Environmental Voices: Egypt’s tragic lakes

It comes as no surprise the environment has long center-staged great minds and great discoveries. How long can man survive without a healthy environment? After all, is environment not ours indiscriminately?

Garret Hardin, and before him Aristotle, will answer no to this question. Edging toward a Malthusian view, these two thinkers pre-occupied themselves with man’s relation to nature, which they viewed with pessimism. “That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed on it," claimed Aristotle. Likewise, Hardin pictured a hypothetical shared pasture which decreases in quality as each herdsman takes the liberty to add more animals. Motivated by their need to maximize their individual benefit, the collective sum is inevitably catastrophic for all herdsmen, hence widespread tragedy.

Egypt’s lakes are no comedy. Vital for national inland fishing, the bodies of water are plagued by a decaying management system. Institutionally, these lakes are managed by a web of bodies that target the ecology of lakes as well as their associated livelihoods (i.e. fishermen). For ages, Egypt’s lakes (natural and artificial: i.e. lake Nasser) have been the site of small-scale fishing communities. In the 1980s, Egypt’s first fishing laws were founded upon the preexisting communal management systems which were used in the lakes. The laws were also parallel to generous donors’ packages at the time, which demanded an official national environmental entity. It was during that time that the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) was founded.

Egypt ranks high in environmental aid. In 2000, Egypt received over US$2 billion, for so-called "green and brown aid", intended to target environmental issues related to biodiversity and conservation. The latter is directed at urban-related environmental issues, such as pollution, waste management and water quality. The lion’s share goes to brown aid.

Nonetheless, after more than two decades of uninterrupted aid injection, Egypt suffers from fundamental environmental issues that represent a daily hazard to citizens. To take a few examples, Cairo has one of the highest lead concentrations in the air globally. And according to various studies, it is estimated that 80 percent of industrial waste and 30 percent of solid waste, respectively, are untreated.

Environmental aid has, however, played a minor role in improving environmental awareness among Egyptians. The typical urban citizen has little environmental awareness. Except for the highly publicized and well-mediated campaign against smoking in 2010 (orchestrated by the Ministry of Health), hardly would an observant suggest the presence of a mobilized green national policy.

Perhaps a valid explanation for a weak green national policy is the striking contradiction in policy making. Egypt’s North lakes are a cry for improper environmental management. They are also a living example of how unsystematic policies could inflict irreversible ecological impacts.

I remember trying hard to lay my eyes on lake Maryout. Having traveled over 200km from Cairo, I finally arrived to where the lake’s site is claimed to be. To my surprise, Maryout stood like a lost, vulnerable child in the crowd. Unlike lake Nasser, where the onlooker enjoys miles of uninterrupted water expanse, Maryout’s landscape resembles a collection of giant ponds, rather than a well-defined lake. In fact, Maryout’s map is nothing different to an amoeba; the lake’s landscape is in continuous change, and this is due to a mesh of unfavorable factors.

“I used to fish where Carrefour is now,” said one fisherman, pointing with his finger to a huge solid concrete building surrounded by cars; a giant structure symbolizing Egypt’s new steps to a more globalized economy. The next thing I learned is that the road that leads to Alexandria is built over what was once the lake.

“Sometimes I return my fish catch again into the waters because it smells of gas,” said another fisherman. No wonder! All day long I had been snaking between petrochemical factories and refineries while trying to maneuver around the lake. Maryout is shrouded by a mosaic of energy-sector facilities. Not all companies are private. Many are state-owned.

My mind wandered to other dying lakes: Manzala and Burullus. In the 1940s, Manzala used to cover 750 feddan. Today it is a mere 100 feddan. Burullus is about half its original size. Along with Maryout, these two lakes are dying in silence. Industrial facilities are spreading like cancer, cutting away from lakes’ physical surface and diminishing water quality.

I wonder what are the measures needed to balance between national neo-liberal aspirations and the sustainability of its natural resources? One must not forget that Egypt’s lakes provide the country with commercial fish production. Overall, Egypt produces about 111 thousand tons of fish every year. About 300,000 licensed fishers (mostly traditional and small-scale fishermen) collectively contribute to national output. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), fishing is considered one of the most hazardous jobs in the world, due to all the uncertainties characterizing the nature of the occupation.

But also, one must remember that these lakes represent the sole source of livelihood for thousands and thousands of fishermen and their families. Where are they on the national agenda?

The tragedy is not only in the ever-shrinkage of lakes’ sizes, nor also in the deteriorating water and fish quality due to unregulated, unmonitored industrial activities around lakes. The real tragedy is in the persistence of visible environmental catastrophes in the lakes which threaten national aspirations to increase fish production. After all, fish production contributes to national GDP.

If this sector is in further endangered, little can be done to replace this vital source of livelihood.

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