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The Middle East @ Work

Egypt is running out of water

Amy Scott Mar 14, 2008
The Middle East @ Work

Egypt is running out of water

Amy Scott Mar 14, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: In Egypt, less than ten percent of the land is settled. The rest is desert. That means the vast majority of people live in the Nile Valley surrounding Cairo. And with the population growing by more than a million people every year you can imagine the strain on resources. You can see it in the brown cloud that settles over Cairo like dirty gauze. You can feel it when you breathe. And for some people the strain is evident every time they turn on the tap. Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports.

AMY SCOTT: Trash lines the streets of this village in Giza, outside Cairo. Shops sell mobile phone cards, snacks, toilet seats. Water collects in muddy pools from leaky pipes in the ground. But Manal Mahmoud says in the houses here, there isn’t a drop to drink.

Manal Mahmoud: For five months we had no water. Now it’s starting to come out, but by night time the water that comes out of the tap is sewage.

Down the street others say they haven’t had clean water in a year. Mohammed Amran is a plumber. He says he scrounges for water at nearby coffee shops or borrows from neighbors.

Mohammed Amran: We stay up all night looking for someone who has clean water we can have.

The Cairo-based Center for Rural Studies says roughly five million Egyptians live without sufficient access to clean drinking water. That’s about six percent of the population. Last summer thirsty residents staged protests throughout the country. Mohammad Nagi heads the Habi Center for Environmental Rights. He says at one point demonstrators shut down a major highway.

Mohammed Nagi: People were putting up with too much to the extent that they exploded. It was like something you had that was boiling for a long time and then you took out the lid.

The protests may have worked. Mohei El Serafei is a spokesman with the government-funded Holding Company for Water and Wastewater. He says there’s plenty of water to go around. But the company ran out of money to purify and deliver it.
After the protests, El Serafei says the government kicked in about $450 million to build new pipes and fix old ones.

Mohei El Serafei: Now since the funds are available, finally, by the 30th of June, this problem will be totally eradicated. So there won’t be a single village in Egypt suffering any shortage of water.

SCOTT: Not a single village?

When I ask El Serafei about the sewage coming out of the tap in that neighborhood in Giza, he points at my cup of tea.

El Serafei: The proof that our water is totally clean and it’s never mixed with sewage water is that actually you are using it to drink right now.

SCOTT:But I’m not in Giza.

El Serafei: Unfortunately those other parts, on the suburbs of Giza, they don’t belong to us. They are not under our responsibility.

That’s because many developments like the one I visited are unlicensed. They were built illegally to accommodate the legions of Cairenes who can’t afford proper housing. El Serafei insists even unlicensed neighborhoods will have water by early summer.

In Giza, Shoaeb Taha Shoaeb turns on the tap in his kitchen.

Shoaeb Taha Shoaeb: You cannot even take a bath with this, because it will spoil your hair and your skin. It is too salty.

Shoaeb is lucky. He has a job and can haul containers of drinking water home from the office.

Shoaeb: I work in the government and there is a car that takes me to and from work. That’s how I get water to my house. But the rest of the people are too poor to have a car and they suffering suffering with this lack of potable water.

Shoaeb has lived here too long to trust the government’s promises. Just like the Ring Road built recently to carry drivers past the slums here to fancier neighborhoods, he worries the new water project will pass them by.

In Giza, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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