This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
“Every year between April and June, about 10,000 tons of fish die,” sighs Zakaria Ragab, 58, from the Damietta region in Egypt. Ragab is part of a fishing community at Manzala Lake, one of the largest and most important inland lakes in the Delta of the Nile.
Manzala has long been a key economic resource for local fisheries and a hotspot for biodiversity. But in the 70s, the Egyptian government began draining its waters to turn the area into agricultural land.
Today, the lake is only 400 square kilometres – a fraction of its initial surface of 3,000 square kilometres – due to both human intervention and natural erosion. It’s also extremely polluted by agricultural wastewater. The pollution has led to an increase in bacteria which deplete the oxygen levels of the lake and contribute to the mass die-off of local species.
According to Ragab, fish production in Manzala could increase by up to ten times if the government invested in pumps to replenish fresh water in the lake and minimise stagnation. The government has decided to intervene, but only to dig the bottom of the lake three metres deeper over an area of 200 square kilometres. This initiative has been criticised by local fishermen who believe it is damaging the aquatic plants the fish feed on.
The ecological disaster unfolding in Manzala is just one of the many pollution crises facing Egypt, the host of the COP27 conference. The yearly summit is organised to evaluate the measures implemented by countries that have signed international agreements on the climate crisis and recommend a future course of action.
This year’s conference is being held in the city of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea between the 6th and the 18th of November. It’s the first time a Middle Eastern country volunteered to host the conference and showed significant interest in collaborating with the international community on climate change. But critics point out that much of the current state of affairs in Egypt is the direct result of misguided government-back actions.
According to the yearly index put together by air pollution technology company IQAir, which monitors air quality around the world, Egypt ranks number 27th out of 117 in terms of air pollution – the UK ranks 94th. The country’s annual average of pollutants in the air exceeds the safe threshold by five to seven times.
“Air pollution rates are rising in Egypt as a result of fumes and gases coming out of factory chimneys, as well as exhaust pipes from cars that run on fossil fuels,” says Abdel Masih Samaan, professor of environmental education at Ain Shams University. These effects are only worsened by increasing wildfires, the loss of forest habitats around the world and many other climate-change-related phenomena.
According to a World Bank report, about 12,600 people died prematurely in Cairo due to air pollution in 2017 alone. The study also estimated air pollution-related illnesses in the capital resulted in 3 billion days of lost work during that same year. But Mohamed Abd Rabbo, head of the Climate Change Centre at Alexandria University, believes that’s only part of the story, as air pollution in Egypt also affects all of its other natural resources, including its water supply.
Compared to its neighbours, Egypt is at a relatively low risk of running out of water thanks to the Nile, which the country depends on for 97 percent of its water needs. However, water contamination is already so high that Egypt ranks among the low-middle-income countries with the highest number of deaths related to water pollution. Cairo is also among the cities most likely to run out of drinking water by 2025.
A 2009 report by the NGO Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights estimated that about 38 million Egyptians out of a total population of 95 million was already drinking polluted water on a regular basis back then. The report added that their water consumption was having grave impacts on their health, and had already significantly increased the rates of chronic illness related to pollution. Unfortunately, there’s no more recent data regarding how widespread the problem is today.
“The rate of water pollution in the Nile is high because of the agricultural wastewater, which carries many harmful elements,” explains Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University. In his opinion, purifying this water before it reaches the Nile should be a top priority for the government “at all costs”, he says, to preserve both the environment and the fishing industry in the country.
According to Samaan, on top of its general focus on the climate summit, the Egyptian government is also trying to secure investments in multiple sectors including energy and industry by hosting COP27. In particular, there are plans to transform Sharm el-Sheikh into a greener city in the hopes of boosting tourism in the region.
“The government is forcing factories to do some kind of environmental feasibility study where owners are required to show how they can treat and dispose of pollutants safely and without harming the environment,” Samaan says. “An initiative was also launched to replace cars older than 20 years to reduce harmful emissions. On top of this, the government is also encouraging the use of natural gas as a fuel alternative with lower pollution rates.”
In parallel with these steps, Samaan explains, the Egyptian government has also worked on initiatives to reclaim desert lands. The cultivated land areas in Egypt have already increased by 9 percent, from about 36,000 square metres to over 39,254 in 2021.
The problem is, even though environmental laws are on the books and the government is increasingly taking initiative, enforcement is still very poor, Abd Rabbo adds. In his opinion, the solution cannot be simply top-down, it must start with raising awareness among regular people and getting industries involved. “There’s no point,” he says, “in passing laws if nobody adheres to them.”