As Egypt grapples with Nile politics, the Water for Life initiative wants to make sure everyone has access to clean water at home
by Farah El-Akkad
Egypt’s water crisis has boiled beneath the surface for years. The issue can be linked to a series of health problems that plague Egyptians daily as well as social issues, and lately it has been one of the main topics of discussion in foreign policy as relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have been unsteady in recent months over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Closer to home, the lack of clean and usable water, and growing fears over the increasing scarcity of water, has impacted the daily life of thousands. According to a 2013 UNICEF report, “there are currently an estimated 1.3 million households deprived of this essential basic commodity in Egypt.” In poor and rural areas, people are forced to use ponds for drinking water, in the same place where they wash their clothes and swim.
In the countryside of Minya, water is a particularly essential part of daily life. “It is the source of everything we have,” says Abd El Hady, 71, who lives with his wife Nagwa, 65, in the small village of Abu Gurgas in Minya. “Our dependence on water is 10 times more than those who reside in Cairo.”
Like many residents of Abu Gurgas, Hady and Nagwa live in a small cottage and have always struggled with getting access to clean water. From drinking water to water for cleaning the house, cooking and washing clothes, Hady’s family is deprived of this basic necessity. “Our home does not have water we can drink, even if we use a water pump, the water doesn’t come out clean,” says Nagwa. Hady and his wife spend a great deal of their time carrying buckets and empty bottles to fill with water from the village’s central water tank. “We can [stand] in line for hours only to fill a one liter bucket,” says Hady.
Many others share the same story as Hady and Nagwa. As the problem threatens to worsen, an initiative called Water for Life has stepped up to help alleviate the hardship of searching for a clean water supply.
First introduced in December 2013 and officially launched in January 2014, Water for Life aims to provide safe and sustainable water resources to thousands of families throughout Egypt. Sponsored by Rotary Egypt, and with involvement by UNICEF and the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater, the project would bring direct access to clean and affordable drinking water to rural cities, such as Sohag, Assiut, Minya and Qena.
With help from local and international NGOs, Water for Life hopes to create awareness campaigns in cities that lack access to clean water. The project is divided into three phases, as explained by former Rotary Chairperson Ramza Farid. The groundwork for the first phase of the project started in July with bringing clean water via pipes into 51,000 houses in Qena. “The three phase project will be accomplished over a period of three years,” Farid says.
One of the top challenges of the project is to change people’s perception of water and sanitation. “Bringing water into these areas is not enough, there must be an intense awareness program for those who have lived tens of years washing their clothes, showering and drinking from the same water, the culture must be changed,” says Dr. Hoda Awad, a sociologist and professor of human resources at the University of Toronto. Awad has also worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) on different projects linked to water safety in Africa, in countries like Rwanda and Niger. She stresses that providing households with connections to clean water alone will not solve the issue.
Similar to Hany and Nagwa from Abu Gurgas, Asmaa, 33, and her three children have had difficulty gaining access to clean water in their home in Qena. For Asmaa, a widow, the struggle to find clean water is worrisome, because her twins Youmna and Goureya are only three years old. “They play all the time and mess up their clothes, and I constantly need water for their food and to keep them clean,” she says. With help from her 11-year-old son Osman, Asmaa is able to fill more buckets of water. But, she says, “Even if we do our best to keep [them] until dawn, most of the time we need more water at night and it is really hard to get it late.”
Adel Hamoud, a relative of Asmaa who has a family of four kids and a wife, uses a water pump. “But my wife and children cannot use it on their own because it is too hard for them,” he says. Hamoud explains that sometimes when he is away at work, his family is obliged to assign someone to fill water for them, “which costs me a lot but I have no choice” he adds. Hamoud’s wife Nadia says “little children cannot differentiate between clean and dirty water, they drink and play with whatever they see. We are not only deprived from clean water, our children also get ill.”
The consumption of polluted water has led to increasing percentages in health issues. Poor hygiene and sanitation are the leading factors in 88% of deaths linked to diarrhea and dysentery. According to the latest WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme Report, “this toll is especially high on children, as diarrheal diseases are the second leading cause of under-five child mortality, accounting for 4,000 deaths a day globally and in Egypt more than 20% of children under five suffer from diarrheal diseases.”1
UNICEF’s 2011 report on Africa shows that the entire continent faces a dire situation of economic water scarcity. The report says that the continent lacks the financial and human capacity to manage water, and “the situation is exacerbated by competition for public funding between sectors, and heavy public debt burdens in most countries.” In 2010, the share of the urban population with access to an improved water source ranged from 52% (Mauritania) to 100% (Egypt, Mauritius and Niger). The number of countries with at least 80% access to an improved water source in urban areas climbed from 26% in 1990 to 38% in 2010.
Water for Life is hoping to bring the rural areas up to the urban standards. In a September interview with El-Shorouk newspaper, UNICEF’s representative in Egypt, Philippe Duamelle, described the Water for Life initiative as “life changing for many Egyptians,” adding that it would improve the health and nutrition of tens of thousands of children across the country. UNICEF’s partnership with Rotary is not something new but actually goes back more than two decades. The global partnership has always focused on different projects concerned with health and improving the lives of children. “We [have] renewed our partnership in Egypt to help the most deprived children and their families to get direct access to safe water,” says Duamelle.
Since Egypt is recognized as a country below the water line, UNICEF has worked closely with the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater since 2005 to provide rural, deprived communities with access to safe drinking water and sanitation by funding loans to enable them to obtain household water connections. “To date, more than 400,000 rural Egyptians have benefited from access to water in their homes and 80,000 Egyptians have constructed sanitation facilities in 13 districts in Upper Egypt,” according to a 2013 UNICEF report.
Cross-Border Water Concerns
Aside from dealing with a scarcity of clean water, Egypt’s concerns over water supply have been heightened recently amid fear that the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will interrupt water flow to Egypt, causing the country’s annual quota of Nile water to be reduced. The dam, scheduled to be completed within three years, would be the largest hydropower dam in Africa and would cost a whopping $4.7 billion. While the dam would generate an estimated 6,000 megawatts of electricity for Ethiopia, there are fears that it would downgrade Egypt’s 55.5 billion cubic meter water supply, or 66%.
Pairing that concern with the concern over the decreasing availability of water, particularly clean water, along Egypt’s portion of the Nile, it’s no wonder bilateral relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were pushed to the brink as both countries quarrel over the right to build the dam. Egypt has also claimed that international treaties forbid Ethiopia to act unilaterally, citing the 1929 and 1959 colonial-era agreements that gave Egypt and Sudan the largest share of the Nile.
Despite disagreement over the dam’s construction, Sudan has been relatively supportive of the project. Ethiopia proceeded with its plans, and as of October 2014, at least 40% of the dam had been completed, according to Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome.
After months of back and forth over whether or not Ethiopia has the right to build the dam, late summer 2014 saw an opening in dialogue between the two countries. In late August, talks were held in Khartoum between officials from Cairo and Addis Ababa, and Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia agreed to conduct studies on how the dam would affect the Nile’s flow. To add further hope, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in September during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City, and promised that he would visit Ethiopia in the near future, although a date has not yet been set. The meeting provided a sign of rapprochement between the two parties, adding hope that cooperation is possible. At the time of press, Egypt and Ethiopia had agreed to meet for another round of talks in early November to further review offers by consultancy firms that would assess the dam’s possible effects on the Nile’s flow to all concerned countries.
Hope Through Cooperation
Amid varying degrees of concern over Egypt’s water supply and safety, projects like Water for Life offer a glimmer of hope that such concerns will not go unnoticed.
In an interview with ElWatan newspaper in January 2014, Engineer Mamdouh Raslan, chairperson of the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater, asked government officials and NGOs to lend a hand in aiding the Water for Life project. “I look forward to the day when every family in Egypt has access to clean water,” he said. “This initiative is a show of how such partnerships can contribute to sustainable progress. Together we can transform the lives of tens of thousands of deprived families.”
At the Water Summit organized and held by Rotary Egypt in June, District Governor Elect 2015/16 and Membership Committee Chair Adel Hafez said he was thrilled about the project. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile. However, so many Egyptians are suffering from fresh water shortage.”
He explained that the country is in the midst of rebuilding its economy, social order and reigniting plans for overall development. “Rotary Egypt is taking [up] the initiative Water for Life just in time, in response to the major nation-wide demand for fresh water.”
Hafez said the initiative is a message and invitation to businesses, NGOs and the government to work together to support the dream of clean water in every home at this critical juncture in Egypt’s history. et
Water by the Numbers
As of July 2014, Egypt has a population of 86,895,099.
Egypt covers an area of 1 million kilometers, of which the population occupies only 5.5 percent.
According to the United Nations, over 80 percent of Egypt’s water supply is used by the agricultural sector.
Among Egypt’s major infectious diseases are the waterborne diseases bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A and typhoid fever and the water contact disease schistosomiasis.
1.3 million households in Egypt are without access to clean water, according to UNICEF.
Poor hygiene and sanitation are the leading factors in 88 percent of deaths linked to diarrhea and dysentery.
In Egypt, more than 20 percent of children under five suffer from diarrheal diseases.
Egypt’s water supply via the River Nile is 55.5 billion cubic meters, an estimated 66 percent.
40 percent of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been constructed as of October 2014.
As of July, Water for Life brought clean water via pipes to 51,000 houses in Qena.
Additional reporting by Randa El Tahawy
and Kaylan Geiger.