Irrigation canals mismanagement leads to health hazards: The example of Abu Sir

The canals of Abu Sir village are part of the vast network of Egypt’s irrigation canals designed to expand the area of arable land away from the Nile. It’s a legacy dating back to the time of the pharaohs. The stone blocks used in the step pyramids of Abu Sir and Saqqara were floated in on ancient waterways that are still used today.

But one thing is for sure, the pollution in the canals was never part of the ancients’ plan. It has taken 40 years of bad planning and poor services in the modern era to reduce them to their present sorry state.

Since the newer extensions were constructed in the 1970s, the canals have become dumping grounds for domestic sewage and household refuse and are now a major health hazard.

Though ignorant of the specific diseases that the water can cause, most villagers know to stay well away from the canals. Some civic-minded individuals actually climb into the water to clear out the rubbish by hand, while others swim and fish in the larger canals, which they mistakenly assume to be safe because the water looks clear.

Those who do come into direct contact with the water run the risk of numerous gastro-intestinal problems caused by parasites and viral and bacterial pathogens. According to a senior doctor in the Abu Sir’s only hospital, the Abu Sir Al Gomeya, which is funded by an Islamic charitable organization, amoebic dysentery is the most common. This is a disease common to areas of contaminated drinking water.

There is no way to stay healthy in this environment as long as the canals remain uncovered. Even when steering clear of the water, the air borne pathogens that arise there are inescapable. These “bio-aerosols” are probably responsible for the high incidence of throat infections, tonsillitis and rashes that local doctors’ report, especially among children.

In the back streets, where the houses sit only meters from the narrow and stagnant irrigation sub-canals, the Culex pipiens mosquito finds a perfect breeding ground among the rank soup of decaying vegetable matter, animal excreta, rotting refuse and discharge from latrines and defective septic tanks. Among other diseases, this mosquito is an agent of Bancroftian filariasis, that infects the lymphatic system with a parasitic worm and causes the limbs to swell up. The disease is on the rise in Egypt.

These problems would not have existed in the first place if the people had not built their homes on land earmarked for cultivation, i.e. land within reach of irrigation water. Homes were never meant to be close to the canals. But the settlements sprang up just the same and the government tolerated them after fines were paid.

At first these unauthorized homes had no running water or electricity, and although these utilities were introduced later, no sewage system has ever been installed and no permanent solution found for refuse removal or reliable drinking water.

Domestic refuse ends up in the canals because there is simply no one taking it away. Those who feel uneasy about dumping it in public have no choice but to burn it.

Hazem Abo Zeid, co-founder of local youth association, the Egyptian Cultural Institution for Continuing Development, that works in the Abu Sir area to improve levels of education and living standards, says that there used to be a domestic refuse collection service two years ago but it was run by a private company and now they only collect from businesses and wealthier homes.

They offload the rubbish at the Shoubarmont dump, an open air government facility in the desert just a kilometer from the Abu Sir pyramids. But it costs to use the dump and villagers can’t afford it.

Hazem says that his organisation has plans to introduce a sustainable refuse collection service for everyone but it needs to be integrated into a larger initiative, one which will require outside agencies to start tackling the problem.

Septic tanks have to be built into the foundations of the houses. Those without tanks have to discharge their waste straight into the canals. The sewage is collected from the septic tanks every two months by a horse drawn tanker which dumps the sewage directly into the Mariottia canal, the main waterway through Shoubarmont, and the source of the secondary canal feeding Abu Sir.

Even though the canal water is not used in homes, it has to be utilised untreated by farmers. Since many displaced fields are not supplied by any irrigation ditch, individuals have installed their own pumps beside the large canals to feed water to their fields through plastic pipes. Any toxins and contaminants released downstream into the canals are inevitably taken up in the food chain.

The runoff water from the fields that seeps back into the irrigation system is salty because of the minerals leached from the soil. Villagers have consistently reported that the mains supply water in their houses is salty, which means that it wasn’t being supplied from a regular treatment plant, the water of which tastes of chlorine. It may be coming directly from canals, without treatment, or it could be coming from groundwater through wells. Some villagers reported the supply to be spasmodic, others reported it as continuous, while houses on the edge of the desert reported no supply at all. All agreed that the mains water was undrinkable and very few people had any use for it at all.

Some of the richer establishments such as country clubs and private stables manage their own water treatment of ground water but villagers are obliged to buy clean water from a treatment plant run by the non-profit organization called Social Fund for Development, created by presidential decree in 1991 with a broad mandate to tackle poverty. The plant purifies well water in a nine-stage process. Villagers pay 50 piasters for a 20 liter refill. The service is taken further afield by middlemen using horse drawn carts but their limited service does not come close to supplying all the homes in the area and of course it raises the cost.

Naturally the lack of normal utilities incurs extra charges for local people. The two-monthly removal of sewage from septic tanks is done at the cost of 150LE and water costs anything from 2LE to 5LE per day for a family with children.

Although we cannot estimate exactly how widespread these environmental problems are in the country as a whole, the problems facing Abu Sir are certainly not unique. Wherever there are settlements on land designated for agriculture, and when there is no adequate sewage system, water supply or refuse collection, similar problems must surely have developed.

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