Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink

Daily News Egypt
14 Min Read

CAIRO: In a nutshell, it seems like there isn’t enough of it. It has reached the extent that former UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali has been warning against water wars for years (and don’t think water balloon fights, but real military conflicts about not having enough water for populations to survive successfully). Not only that, the water dripping out of our taps is of dubious quality health-wise, and bottled water might not be the knight in shining armor we like to believe it is. It’s not all doom and gloom, though you would be wise to take shorter showers and to skip hosepipes in favor of buckets when it comes to a car wash.

A large percentage (70 to be precise) of the human body is composed of water that my tenth grade biology teacher insulted people by calling them water sacs.

Our “water sacs actually expire if they go without water for five days, leading the UN to declare that a minimum of 20 litres of clean water a day is a basic human right and a necessity for survival. Why 20 if we only need to drink about two liters a day? Because we also happen to use water to cook, bathe, wash our clothes and utensils, flush the toilet and sustain industry and agriculture.

According to Dr Habib Ayeb, researcher on water and poverty and proponent of water as a human right, and vice president of Sawse (Sakia Association for Water in Society and Environment), 20 liters is just enough not to die.

A rough calculation of how much water my household uses revealed the figure to be a staggering 536 liters each day (134 liters per person, on average), excluding drinking and cooking because you shouldn’t try to cut down on the amount of water you use for those things. And the average UK resident uses 155 liters a day.

Chances are, if you belong to the upper echelons of society, you use a similar amount of water. In Egypt, the mean water use for a single individual is 370 liters a day. This figure is skewed however, because some people use up to 2,000 liters a day (pools, three bathrooms, second and third homes, etc); while the majority of Egyptians use far less than this 370 liters per day.

Ayeb continued, “The water situation in Egypt is an emergency situation. And we have enough water in the Nile.

Egypt is officially considered a water-stressed country, which according to news reports occurs when individuals in a country have access to less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per person annually. We already import half our food because we don’t have enough water to grow it locally. Egypt’s population continues to grow, but the amount of water we can access remains the same.

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed the Nile Waters Treaty (Part II, a revision of the 1929 treaty), dividing up the Nile water between them, with Egypt getting the bulk (82 percent) and Sudan a significant, though comparatively tiny, share (18 percent), and completely ignoring the other eight countries situated along the Nile River and its source, Lake Victoria.

Egypt’s justification for doing so is that the other eight countries have access to plentiful rainfall with which to irrigate and that their agricultural needs are low. The other Nile Basin countries do not agree. Attempts by Kenya to increase its share of access to Nile water were quashed by Egypt when it declared that drawing Nile water would be perceived as an act of war, thus setting a precedent for any other water-deprived Nile Basin country that might think of doing the same. That said, when desperation grows, committing acts of war against Egypt might not seem as outlandish for the Nile Basin set.

According to Ayeb, we have two responsibilities. The first is for our children not to die from a lack of clean water today. The second is to ensure our great-great grandchildren have enough water 50 years on.

“We need to deal with water in Egypt before we think about issues with Nile Basin countries.

Dirty water

The quality of the water we do have may not be as it should. Last year, parliament’s Housing Committee issued a report which found that water in 18 governorates, including Alexandria, Giza, North Sinai and Assiut, is polluted to the degree that it is unsafe to drink. According to the Egypt State of the Environment Report of 2005, the four sources of pollution to our water sources are sewage, factories, agricultural draining water and waste. Ayeb says that 65 percent of people in Egypt drink polluted water, and 25 percent of child mortality (children under 5) is provoked by water-related issues. “It’s very dangerous.

But Cairo’s tap water is the nectar of the gods compared to that found in the provinces. In an Al Ahram Weekly article entitled Water for Life (February 2006), Ahmed Shaaban, professor of water microbiology and head of the Water Pollution Department at the National Research Center, summed the situation up concisely: “Tap water is safe and clean enough to drink.

Conceding that it contains impurities, he philosophically noted that “nothing in the world is 100 percent pure, including tap water. Unfortunately, he also revealed that Cairo inhabitants have it good when it comes to water quality and access. Cairo’s tap water is much cleaner than the liquid which runs through taps in other governorates, that is, when it trickles out, as many living in the governorates have limited access to running tap water.

What sewage system?

Shaaban continued that drinking water goes through all the necessary procedures to purify it. The problem, though, is that the “old systems and machinery used to do so “have not been replaced for decades. We have water networks that lack corresponding sewage systems, which means “sewage is not disposed of properly and eventually it gets mixed up with the water network. In other words, the water you drink is potentially polluted with what you flush down the toilet.

And if you think that drinking bottled water is the great alternative, think again. Let’s set aside the mighty environmental damage caused by water bottles for a moment – toxic chemicals are released into the atmosphere if they are buried or burnt – being content drinking and buying bottled means there is no incentive for the government to clean up the water supply, thereby continuing to expose those who can’t afford bottled water to unclean water.

Also, avoiding drinking tap water doesn’t mean you are no longer exposed to the dangers of it. Ecologist Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., notes in her book “Having Faith, that “the sense of safety offered by bottled water is a mirage. It turns out that breathing, not drinking, constitutes our main route of exposure to volatile pollutants in tap water, such as solvents, pesticides, and byproducts of water chlorination.

What’s being done?

On the first and obvious government front, the Ministry of Environment has partnered up with USAID to develop the Life project (Livelihood and Income from the Environment). According to their website, life is committed to “integrated water resources management. Their activities include organizing training sessions and workshops; monitoring and evaluation; and raising public awareness. They’re also committed to improving “wastewater reuse practices. They offer small grants and technical assistance “in support of the decentralization of water management decision-making and an increased participation of all rural inhabitants in such decision-making in two priority geographical areas and four irrigation directorates; Zifta and West Sharkiya in the Middle Delta, and Qena and Aswan in Upper Egypt.

On the civil society front, Wesc, the Wadi Environmental Science Center, an Egyptian non-profit NGO dedicated to using progressive outdoors education, launched the Water Project in 2005 to tackle two pressing issues in Egypt: the state of water and the state of education.

So far 46 students from seven governorates have participated in the project. The students chosen come from both rural and urban settings, and have been taught about water awareness through a series of workshops in “environmentally conscientious and sustainable ways. The program aims to empower
kids who are affected by the water situation, both the geopolitical situation involved with the Nile Basin and the unsanitary quality of the water that some face as a daily reality. Empowered with this information, they have visited several cities and had dissemination briefings with townsfolk.

The long-term goal of the project, according to Sara El Sayed, senior school coordinator at Wesc, is for students to develop their own projects and continue to work on water issues. “One of the first batch of students has started her own advocacy group of 12 students and they are campaigning within the university premises and outside.

Ayeb believes the first step in developing solutions is establishing the right to water as a human right.

“Water is an essential material. People don’t have enough money to buy water, and it’s necessary, so it should be free. Without clean water, there is a big drop in health. So it is a basic right, but people don’t think this is a right, it doesn’t occur to them. I want to get people to say, ‘El mayya haqee’ (water is my right). From there, steps can be taken to get water. I want to start discussions, with human rights organizations, decision makers and the public. We want to turn the world upside down, but we can’t, so we want to make a little difference.

The polluted water breeds disease in people who have no option except to drink it, but Sawse is eager to come up with local solutions, independent of the government. “We want to work with the media, schools, other NGOs, and Egyptian youth. We want to use solar power [and] recycle sewage water. The situation is very dangerous. Water is more important than any other human right or political issue. People need to be able to drink clean water, free of bacteria.

As Ayeb pointed out, anyone can live well with 370 liters a day – in fact that’s more than double what you would use without even trying to cut back on your consumption. But at any upscale car wash in Cairo, a 10 minute wash uses 300 liters of water. Even an at-home car wash with a hosepipe for the same length of time would use about 83 liters of water. Now imagine how many million cars there are in Cairo, while some people are dying due to not having enough clean water.

Ayeb quickly moves on to say, “We don’t want people to cry. I want people to realize this is their right that they must demand. They’re embarrassed to demand their right

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