Dahshur lake under threat: Residents complain of state’s disinterest

Many Dahshur residents complain the nearby Royal Lake is being dried out to make room for a tourist village and that many antiquities thefts are taking place on its land, despite the US$3.1 million allocated in 2009 from a joint United Nations-government program to develop the area.

Residents have sent their complaints to the Tourism Ministry, and created many Facebook pages asking for the public’s solidarity in saving the ancient place.

Royal Lake is considered one of the most important historical treasures, dating back to the pharaonic era. It was dug as a water reservoir to avoid drought while the black mud-brick pyramid of Amenemhat was being constructed.

It is considered one of the last vestiges of Egypt’s agricultural ingenuity, and has been a spawning ground for migratory birds for centuries. But in spite of these historical and natural riches, the area is one of the least officially explored sites in the country.

UNESCO defined Dahshur as a World Heritage site in 1979. In 2009, the UN adopted a project to develop the area under the name “Mobilization of the Dahshur World Heritage Site for Community Development.” The project started as a joint program between five UN agencies in cooperation with five governmental institutions. The participants included the UN development program, UN World Tourism Organization, UNESCO, the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, among others.

The project aimed mainly at preserving the cultural heritage of Dahshur, enhancing local economic development and creative industries, protecting the area’s natural resources and promoting the development of sustainable tourism in the area.  

Mohamed Arafa, the program’s manager, explains what the project could achieve.

“For the first time, we could engage governmental authorities and the local community with the UN on an environmental and cultural program.” he says. “The program also targets Dahshur Lake as a part of the development project, and we made a lot of studies about it and submitted a request for the Environment Ministry to define it as a protected area.”

Moreover, Arafa asserted that the project could help 400 Dahshur residents find a new source of living by teaching them different kinds of handicrafts. The project organized exhibitions for their work and connected them with different distributors across Egypt. They also provided training workshops for the residents of Dahshur about how to protect antiquities and how to deal with tourists in the region.

However, some Dahshur residents are all but enthusiastic about the project, and are extremely wary of its potential consequences in this pristine location. Youssef Abagui, a photographer, painter and a longtime resident of Dahshur, says the money allocated for the project was distributed to some local contractors supported by the local authorities.

No serious study of the ground was conducted prior to the project’s implementation, he says, and he suspects that the contractors have decided to pay more attention to making personal profits.

“The unstudied project’s criteria set by the former Tourism Ministry led to the establishment of many flawed tourist facilities and buildings characterized with ugly architecture, which damaged some irreplaceable sites,” says Abagui. “Instead of keeping our heritage and developing it, we erase it under the pompous titles of ‘progress,’ ‘environmental protection’ and ‘modernization.’”

Abagui explains that the plan was to gradually dry the lake out, then fill it garbage and dirt to flatten the area before building upon it. Extremely upset by the undergoing destruction of the area, he sent a complaint to the tourism minister. He says his complaint remains unanswered.

“We, the inhabitants of the area, see the urgency of an action to stop all works immediately, and to send an independent investigative team that can see for itself the transgressions,” Abagui says.

Sherif Baha el Din, one of Egypt’s leading conservationists, founder of the Nature Conservation Egypt NGO and an expert on the Dashsur area, disagrees with Abagui on the responsibility of the project in the lake destruction.

“In my opinion, the project has nothing to do with these destructive acts that aim at drying the lake or building on it,” Baha el Din says. He instead thinks that a group of foreign businessmen are trying to turn the lake into a dumpsite for personal gain.

Kristen Nelson, an art chancellor and another longtime resident of Dashsur, sheds light on another problem that faces the place.

“A lot of acres are being torn down for making two roads for those who work in the local sand and stone quarries close to Dahshur. This will allow a vast amount of trucks to pass and damage the environment in such an area and pollute its air, as well as cause a lot of noise,” Nelson notes.

Nelson says that when the project started, they promised to meet with the local residents to involve them in the decision-making process. However, no one contacted them or asked their opinions about what has been achieved. Also, bringing electricity to all Dahshur residents was supposed to be a part of the project, but this aim has not yet been met.

“In my opinion, it’s better to encourage the investment in alternative forms of energy such as solar instead of paying a lot of money for connecting electricity cables to every resident,” she suggests.

The absence of security forces in the area has led to other drastic changes. Monument thefts from the plateau east of the Pyramids, perpetrated by local gangs in broad daylight, have repeatedly taken place.

“Because the antiquities in the area aren’t fully discovered yet, a lot of thefts are taking place. We complained to the police many times, and they promised to build a wall around the archaeological area, but nothing was done,” says Sherif Barakat, one of the oldest residents of the area.

Noor Noor, executive coordinator of Nature Conservation Egypt, explains that places of natural and ecological importance suffer because they aren’t given enough attention by authorities and government.

“Dahsur is one of the most beautiful cultural and natural treasures of Egypt. The place used to be an important tourist attraction in the past, and it’s our duty to bring it back on the map,” he says. “It needs new cleaning and maintenance plans. Also, cooperation between the tourism ministry and the local authorities must be found soon and some regulations must be imposed to protect the place.”

Abagui, meanwhile, says some NGO projects lead to destruction in the name of development.

“The best example is what happened to the Valley of the Kings in Thebes: not only did it cost an exorbitant amount of money for nothing, but also aids tomb diggers to see their way in the absence and often cooperation of police forces,” Abagui says. “Unfortunately, Dahshur’s project is also one such projects.”

Olfa Gamal Eddin, the UNESCO project’s communication and advocacy officer, refuted all these accusations. The main issue she sees is the miscommunication between the project’s organizers and some of the Dahshur residents, as well as the lack of transparency and healthy circulation of information in the country.

“Those people are accusing UNESCO because they don’t have enough information about the project,” she says. “UNESCO is just one of the many organizations behind the project.”

Gamal Eddin asserts that the project’s main goal is to protect the lake and prevent encroachment on the area land.

“The roads that are being built will encourage tourism in Dahshur and provide a great service to the local residents,” she says.

She adds that no tourist facilities were built on the lake, because they must follow certain ecological guidelines and instructions.

“Our project has nothing to do with cutting the water from the lake, because it’s the Irrigation Ministry’s responsibility,” she says, adding that the UN office is always ready to listen to people’s complaints and discuss their suggestions.

Though he does not hold the project managers responsible for the current destruction of the area, Baha el Din refuses to blame Dahshur residents for complaining about the ineffectiveness of the project. “So far, this project has not achieved many of its ecological goals, especially when it comes to helping Dahshur become a protected area.”

He had helped study the area to make it a protected area. “I don’t want that study to be put on the shelves,” he says.

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