For rural communities in particular, serious water shortages were a big problem even before the COVID-19 outbreak made handwashing all the more imperative.
SHEIKH ALI SHARQ — In the village of Sheikh Ali Sharq, in the Qena governorate, residents rise every day at 7 a.m., gather empty jugs, plastic bottles and other containers, and commute in horse-drawn carts and motorized rickshaws to neighboring villages to collect water for drinking, sanitation and hygiene.
The town is one of just many in Egypt that suffer from a chronic water shortage, and with the outbreak of the coronavirus, water demands for households have increased even more, as frequent hand washing is understood to be one of best prevention measures against COVID-19 transmission.
"We've been constantly told about the importance of hand washing. But nobody tells us where we can get the water to wash our hands," says Hesham Selim, a 29-year-old father of four who lives in Sheikh Ali Sharq.
When the outbreak hit Egypt, Selim doubled the amount of water he hauled daily from neighboring villages in order to help his wife and children keep up their hygiene, which exacted a financial toll. "Our water transportation expenses doubled," he says.
"The motorized tricycle I use to transport water costs me LE30 (equal to 1.62 euros) per day. I no longer know how I'll be able to secure that money."
The family could not sustain the extra costs and over the past few months they have been forced to forego frequent hand washing and limit their water consumption to more pressing needs. "So now I try to put the water supply we get toward drinking and cooking, and not so much washing our hands multiple times a day. There's no other way," he says.
Nobody tells us where we can get the water to wash our hands.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recommend regular hand washing with soap and water for 20-30 seconds to protect against infection. According to the United Nations, water demand for hand washing in households will increase by 9–12 liters per person per day as a result of the COVID-19 mitigation measures.
In April, Health Minister Hala Zayed also urged every citizen to join the "Safe Hands Challenge," in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. But Egypt's water crisis — and the unequal distribution of water resources between cities and villages across the country — makes it almost impossible for people to follow hygiene and prevention instructions.
Official figures show Egypt's per capita share of water has steadily fallen for decades and now stands at less than 600 cubic meters per year. This figure puts the country below the threshold of water poverty, which according to the World Bank is 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year. By 2025, the UN projects, Egypt may face what is called "absolute water scarcity," where the per capita share drops below 500 cubic meters per year.
Frequent hand washing simply requires more water than many in Egypt have access to.
A faucet delivers an average flow of approximately six liters of water per minute. A 20–30 second wash with the faucet requires two to three liters of water. If the water is turned off while lathering, approximately two liters are consumed. Therefore, a five-person household would require a daily average of 100-150 liters of water for 10 hand washings each.
According to figures published by the Holding Company for Drinking and Wastewater in 2018, a city resident uses more than 200 liters of water on average per day for drinking and sanitation, while a village resident uses approximately 150 liters.
The water crisis makes it impossible to follow hygiene and prevention instructions.
Water treatment stations in Egypt are all run by the holding company. The water these stations use comes from two main sources: the Nile and its canals (86%) and artesian wells (14%), according to Tadamun, a sustainable urban development initiative. After the water is purified, the holding company pumps it into its networks of pipes and delivers it to the end users.
In 2014, then-Housing Minister Mostafa Madbuly (now prime minister) claimed that water treatment plants produce clean water that is both up to international standards and enough to cover the entire country. The problem, Madbuly said, is "poor distribution," between urban and rural areas and between governorates, which do not proportionately correspond to population density or demand and has persisted for nearly 40 years. As a result, some rural areas and villages experience frequent water outages while others do not receive any drinking water at all.
"We have a distribution problem," Madbuly said. "Some areas have a multitude of plants, while others have too few or none at all, which causes them to experience water outages, perhaps for days at a time."
In general, city dwellers enjoy better public services than residents of the countryside. For example, 56% of residents in rural areas do not have consistent access to clean drinking water, while urban residents have near-constant wastewater services and drinking water. The average daily share of water for a Cairo resident is 483 liters of water, and 511 litres for a resident of Alexandria, according to a recent report by the Egyptian Water and Wastewater Regulatory Agency for fiscal year 2017/2018. On the other hand, the report puts the daily average in Minya at 138 liters and in Aswan at 209 liters.
Water running out in Egypt — Photo: HCWWeg Facebook page
More than 6.47 million Egyptians are not on the water grid, according to UNICEF's 2016 figures. In rural areas, 13.3% of households are without a water connection, as compared to 1.5% in urban areas. In Upper Egypt, the rate rises to 17%. Some 6.6 million Egyptians suffer from interrupted water supply on a daily basis and 1.5 million Egyptians rely on water from tanker trucks or carts.
The unequal distribution of services extends beyond urban versus rural. Within cities there are clear disparities between rich and poor communities and between planned and informal neighborhoods in a number of services, including the density and quality of healthcare facilities and schools, access to public transportation, sewage and public spaces, according to Tadamun. And water distribution is a clear example of these disparities, with many low and middle income neighborhoods regularly experiencing extended water outages.
The impact of unequal distribution has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, as millions of families already suffering water shortages now have to shoulder the burden of an increased need for water.
Zeinab Attiyya, a 53-year-old resident of the village of Giza in Kafr al-Dawwar in the Beheira governorate, struggles to procure as much water as possible to keep her family in the habit of handwashing more than once a day to protect themselves against the coronavirus. "Early in the outbreak, when a curfew was imposed, I was very scared to go out of the house, but I had to to get water from the neighbors so we could drink and wash our hands," Attiyya says.
Attiyya's only point of access to a water source is a neighbor's house in the village of Karyoun, approximately half a kilometer away from her home, where she takes empty jugs and plastic bottles to fill. "If I could walk, I would. But I had to pay for a ride," she says. The car costs between LE30 ($1.90) and LE40 ($2.54).
"Before the virus, one trip was all I needed," says Attiyya. "But now, it's not nearly enough to keep washing our hands on a regular basis. That's why I started cutting down on other unnecessary household expenses."
Efforts fall short of meeting the scale of the problem.
Giza village households have been experiencing water shortages and outages for several years. The network completely fails to deliver water to some of the houses on higher ground, according to Attiyya. Most of the residents have submitted repeated complaints to officials, but the crisis remains unresolved.
"In the winter, the water only comes on once every few days. In the summer, it's out almost for the entire season," she says.
The summertime is always hard for Attiyya and her family, but this summer has been worse than ever before. Their suffering has been compounded since early July, as the pandemic was coupled with a severe water shortage. "I have four kids," she says. "I fear for their health, and I see no end to this water problem — especially that it's been with us for years."
The government has ramped up construction of water desalination plants in recent years in an effort to tackle the crisis. According to last year's figures, 63 water desalination plants are already in operation in the governorates of North Sinai, South Sinai, Red Sea, Matrouh, Ismailiyya and Suez with a total daily production capacity of 799,000 cubic meters. An additional 19 plants are currently under construction in the governorates of Matrouh, Red Sea, North Sinai, South Sinai, Port Said and Daqahliyya. With a total investment of LE7.9 billion ($500 million), these facilities will have a combined capacity of 375,000 cubic meters per day.
However, these efforts fall short of meeting the scale of the problem. They also remain entirely focused on water quantity, such as the size of newly constructed water grids or the number of households that join the grid, and do not address problems of water quality.
According to Tadamun, Nile and irrigation canals have become so polluted that the purification stations are no longer capable of removing the entire range of pollutants and toxic substances from the water. Underground water is also known for its high salinity, and is often polluted through mixing with sewage, industrial waste, and drainage water. Finally, the water network itself is run down, with 50% of the water lost through leakage.
Rasha al-Khouly, an expert on water engineering, says the key is in the restoration and replacement of water networks, pumps and overall infrastructure, and in finding state-supported alternative solutions.
Such solutions, Khouly says, include the purification of Nile water, the repurposing of agricultural wastewater and household wastewater, the use of groundwater, and the collection of rainwater. Possible measures also include refraining from growing water-intensive crops, such as rice, and importing them instead while exporting other crops that use less water.
In addition to increasing the number of drinking water plants to cover the entire population across all areas of the country, Nader Nour Eddin, a professor of land and water science at Cairo University's Faculty of Agriculture, also stresses the importance of changing Egypt's crop policy, suggesting boosting field irrigation efficiency through the use of sprinkler and drip irrigation networks.
Nour Eddin also emphasizes the need for more seawater desalination plants, which — as of this year — are planned to produce 1.7 million cubic meters per day, amounting to 6.6% of all drinking water.