The battle for the cliff
 
 

Viewed from the sea, Sharm el-Sheikh’s Um al-Sid cliffs look idyllic. From the cobalt blue of the Red Sea, the water brightens to turquoise over reef formations that have made the stretch one of the world’s most famous diving locations. Green gardens and white villas top the rippling brown cliffs. The spectacular setting has attracted high-flying holidaymakers like Tony Blair and the Hosni Mubarak family.

Cracks and rock falls threaten the safety of residences above the cliffs and beach goers below. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Get a little closer, though, and the cracks start to show—literally. The cliff face is riddled with both horizontal and vertical splits, and in many places, piles of boulders litter the beach. Most of the rock falls have been there for decades, but they still serve as potent reminders of what could happen if measures are not taken to reinforce the cliff face. Elsewhere, erosion is so severe that footpaths along the cliffs edge are barely wide enough to walk along.

Despite a clear need for some kind of action, how a restoration should happen, and who it should benefit, has became a topic of fierce debate.

Erosion has undercut parts of the seaside pathway in Hadaba. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

The story begins, like so many stories in Egypt, with a mad frenzy of poorly planned, poorly regulated development at the height of the Mubarak era.

This city at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula was once a sleepy fishing village. Small-scale development as a tourist attraction began under Israeli occupation, which lasted from 1967 until 1982. Then, in the decades that followed the handover, investors were encouraged by the Mubarak regime to pour hundreds of millions of pounds into hotels and luxury villas that transformed the Sharm into a glitzy resort city and a major money-maker for Egypt.

Unfortunately, the boom in real estate investment was not accompanied by corresponding investment in public infrastructure. Much of the development was built on top of aging, inadequate infrastructure originally put in place during the Israeli occupation.

According to experts in geology and soil science, one of the primary factors behind the crumbling Um al-Sid cliffs are leaky asbestos sewage pipes dating back to the occupation. Poor provision of municipal water has also forced residents to pay private companies to provide water, which has to be stored in often-leaky tanks which contents seep into the rock. Water seeping into the heart of the cliffs from swimming pools and garden hoses also play a role in the problem.

Dark patches indicate that dampness has penetrated into the rock. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Before they were thrust up by tectonic forces, today’s cliffs formed part of the sea bed, explains geologist Fekri Hassan. The upper part of the cliffs is the remains of ancient coral reefs, hard and brittle. Below this is sandstone, soft and easily eroded. Even without human inhabitation, the cliffs would naturally crack and erode, but the constant seepage of water into the heart of the rock is dramatically accelerating the process.

In several places, damp patches are visible on the cliff face. More dramatically, in a section of the cliff adjacent to discharge wells for the local desalination plant, stalactites of salt can be seen.

With the rock in its natural state, it should be safe to start building 20 meters from the edge, says soil scientist Mamdouh Hamza. “But if it starts leaking water, the bottom sandstone can disintegrate and everything will fall down.”

Residents claim these discharge wells from the desalination plant are leaking into the cliff face. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Although the problems facing the cliff are well established, residents in the Hadaba district were nonetheless caught by surprise in April when they found earth-moving equipment outside their houses. They learned that the earthworks were part of a massive cliff restoration project overseen by the Ministry of Housing, which commissioned state-owned construction firm Arab Contractors to plan and carry out the restoration.

Led by Hesham Gabr, co-founder of Sinai Reef and owner of the Cameldive Club and Hotel, the residents managed to put a stop to construction by physically blocking the machinery. Sinai Reef invited Mada Masr on a trip to explore the woes of the cliff’s restoration project.

Alarmed by the scale and potential impact of the project, residents contacted Hamza, a geotechnical expert who is also well connected to Egypt’s political elite. His engineering firm Hamza Associates has worked on massive infrastructure and tourism projects including the Toshka pumping station, the Cairo Metro, and the Damietta natural gas export terminal. Hamza reviewed the plans and found that Arab Contractors’ initial proposal called for the removal of 2.2 million cubic meters of rock from the cliff face. An alternative proposal, which Arab Contractors generated in response to Hamza’s critiques of their original plan, would have created 4.5 million cubic meters of rubble.

An excavation of this magnitude would threaten the long-term stability of the cliff and risked irreparable damage to the coral reefs below, Hamza says. It would also be massive overkill. “The solution is so costly, and it also is unnecessary,” he said. “It is like killing a fly with an RPG.”

Although not clear in this image, salt deposits can be seen around this amphitheater, which abuts the desalination plant. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Hamza used his personal connections to secure a series of meetings with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, who Hamza had worked with during Mehleb’s tenure as head of Arab Contractors.

According to Hamza, the prime minister was “horrified” when he learned that Arab Contractor’s plans called for shaving 10-20 meters off of the cliff face and creating millions of cubic meters of rubble.

In early May, after a cabinet meeting on the subject, work on the cliff was halted until studies could be completed. Only one phase, which does not overlook the sea, was completed.

This section of the cliff restoration, which does not overlook the sea, has already been completed. Arab Contractor’s original plan called for a similar approach along the entire cliff. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

In the meantime, Hamza, working with local residents, designed an alternate plan, seeking to minimize ecological and asthetic disruption. They planned to study each section of the cliff face individually to determine what interventions were appropriate for each section of rock. In some cases, Hamza said, this would involve lowering or raising boulders determined to be in danger of collapsing. In other cases, giant anchor bolts could be used to stabilize cracked rocks.

Instead of covering engineering work with steel mesh and shot concrete, as Arab Contractors proposed, Hamza proposed commissioning artists to camouflage the engineering works with original sculptures. “Like putting a silk glove over an iron fist,” Hamza says.

At the suggestion of the Minister of Culture, Hamza and Sinai Reef reached out to Adam Henein, one of Egypt’s respected artists, who agreed to oversee the selection artists and their projects.

“I think it’s a great and very successful idea. Especially if we succeed in the project. Not only that, but also it’s a very good chance for a group of sculptors to work together on sculptures, and build something new, and experiment,” Henein said.

Crucially, Hamza says his proposal is also cheaper than either of the options put forward by Arab Contractors. Even relying on Arab Contractors for heavy engineering work, commissioning geological studies, and paying stipends for artists and their assistants, he believes the project can be completed for LE40 million.

Arab Contractors estimated their original proposal would cost in excess of LE80 million worth of public funds; its alternate proposal would exceed LE800 million.

According to Hamza, the prime minister has given verbal approval to his proposal. Launching the project, which would involve studies of the cliff face and working with artists on a pilot site, awaits only a written agreement.

But while the central government appears to be amenable to the residents’ proposal, the local government has been a different story.

Arab Contractors restoration plans call for shaving a 10 to 20 meter shelf into the cliff face, which would create a strip of prime, oceanfront real estate that could be used for shops and cafes. Both the South Sinai governorate, which owns the land, and property investors stand to make money if the plan goes forward.

According to Abbas al-Bahrawy, a lawyer hired by the same group of Hadaba residents who hired Mamdouh Hamza, they are currently fighting more than 40 criminal and administrative cases filed by the South Sinai governorate, in what amounts to a campaign of harassment and intimidation against those who have stood up to the construction plans.

South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda is a strong proponent of the original development plans. When Hadaba residents began their protests, he showed up in person to challenge their right to object. “What business is it of yours?” he asked on camera.  “You do not review and challenge the work of big government professors and the Arab Contractors.”

Bahrawy says this same attitude is reflected in the proliferation of lawsuits against the residents who are fighting the plan. “It’s just something against the people to stop them from carrying out any processes against the government,” Bahrawy says. “They want to put them in jail to make them shut up.”

The lawsuits center around small gardens planted by residents in the public land between their property lines and the edge of the cliff. According to resident and Sinai Reef volunteer Rafael al-Maary, the plantings have been in place for 15-20 years, and were built according to guidelines put in place by the previous city council.

Ahmed Sherif faces criminal charges for maintaining this small public park in front of his house. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Despite a three-year statute of limitations, the governorate has filed criminal charges for building on state land, and administrative cases calling for removal by force of the small plantings. According to Bahrawy, property owners who were tried in absentia — including those who are dead or out of the country or who had long since sold on their villas — were sentenced to two-three years in prison and fines of double the statutory amount. Cases he is working on have been referred to specialist divisions within the Ministry of Justice.

This aggressive legal campaign has naturally created divisions among neighbors. One group, says Bahrawy, chose to try a quiet, behind-the-scenes approach rather than fighting the lawsuits. They agreed to remove plantings themselves in exchange for official letters to the court that the problem had been resolved. Those letters never materialized, Bahrawy says, and the courts ruled against them.

Those who have chosen to fight the charges are standing firm so far, Bahrawy says. They have also filed a counter-suit against the governorate, alleging unequal treatment. Of all the cliff top residents, only three households were given the right to purchase the land all the way to the cliff’s edge: former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and his immediate neighbors.

“All my clients, they are very strong and they will take all available action against the government to protect their rights,” says Bahrawy.

Unlike other residents, Ahmed Shafiq owns both this villa and the land between his fence line and the cliff. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

Ultimately, however legal battles and construction plans pan out, at some point both the government and local residents will have to tackle the water management problems that are the root cause of damage to the cliffs.

“It’s not a unique problem. It exists in other places. They have dealt with it. The range of responses is known. It’s not an unknown disease, so to speak,” says geologist Hassan.

Any real solution, he says, will have to be based on geotechnical studies that look at the consumption and release of water on a household basis.

Residents claim that by using timed sprinkler systems like this, they prevent water from seeping into the cliffs. Photo by Isabel Esterman.

“I think it will be beneficial, in the long run, for the resorts and for the residents, and for everybody, if it assumes an approach based on green life, in the sense of using solar energy, using less water, separating solid materials from water,” he says. “It needs a new comprehensive approach to how people live. You cannot live in Sharm as you are living in Cairo. It’s insane.”

Resort owners and property tycoons may be harder to convince, but local residents trying to stop the Arab Contractor project say they are willing to do whatever it takes to stop the erosion of the cliff tops, even if that means uprooting their small gardens and changing their habits.

“We don’t want our houses to collapse,” says resident Ahmed Sherif.

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Isabel Esterman