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Mob-Run Fisheries And Pollution Imperil An Egyptian Lake

Lake Burullus, the country's second-largest natural lake, which yields a third of all the fish sold in Egypt, is slowly being ruined, as are family businesses.

Fishing on Lake Burullus
Fishing on Lake Burullus
Nada Arafat

KAFR AL-SHEIKH — Sheikh Hamada sits by the lake to eat his lunch and remembers times gone by. "In the old days, the water was so clear," he recalls. "You could throw something in there and see it under the water. Now it's awful."

Lake Burullus lies in the northern Egyptian Delta, in the province of Kafr al-Sheikh, which is connected to the Nile through the Brembal Canal and to the Mediterranean through the Bughaz of Lake Burullus. At 420 square kilometers, it's the second largest of the country's natural lakes and produces a third of all fish sold in Egypt.

Around 240,000 fishermen work on the lake, most having inherited the profession from their ancestors. But the trade is no longer being easily passed on through generations.

Hajj Ali comes into the modest coffee shop near the lake and exchanges quick greetings with his acquaintances. He doesn't know exactly how old he is, but he knows he's over 90. As he sips his tea, he recounts the old days. "This coffee shop and this entire street were part of the lake," he says. "Where it narrowed, there were once farms and houses on it."

He remembers working with his father on the lake as a child, and recalls the days when he would throw his net in and pull it out the next day full of fish. He hasn't fished on the lake in decades because of his old age, but neither have his sons and grandsons, who inherited the profession. Some have taken to fishing in the sea, and others have traveled overseas.

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Fishing on Lake Burullus — Photo: Fathi.hawas

One of Ali's sons drowned while attempting to leave the country illegally. He left behind four grandsons who Ali raises with his granddaughters from another daughter who also died.

Over the last 20 years, the lake has suffered from multiple forms of pollution, exacerbated by the control of big fisheries and lack of oversight.

Small-scale fishermen suffer from the mafia-run larger-scale fisheries, and motorboats that violate the fishing code, which contribute to pollution and the lake's ruination.

"I have been away for eight years," Hamada says, adding that making a living from the lake is no longer possible for him. "I travel to Saudi Arabia because the lake is not the same as it once was." He suggests that the root of the problem is the basins, which direct water away from the lake to nearby fisheries.

Hamada regrets seeing the lake he fished since childhood deteriorate, to the extent that if he casts his net, he may lose it or find it torn. He explains this is no accident. "Thieves of the fisheries," as they are called locally, tear the nets to send a message that the area is under their authority.

The mafia, who shoot if you get too close, dominate a group of islands on Lake Burullus that are good for fishing, Hamada says. They established large tanks to catch fish in bulk, without concern for the ecosystem and leaving nothing for the small-scale fishermen.

"Moving along the road to Kafr al-Sheikh and then Edko, you pass by so many basins," Hamada says, adding that former Kafr al-Sheikh Governor Zaky Abdeen set up fisheries in Yadd Bahary on the road to Alexandria and sold them to the largest traders.

Hamada is not the only one angry at the mafia" domination and the increasing presence of fish farms on the lake.

Stagnation exacerbates pollution

Saad Abd al-Aziz was a fisherman years ago, but he stopped working after his nets were stolen by the fishery thieves a number of times. He simply couldn't afford to keep replacing his nets. "We don't eat from the fisheries, even if their fish costs us a pound," he says, explaining that the fish are contaminated from pollution and have caused several people to get sick.

Abd al-Aziz says the lake is polluted as a result of stagnation, because the water doesn't reach it anymore. There used to be openings between the islands through which water circulated, he explains. The lake had 10 of these openings, but the fishermen who have taken control of them illegally and set up farms have obstructed them all.

The Water Surface Police aren't much help, he says. They only work from 6 a.m. to 6 pm. Violations often start as soon as the police end their working day, and they refuse to listen to requests by local fishermen to extend their hours.

Besides stagnation, there is the issue of sewage drainage. The sewage drainage center is a well-known site in the city of Borg el-Borolos. If you ask any of its inhabitants for directions, they always give them in relation to the sewage center.

In addition to sewage drainage, the lake also suffers from artificial drainage from a center in the Kotnsher that is full of chemical and industrial waste from factories in Mahalla and Kafr al-Zayat.

Near the coffee shop, Abdallah Shams works as a driver, transporting passengers in a small pickup truck. "Drainage from the fisheries is the main reason for the loss of hope in the lake," he says. "In the old days there were so many different kinds of fish. Now you only have two, Bolti and Tubar."

Vice President of Balteem's City Council, Essam al-Tobgy, sits behind a modest desk, on which there is a calendar that hasn't been changed in months. "All of these problems that newspapers are writing about existed four years ago," he says. "There is no pollution in the lake now."

Former Kafr al-Sheikhn Governor Mohamed Ezzat Agwa has made several visits to make announcements that the lake is clean. This is in stark contrast to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs' 2013 annual report, which detailed increasing levels of pollution in the lake.

There was also a marked decrease in the number of phytoplankton, which is the main source of nutrition for organisms in the lake. The pollution has also affected plant diversity, according to the report.

One step forward, two steps back

Major Shaker al-Balasy, the only person in the Office of Water Surfaces in Baltim, says that a recent campaign targeted fisheries and motorboat violations. The campaign, which started in March, has resulted in the return of about 25,000 acres where there had been encroachment. They have since become areas for free fishing. There remain around 35,000 acres still under encroachment at the northern end of the lake.

But the campaign also has its victims.

Eid Hassab al-Naby, the owner of a motorboat that was among 70 confiscated by the authorities, stands alone on one side of the lake. "They took my boat from me," he says. "I want my voice to reach the government. The lake is only for the big shots. But those who are weak can barely even live."

He finds it hypocritical that the government seizes small motorboats critical to the livelihood of families while doing "nothing about the big motorboats that belong to the traders and the mafia of the fisheries we reported."

Naby, who has worked on the lake for 30 years, dropped out of preparatory school to work with his father. He now works for a daily wage, like many of those whose boats have been confiscated. He says he tried to talk to the governor, but they won't let him in. "Security dismisses me at the door, even though the governor tells the media that his office is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.," he says.

He had to sell his wife's gold jewelry to buy new fishing nets. He says the head fisherman colluded with security to confiscate the boats, suggesting he's affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and was trying to create problems for Sisi. But he explains that the fishermen are patriotic and have not paid any attention to this conspiracy.

The Burullus nature reserve was established in 1988 by presidential decree, and an environmental affairs program was established to monitor it. The contact for the program on the website is out of service, as is the office listed in the city of Baltim, which hasn't been opened for months. The large building is completely closed at 10 a.m. Not a single employee is present, and stagnant water surrounds it.

The town's inhabitants know most of those working on the program, but when you ask them about it, they say, "A center for environmental affairs? There is no such thing. There is no environment here anymore."

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