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No Oasis: Cairo's Shiny New Developments Face Water Shortages

Boasting of the good life, safe from the chronic problems of the Egyptian capital, the "New Cairo" developments blamed for wasting precious water for all, now face shortages of their own.

The brochure dream of The Waterway
The brochure dream of The Waterway
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — Developments like The Waterway boast of incorporating "the soothing presence of water throughout the public spaces of the grounds." They promise the good life in a desert oasis kept lush with precious water piped in from the Nile or from underground wells.

Water wastefulness is one of the main criticisms of these Cairo satellite cities, which were a key feature in the vision for Egypt's growth under former President Hosni Mubarak's administration. The country is officially in a state of water poverty, with insufficient resources to feed, clothe and satisfy the thirst of its inhabitants, but traffic medians in New Cairo bloom green.

For many who moved out to satellite cities in New Cairo, it was a chance to live the suburban dream and to have a newly built house with a lawn, maybe even a pool. Or, for middle-class young couples, a chance to own an apartment outside the overheated real estate market of Cairo proper. Residents sought clean air, quiet streets, an opportunity to remove themselves from Cairo's chaos.

But the dream is starting to fray.

Water outages have been a constant problem for about five months now, explains Aziz Marei, a resident of New Cairo's Fifth Settlement. The water turns on and goes out at irregular intervals, without warning. Marei's building, like many in Cairo, has a water tank that fills from municipal pipes. When the tank doesn't get refilled, the taps stop flowing.

Half-full vs half-empty

"If the water tank is half-full, you have a more or less normal life," Marei says. Otherwise, residents have to postpone washing dishes, showering, cleaning and other domestic chores. Even flushing a toilet requires hoarding water in bottles and buckets.

The problem is compounded by electricity blackouts. If the intervals of running water coincide with a power outage, the pumps delivering water to rooftop residential tanks don't work, so none of the water makes it into homes.

"This is not the way of life you should be living considering the price per meter of real estate," Marei says.

Those with grander aspirations are even more outraged by the water cuts — and, perhaps, by the disillusioning sensation that even money can't always buy a comfortable life in today's Egypt.

"This whole problem is pissing me off," says Shadane Sadek, who lives in a villa in New Cairo's upscale Al-Hayat compound. "I feel it's degrading that I have to suffer from water shortages. They owe it to me to give me a good life, because I'm paying for it."

Sadek's family moved from Heliopolis to New Cairo two years ago, in part to have the luxuries of a pool and a garden, which she is now unable to enjoy, thanks to water cuts.

"It really sickens me to see my plants die due to the shortage," Sadek says.

What's the government doing?

Residents feel the government's response has been inadequate. The water company cites temporary problems such as water main breaks and maintenance problems at the treatment plant, but the cuts have continued for months. The government had promised to create a hotline for citizens to submit complaints and ask for assistance, but residents say they have not succeeded in getting through on the number. Marei says he has contacted the utility via Facebook, only to be told by a junior employee that water cuts were a temporary problem.

In July, the government began to pay some attention, with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb holding special ministerial meetings on the subject. Among the proposed short-term measures was potable water deliveries, but few are satisfied with that initiative.

"I don't think this is a smart solution," Marei says. "I don't want to go down with empty containers."

Some resident committees, such as the one in the compound where Sadek lives, have taken matters into their own hands, organizing daily water trucks to deliver to homes.

"If I was living in the slums, I would wait for a truck to come and give me water," says Sadek. "I don't want to sound pushy or anything, but I'm not used to it."

Still, apart from a petition, there has been little organized action against the shortages.

"We're kind of passive-aggressive people," Sadek explains. "I just want to sit in my garden and enjoy my pool. Just give me some water and let me be."

There are more pressing issues

A withered suburban garden hardly rates on the long list of Egypt's urgent problems. Even in New Cairo, people who live in poorer districts or who don't have cars or resident associations are suffering much more from water cuts than their wealthier neighbors. But the failure to maintain basic services for even the most privileged Egyptians could serve as a cautionary tale for other ambitious projects to relocate Egypt's population, some 95% of which currently live in less than 5% of the country's land mass.

For decades, governments have preached the virtues of moving out of the Nile Valley and into the desert. One of the most ambitious plans, Egyptian-American scientist Farouk al-Baz’s "Corridor of Development," calls for the construction of cities, infrastructure and agriculture to be developed parallel to the Nile Valley.

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Most of Cairo is overcrowded, and short on public services. (Photo - David Evers)

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has indicated he's thinking along these lines. One of his few presidential campaign platforms was a "Map of the Future," showing 48 new cities in the desert. The map was removed from Sisi's website before the election began, but he has continued to speak of plans to reclaim desert land.

In New Cairo, however, despite most residential developments being sparsely inhabited, resources already feel strained.

Marei estimates that only about a third of the buildings in his development are occupied. "Imagine five years down the road when you have 70% to 80% occupation levels," he says.

In the meantime, both developers and residents are learning that if the pipes are no good, and the infrastructure poorly conceived, even gold-plated taps don't mean you will be able to enjoy basic comforts like running water.

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