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.

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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