Why Egypt’s poor need a healthier home

Amid the campaigning in the run-up to the referendum, the content of the draft constitution has mostly gone unnoticed. People are caught up in “Sisi mania,” or boycotting the vote because they feel that the draft process was flawed.

The media focus has been on the military’s blanket propaganda, which just says “vote yes.” People campaigning for a “no” vote have been arrested. Meanwhile, the environmental rights the draft constitution enshrines have been overlooked. 

Egyptians are well aware of the worsening poverty all around them, but the state and civil society appear to not realize the integral connection between the poor and the environment.

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) reports that around 40 percent of Egyptians now live below the poverty line, subsisting on no more than US$2 a day.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment studies show that ecosystem services — the benefits that people get from ecosystems and the environment — are considered the “GDP of the poor.”

This includes “provisioning services” such as fresh water for drinking and sanitation, land to grow fruit and vegetables on, materials for building a shelter, materials for energy and clean water for fishing.

The less obvious “supporting and regulating services” include nutrient cycling, soil formation, flood regulation, disease regulation, water purification and climate regulation.

Tragically, provisioning services — water and land— in Egypt are increasingly polluted. The Nile and its waterways are contaminated with industrial and agricultural waste. Toxic compounds and heavy metals in the water are killing Egyptians, causing kidney failure, cancer and hepatitis C. Pollution in the Nile is also killing off fish species that fishermen rely on for their livelihood, and families use to add protein to their diets. 

This is without even entering the debate on water security and its decreasing availability. Egypt currently uses 127 percent of its water resources: its water footprint is bigger that its resources and is topped up by imported foods and products. 

This quick summary barely scratches the surface of the issues affecting Egypt’s ecosystems and therefore the poorest who rely on them.

Recognizing that the poor rely on ecosystem services for their livelihood would require the internalization of biodiversity protection and promotion in the economics and politics of the country serving them.

Without this recognition, economic development for the poor is automatically more difficult. To date, the local effects of biodiversity loss have largely gone unnoticed because national and international politics, accounting systems and markets have failed to recognize their fundamental value, and their direct impact on economies.

The number of people living below the poverty line in Egypt has increased since 2011. Neo-liberal market policies under former President Hosni Mubarak created great inequalities between rich and poor. In the years since 2011, the main efforts to tackle worsening economic inequality have concentrated on borrowing to tackle the deficit, failed attempts at job creation and cowardice in tackling the unsustainable subsidies situation.

Article 27 of the draft constitution was clearly set out as an attempt to restrict the economic system to “sustainable development” within the boundaries and interests of social justice (also undefined). Whilst “sustainable development” remains undefined, its reference here is useless. It is framed as guaranteeing “an increase in Egypt’s economy’s real growth rates, reduction in unemployment, a raised standard of living and the eradication of poverty.” 

By using existing measurements of economic growth that do not internalize the coping capacity of ecosystems, the use of sustainable development is a contradiction in terms.

Under Article 29, the state is mandated to protect rural communities from “environmental hazards.” This clearly excludes urban populations from protection. Without more clarity on what is considered a hazard, a basic public interest test might conclude that a high level of water pollution does not constitute an environmental hazard because it is a necessary evil for the greater public benefit from economic growth.

Article 32 states that the natural resources of Egypt belong to its people. The state occupies a caretaker role, maintaining all such resources by “using them well and not depleting them.” Neither of these two requirements are defined or proscribed in accordance with the needs of the relevant ecosystems or the humans reliant upon them.

Without any guiding principles or overall vision of what a healthy environment in Egypt looks like, what constitutes using resources “well” is entirely subjective, and, again, easily taken advantage of by vested interests.

Possibly intended as a restricting factor, the article also requires that the reader “respect” the rights of future generations. Unfortunately, the impact of this is debatable, given that current generations in Egypt barely have rights afforded them in this constitution, never mind future generations.

What constitutes the respecting of future generations in the use of common resources is subjective and debatable. Without this public debate, the development trajectory of Egypt could easily infringe on future generations’ needs to access basic necessities, such as clean water and agricultural land, because the restricting factors on development options were not inclusive of future damage to resources.

Article 44 covers the thorny issue of water provision from the Nile and groundwater sources, and their pollution. Egypt’s water sources are incredibly polluted; regulation already exists but enforcement is lacking. This article requires that the state protect the Nile and groundwater from pollution; this is strong enough to mandate regulation and enforcement in future, but not enough to clean up the legacy to date. The basic principle as to how much pollution is allowed, according to whose interests are protected, is less clear.

Article 44 indicates there is right of enjoyment for all citizens, but again, the definition of enjoyment does not exclude that the waters may be polluted for the economic benefit of the country, for example.

The second part of Article 45 requires the “protection and development of green spaces in urban areas.” This could be considered a big win, given the challenge to public spaces that the last three years have posed. If the preservation of public spaces had not been guaranteed, what little is left could easily have been sold off, restricting people’s freedom of movement and association even further.

Article 46 enshrines every Egyptian’s right to a healthy environment; given all the preceding articles, what exactly the vision for preserving a healthy environment is remains unclear. The prominence of fishing and agricultural practices and the water sources they rely on suggests there is a humancentric vision of environmental rights at work here.

Except for the slight Article 30 on renewable energy, what is most disappointing about the draft constitution is that the opportunity for enshrining a vision for a better environment and interconnected human systems was not seized. The document reads more as a static preservation of the status quo.

For the good of the poorest in Egypt, and for future generations, Egyptians should embrace this debate.

Isabel Bottoms 

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