The inhabitants of the locality of Motobas in the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh have become accustomed to waking up to news of fish cages polluting their drinking water. A report issued by the health department in Motobas confirms that the water pumped from the new treatment plant contains extremely high levels of ammonia, a product of farming fish in cages, in which dead animals and poultry waste are used as nutrient sources for the fish.
Official reactions have been mixed toward what the local residents and local council call a disaster. The increased levels of ammonia in the water are a result of the high density of fish in the water, many of which are in unlicensed cages, said the chairman of the General Authority for the Development of Fisheries. In contrast, General Ahmad Zaki Abadin, governor of Kafr el-Sheikh, denied there is any contamination in the water, and blamed the media for defamation. Despite his claims, documents and pictures taken by Al-Masry Al-Youm in the water treatment plant in Motobas contradict his claims.
"Oh the joy of days gone by," is an oft-heard refrain from people of this city that lies at the end of the Rosetta branch of the Nile. Their disappointment stems from the fact that President Mubarak presided over the opening of a new water treatment plant in Motobas, considered to the most modern of its kind in the Middle East. The irony of the matter is that the plant could not adequately remove high levels of ammonia from the water, something confirmed by tests run by health authorities in the city.
Fathy Daoud, a lawyer from Motobas, accompanied us to the Nile riverbed. There we could see several fish cages on the surface of the water. As if the Nile was not burdened with enough pollution from agricultural and industrial waste, now it is contaminated by waste from the fish cages.
Daoud, standing on the bank of the river, says, "The fish cages are a disaster for the Nile. Here at the mouth of the river, the number of fish cages multiplies in front of the new treatment station. The people complained to the chairman of the town council, but he took no real measures to correct the problem. We then resorted to the governor but he did nothing either."
Once we arrived at Daoud’s house, he asked us to drink a glass of the water. However, the acrid smell and taste of the water prevented us from taking anything more than a sip. He confirmed that the reason for the foul taste is because of the livestock and poultry waste that the fish cage owners used to feed their fish. The engineers at the treatment plant add large amounts of chlorine to the water to neutralize these pollutants. This can lead to a high rate of kidney failure among residents, said reports issued by the city’s health department.
Khamis Daoud, Fathy’s brother and a member of the people’s council of Motobas, emphasizes the gravity of the situation. "The chairman of the town council is intentionally keeping the pollution issue under wraps. As a result, in Motobas alone, we now have 5000 cages and no one stops the owners from polluting the Nile. Not one of the cages is licensed."
"The problem is that we are at the end of the river’s mouth, so the water is stagnant, which adds to the problem. The government spent a half billion LE on the giant treatment plant here in addition to five transport stations in the villages of the locality, all designed to purify the water. The tragedy here is that despite all of these measures, the water is still polluted," added Khamis Daoud.
Among the documents is a memorandum from the general director of the Motobas water district concerning the increase in ammonia and nitrates in the district’s water, dated 23 December, 2009 and addressed to the chairman the health department. Director Mohamed Ahmad Naamat Allah underscores in the memo that "an environmental survey conducted in the district confirmed that the concentrations of ammonia and nitrates in the waters at the new Motobas treatment plant exceed typical concentrations of these pollutants in Nile waters, which forces an increased reliance on chemicals by the treatment station to purify the drinking water."
The second document is a letter sent by Ibrahim Ayad, chairman of both the locality and city of Motobas, to the general secretary of the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, dated 5 January, 2010. In the letter, Ayad emphasizes that a field survey conducted last December revealed the presence of an extremely large number of fish cages floating in the Nile waterway, stretching from the intake of the water treatment plant to the village of Shamshera. Despite police notification and correspondence with security councils, the cages remain in place.
The chairman of the city council confirmed that the local residents were aware of the ammonia concentration in the drinking water, since a sample was taken and analyzed. These results have instilled fear in the hearts of local residents. At the end of the letter, the secretary urged the director of security for Kafr el-Sheikh to "intervene quickly to remove the cages from the Nile waterway."
The gravity of the situation pushed us to launch our own investigation. We called Ibrahim Ayad, chairman of Motobas, who in turn refused to comment on the letter he wrote. He claimed that the water was safe, but asked us to relay the necessity of removing the cages. He refused an interview with us in his office, instead directing us to the governor.
General Ahmad Zaki Abaden, the governor of Kafr el-Sheikh, in turn refused to speak with Al-Masry Al-Youm over the phone. Before he hung up, he accused the paper and various television channels of slandering Egypt, taking the opportunity to emphasize that the water was safe.
Attorney Fathy Daoud commented on the governor’s remarks, saying, "The one that slanders Egypt is the one that pollutes its waters. If the governor wants what is in Egypt’s best interest, he will look into these cages instead of accusing the media of slander when it comes to a crisis whose existence is supported by irrefutable documents and letters written by the secretary of the governorate."
Fathy said he would file a complaint with the Attorney General highlighting the governor and town council chairman’s failure to remove the cages.
Al-Masry Al-Youm obtained a copy of a letter sent by Hafez Mahmoud, the secretary of the governorate of Kafr el-Sheikh, to the director of security of the governorate, dated 10 January, 2010. In the letter, Mahmoud stressed the harmful effects of the cages, adding, "The local administrative unit of Motobas notified all concerned parties, including the waterway police, requesting that the necessary measures be taken to remove these cages from the Nile waterway. However, the cages are still present. We kindly request that you do what is necessary to preserve the purity of the water and the health of the public."
A month after the delivery of these letters, nothing has changed. Sameh el-Sisi, president of the local people’s council of the city of Motobas, corroborates this assessment. "The safety of the waters is a matter of life or death, and our job as a people’s council is to determine if the government is doing its job. It is our assessment that the problem worsens every day," el-Sisi said.
"We received a letter from the health department requesting that we intervene to save the citizens from the poor water quality as they often fall prey to kidney failure due to the pollution in the water. With this in mind, we requested that the chairman of the city Ibrahim Ayad take action. However, he refused to acknowledge the existence of any problem with the water. We began to investigate the matter by going down to the water treatment station. They have confirmed in official reports that the water contains a high concentration of ammonia, forcing them to use extra chemicals to purify the water. Among the documents we received was a letter from the health department listing the names of 47 cage owners, some of whom had influence with previous police chiefs," el-Sisi added.
Several official letters corroborate the levels of water contamination. One official letter read, "480 samples have been taken from the drinking water during the period stretching from the beginning of November to the end of January 2010, and of those, 128 samples showed the presence of an unacceptable level of ammonia in the water."
In another letter sent from the health office of Motobas, the director of the health department thanks President Mubarak for choosing to construct the most modern water treatment plant in the Middle East in the city of Motobas.
The letter continues, "In order to preserve the health of the inhabitants of Motobasand the surrounding suburbs and as a result of water samples taken recently that show a high concentration of ammonia at the intake of the treatment plant, and in order to preserve public safety, we have determined that the reason for this increase in ammonia levels is the presence of large, prominent fish cages in front of the intake. We conducted investigations that allowed us to determine the reasons behind the existence of the cages and their number. We also witnessed a large boat in the possession of the waterway police alongside these cages."
Fathy Osman, president of the General Authority for the Development of Fisheries added further insight into the dangers of the fish cages in Motobas. "Most of the cages are unlicensed, and their danger lies in the wrong way in which their owners feed their. The owners imagine that fish eat meat, and they give them huge quantities of animal and at times human waste. Unfortunately there is no supervision of these cages," Osman says.
"There are technical and scientific prescriptions for this kind of fish farming, and I am against launching a general campaign against the cages because they can be an excellent system for farming fish if managed scientifically, which dictates the categories of farming and type of feed and water that can be used," he added.
Farming fish near treatment plants in the Nile is dangerous as fish produce large quantities of ammonia which can lead to dangerous health complications if such contaminants find their way into the drinking water. Osman requested that the cages be dismantled immediately, but stressed that such measures are under the jurisdiction of the waterway police, who have received official orders from the General Authority for the Development of Fisheries to remove the cages.
To elucidate the dangerous effects of ammonia, Al-Masry Al-Youm obtained a letter from the general hospital of Motobas examining the number of cases of kidney failure that took place from the beginning of January until 20 February. There were 68 cases of kidney failure, the youngest of which was Mohamed el-Sayid Abukabsha, 11. We met him after a dialysis session at the central hospital, which he must go to every two days to receive treatment. He rests on a chair after his legs can no longer bear the weight of his emaciated body. We are unable to speak to Mohamed; however, his father begs that we help save the rest of the members of his family.
As Mohamed’s disease progresses, as pleading letters are sent by local administration officials, and as the governor of Kafr el-Sheikh continues to deny the existence of any problem whatsoever, the fish cages in Motobas remain a source of terror for the locality’s inhabitants that only recently celebrated the construction of the most modern water treatment plant in all of Egypt. Will the fish cages be removed from the stretch of the Nile that passes by Motobas? The answer belongs to those responsible for the river and the protection of its waters.
Translated from the Arabic Edition.