On a blazing hot June day, rumors that the water truck is finally coming back spread like wildfire through the village of Ezbit al-Taweel. In a matter of minutes, some one hundred men, women and children pour onto the town’s main road, each with as many containers as they can carry.
Trying to escape from the punishing sun, Osama Sayed and his seven-year-old son, Ahmed, take shelter beneath a bush. “It’s like we’ve traveled back in time, having to wait with jars for the water carrier,” Sayed says. Severe summertime water cuts have repeatedly forced him and the 5,000 other peasant farmers living in this small Nile Delta village to wait hours, sometimes even days, to get drinking water.
Half an hour later the truck finally appears, to the palpable relief of the crowd. “There will be enough for everyone,” promises an elderly driver, stepping out of the truck. “Organize yourselves and separate men from women.” Two workers still on the truck begin distributing the water, while another collects money from the villagers.
Egypt, once celebrated as the gift of the Nile, is in the grips of a serious water crisis. With a rising population and a fixed supply of water, the country has less water per capita each year.
From an ample 2,526 cubic meters per person per year in 1947, Egypt’s annual water supply per person dropped to 663 cubic meters in 2013, according to official figures. The country is already below the United Nations’ water poverty threshold. By 2025, the UN predicts the country will approach a state of absolute water crisis, with supplies dwindling to around 500 cubic meters per person.
For people like Sayed, living in villages and cities outside of Egypt’s centers of power and wealth, that crisis has already arrived.
In June, the Delta city of Bilqas, with a population of 50,000, was suffering from a severe water shortage. “We can’t find water to drink, wash, clean, or anything. We woke up to find we have moved to the desert and our taps are dry,” complains Hossam Megahed, a city resident.
The same week, the city of Fayoum suffered a water cut so severe that even hospitals found themselves dry. A few days later, residents in Ismailia threatened to cut off the commercial highway coming from the Suez Canal after living for a week without water. Similar crises have struck Kafr al-Sheikh, Sohag, Qena, and other cities throughout the summer.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, critics say the government has taken little action to resolve the crisis, or even to help ease the suffering of those most affected.
Water shortages — and the unrest some have caused — are hitting the headlines this summer, but the problem has been building since 2011. Amid the security vacuum that emerged following the revolution, thousands of residents in areas on the peripheries of Cairo and other cities began illegally constructing buildings and linking them up to the official government water supply. Tens of thousands of new illegal pipelines have tapped into water supplies that barely suffice for the citizens already there.
To make matters worse, when people illegally connect their homes to makeshift pipelines, these pipes tend to break and allow precious water to leak into the ground. According to a 2014 report published by Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the deteriorating water pipe network today leads to as much as 35 percent of all residential water supplies being leaked into the ground. This is a quantity which, if used, could potentially provide fresh water to an additional 11 million inhabitants.
Meanwhile, Egyptian officials bogged down by the post-revolution turmoil did little to correct the water problem. “The issue of water is that it is not a priority to the government,” says Khaled Wasif, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. Only a fraction of the money needed to maintain the water supply network is actually allocated each year by the government, he says.
Though the responsibility for managing water is scattered between various ministries, and authorities, the most important entity for ensuring Egyptian citizens receive clean water reliably is the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater. A public company that operates and maintains the network of pipes, the HCWW says it has been so under funded in recent years that it cannot properly do either.
In 2014, the HCWW estimated they required LE15 billion a year to function properly, including LE3.2 billion just to provide basic maintenance of the existing network. The cabinet only assigned them LE700 million.
Without enough funding, water sector projects have been put on hold, except for a limited number of projects financed by foreign donors. In a vicious cycle, this pushes more people to resort to illegal DIY-solutions that cause the grid to deteriorate faster. The result is that today, water shortages are everywhere. They can last for a few hours a day in upscale districts like New Cairo, a few days in villages like Ezbit el-Taweel, or as long as five years in Sandub, Mansoura, where residents have grown accustomed to receiving water for only two hours a day.
When taps go dry, residents have little recourse except a ruthless black market. People in villages with water will often load tanks onto trucks and transport them to nearby residents in need — for a price.
Residents in Belqas said the price of bottled water increased every day from the beginning of Ramadan. As dozens of people waited in lines outside shops and kiosks desperately seeking water, the price of a 1.5 litre bottle jumped from three pounds to ten pounds in a matter of days.
Egyptians facing dwindling stocks have often resorted to unsanitary measures to fill the gap, often with serious health consequences.
“I live in Kafr al-Sheikh. I grew up knowing the water is highly polluted,” says Mohamed Abdel Razik, professor of water chemistry at Kafr al-Sheikh University. The current water treatment process is like “using a fishing net to sanitize water,” he says.
In areas, like Ezbit al-Taweel, where the solution to water cuts is buying water off trucks from nearby locations, the transported water is often heavily contaminated. Farmers looking to make a quick buck often transport the water in tanks normally used to carry gas. Worse, these trucks are often filled from the most convenient water source, which can often be a nearby wastewater canal.
“We know very well that this water is coming from the nearest polluted source, but we have no other alternative,” says Osama Sayed, speaking of the water he buys off a truck.
Wastewater canals are awash with agricultural runoff filled with dissolved fertilizers and pesticides, and make a rich habitat for pathogens like Schistosomiasis and Cyanobacteria. Heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, carcinogenic cadmium, and lead have also been detected in high concentrations. Kafr al-Sheikh, which lies at the Northern end of the Nile, once provided 40 percent of Egypt’s total fish production. Today, polluted waters have wreaked havoc on fish stocks. “Fishermen have to find new jobs. Even the fish die!” says Abdel Razik.
To make matters worse, the scarcity of water has made it harder for the government to keep even the country’s formal water supply clean. The Ministry of Water Resources used to open the dams and release additional fresh water to flush out pollution created by industrial and agricultural wastewater. Nowadays, given the shortage of water, they can’t.
Collectively, these water sanitation issues have meant that a staggering 95.5 percent of the population drinks improperly treated water, according to ECESR statistics.
Municipal waste also contributes to the pollution. By the time the Nile reaches Cairo, nearly 20 million Egyptians will have discharged their wastewater and untreated sewage into it. According to ECESR research, the sewage network only covers 24.7 percent of the rural population and 88 percent in urban areas. And even those connected to a sewage system still often discharge near freshwater sources. Citizens often report waking up to find green or yellow liquid coming out of their taps.
“Just living next to contaminated water affects public health,” says Mazen Abdel Aziz who works at Kafr al-Sheikh public hospital. The water people drink in the governorate is highly toxic, Abdel Aziz explains. It contains heavy metals and other pollutants which could cause a wide range of diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to hepatitis A and E, kidney failure and diseases, even mental problems. Even people who aren’t drinking this water are eating crops irrigated with it, and people whose health is compromised by food- and water-borne diseases like hepatitis A and E are also more vulnerable to other illnesses. This is why Kafr al-Sheikh has the highest rate of HCV in Egypt, Abdel Aziz says.
Even attempts to treat people suffering from diarrhoea, dehydration and other effects of water scarcity and pollution have lead to their own disasters; this month, four children died and 27 others were severely ill after being treated with faulty rehydration medication in Beni Suef.
A way out
There are no quick or easy fixes to water scarcity and the resulting sanitation concerns. Ibrahim Salman, head of the Mid-Delta Drainage Canals Authority, explains that there are three possible solutions.
The first is pumping for underground water, which is expensive, takes time, and draws on finite sources of groundwater. The second is adopting water-efficient agricultural technologies like drip irrigation, instead of the flooding irrigation techniques still used by most Egyptian farmers. This, Salman says, is a long-term solution, but not one that can be implemented overnight. The third is finding ways to recycle water from drainage canals. Unfortunately, at present these canals carry highly toxic industrial and agricultural waste mixed with the low toxicity freshwater. This water is then used directly for agriculture or primitively treated and used for municipal means.
Last year, Minister of Housing Mostafa Madbouly announced that all Egyptians will be connected to water and wastewater networks in eight years, provided his ministry receives enough money from the cabinet. However, until that happens, thousands of people will be forced to wait in line, resort to black markets, and build creaky pipes of their own just to get a few drops of water.
Note: This article has been amended to more acurately state that the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants in the water has led to the transmission of certain infections and diseases.