residents. “The water distribution stations in Alexandria are old and only designed to remove solid waste in the water. If the water in the canal contains other pollutants – for example if the operators notice that the water smells or has an odd color – the stations are shut down,” says Mostafa.
This has made life hard for Alexandrians, who face regular water cuts, especially in the more densely populated parts of the city. “The water pressure is very low across most of the city,” says Farid. “In summer, the water in my home is cut for at least four hours a day, sometimes even up to 12 hours. It has become unbearable.”
“Fixing the disastrous state of our water supply is more important than fighting terrorism.” Sayed Mostafa, head of the freshwater pollution unit, Ministry of Environment
Middle-class families and those who can afford to buy bottled water avoid using tap water for drinking or cooking. Many families have filters installed in their homes for cooking and depend on bottled water for drinking. “I wouldn’t even let my cat drink it,” says Mennat Abou Shoer, a 33-year-old writer and English- language teacher from Alexandria. “It smells terrible and tastes gross.” Her family spends an average of $60 per month on bottled water, and all her friends and relatives do the same. For many poorer families, however, that is an expense they cannot bear and they are forced to resort to tap water.
“During Ramadan this year, one area in Alexandria had continuous water cuts for 10 to 15 days due to the high water demand in other parts of the city,” says Farid. “Imagine what it was like for the people fasting there.”
In the past, pollution levels in the canal made the water undrinkable only during December and January, but lately the concentration of dangerous pollutants is high year round, explains researcher Abdullah. “The concentration of nitrites and nitrates is higher than accepted limits. Nitrite levels in Alexandria can sometimes reach five times the accepted limit.” Both of these pollutants, coming mainly from wastewater and agricultural fertilizers, may have serious health effects, especially in babies. Researchers are also studying the link between long-term exposure to nitrates and nitrites in drinking water and cancer in adults.
Farid blames those who throw garbage into the canal, but to Mostafa they are merely victims of a system that is failing on multiple fronts. “People throw garbage in the running water of the canal, thinking they can get rid of it this way. If they had alternatives, if there was a proper waste disposal system, they wouldn’t use the canal.”
Mostafa sees a lack of coordination between all parties involved in the different ministries. “We need to get together and develop a lasting solution,” he says. “All the ministries know there is a problem, but no one wants to be responsible. We are like ostriches burying our heads in the sand.”
However, Abdullah fears that the damage may be irreversible. First of all, he says, fixing Egypt’s wastewater system would require an investment of around $20 billion, far outstripping the country’s limited resources. Wastewater treatment plants across the country urgently need to be upgraded. Most of them can only handle primary treatment, which removes settleable solids and debris. Very few are equipped for secondary treatment, which removes dissolved and suspended organic compounds. “This is a minimum requirement to make water suitable for agriculture, though it is not yet drinkable at this stage,” he says.
“I wouldn’t even let my cat drink it. It smells terrible and tastes gross.” -Mennat Abou Shoer, English-language teacher
Both agree that a wide range of stakeholders will need to be involved in finding long-term solutions, and that there must be a clear plan that relies on institutions rather than ministers or governors, who are often replaced after a short time in office.
“First of all, we urgently need to outline the root causes of the problem,” says Mostafa. Once this has been done, the different ministries must work out a longterm action plan, with clear responsibilities and deadlines. The Ministry of Housing has outlined plans to install a sewerage system across Giza City (north of Cairo) over the next three years, which would remove considerable amounts of sewage from the Al-Rahawy Drain. “If this happens, it would vastly improve water quality in the Rosetta Branch,” says Mostafa.
“Next we need to convince the General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) to strictly enforce the removal of fish farms in the area.” This could prove challenging, however, as the GAFRD still does not recognize that the fish farms pose a serious problem. “Nobody wants to take the blame for what is happening,” he says. “The GAFRD is not even convinced that the fish farms are a problem.”
Mostafa insists that each of the ministries must have a clearly defined role in improving water quality, with regular progress reviews. “So far we have gone for fast solutions to calm people down, but this does not solve the problem,” he says. “The government needs to urgently focus on the disastrous state of our water supply. It is a matter of life or death that cannot be ignored. They need to realize that this is more important than fighting terrorism.”
However, until a comprehensive plan is developed and effectively implemented, Alexandrians – and residents of the other cities along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast – will continue to bear the brunt of the failure to properly maintain the Mahmoudiyah Canal and protect its waters.
Read the previous article from this report here.
Mohammed Yahia is the executive editor of Nature Research in the Middle East, and was the launch editor of Nature Middle East. He is also currently the vice president of the World Federation of Science Journalists. He is based in Cairo, Egypt.