Water Quality and Cairo, is it Safe?
A common question asked by visitors to Cairo is, “Can I drink the tap water?” Many Cairenes have no problems with drinking the water. The Nile River is Cairo’s main source of water and begins in Burundi and Uganda passing through the Sudan, where it joins up with the Blue Nile, whose origins are in Ethiopia before flowing onto Egypt. How pure is the water once it reaches Cairo?
While Cairo’s tap water is heavily treated, the issue is Egypt’s wastewater and its treatment, as wastewater is dumped into the Nile. Because of this, concerns are growing as to the quality of Cairo’s tap water in the future. Gabal al-Asfar is a wastewater treatment plant in Cairo and has received a boost of $53.3 million from the African Development Bank (ADB). Wastewater will be chlorinated before being released. The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation’s web site concedes reducing effluent will be one of its greatest challenges for the future.
Upstream of Cairo (i.e. to the south of the city), the Nile receives large flows of mostly untreated domestic, agricultural, and industrial waste-water:
a) Between the Aswan High Dam and Cairo, 43 towns with population exceeding 20 million and approximately 2500 villages discharge their wastes to the Nile.
b) Most of the residents in the region depend on irrigated agriculture for their livelihood, and 2.9 billion m3 of drainage water loaded with fertilizers, pesticides, and organic material is returned to the Nile annually upstream of Cairo.
c) More than 50 major factories discharge more than 250 million m3 per year of industrial waste-water with little treatment.
With such large upstream pollution loads, one might expect the Nile at Cairo to be very highly polluted, but this is alleviated by the huge water flow of the river, which takes the pollutants away quite effectively. On the other hand, Cairo is the largest water quality degradation in the region.
2. Internal factors
Contemporary rapid and almost chaotic growth of Cairo makes assessing the drinking water and waste-water networks difficult. Expansion of water supply networks without the parallel construction of sewerage systems, or the rehabilitation of existing systems has lead to serious water pollution problems.
Cairo’s drinking water is quite well treated but waste-water treatment has many severe deficiencies. It is a dilemma that the government itself seems to be one of the biggest water polluters. Conveying Cairo’s waste-waters through agricultural drains is just shifting the environmental problem to other regions, so the original problem remains. In addition, this factor should be taken account when tackling the Mediterranean Sea pollution.
Cairo’s water question ought to be looked in the context of the whole country. In 2017, the Nile River will become one of the world’s most populated river basins. The then 90 million Egyptians, of which approximately 21 million are Cairo people, are very dependent on the Nile system. This creates a very politically fragile position for the country. It has long been understood that ruling the water of Nile means ruling the entirety of the greater Nile region. The question of the security of Egypt’s only water source brings to light a number of issues:
- There is a need to preserve of the waters of the Lake Nasser Reservoir, which supplies Egypt with its freshwater.
- There is a growing degree of stress to which the river is exposed, which is leading to a rapid degradation of Egypt’s fertile lands (e.g. the spread of brick and concrete for buildings in urban areas).
- The industrialization process is employing an increasing rate of population, which has led to a higher degree of pollution (e.g. sewage, drainage water, industrial waste).
- A near future challenge is coming from global climate change: what are the effects on the Nile basin?
b) Industrial waste-water
In Egypt the industrial waste-water is considered one of the main sources of water pollution because of the toxic chemicals and organic loading. Even 80%of the whole country’s annual industrial effluent is discharged untreated into the Nile, canals, wells, municipal sewage systems, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt’s 329 major factories continue to discharge as much as 2.5 million m3 per day of untreated effluent into Egypt’s waters. The following results are that Egypt’s shores and coastal fishing and tourism are being damaged, areas around industrial zones are becoming inhospitable, and water purification is becoming very costly.
Cairo is one of the main industrial centers in Egypt. 40% to 50% of industrial activity is mainly located in the capital. Its public sector industries (75%) consist of chemical, textile, metal (iron and steel), food, and engineering and cement production operations. They use 162 million m3 of fresh water per year, and discharge 129 million m3 per
year. Each day they discharge 0.75 tons of heavy metals. The private industries include tanneries, gasoline stations, and marble and tile factories. While most of the discharges to the sewage collection systems are from domestic sources, other industries in Cairo discharge 56 million m3 annually to the collection system, and in many cases without pretreatment. Only half of the industry had, in 1992, some type of effluent treatment before discharging to the collection system. The limited data on this issue available restricts evaluation of different pollution concentrations from effluents from discharged waste-water. No accurate information is available of the amount of toxic substances.
“Even if heavy metals do occur in Cairo’s water, they are all below the detection level and thus do not present any threat,” said Edward Smith, Professor of Environmental Engineering at the American University in Cairo, who carried out two long-term studies of Nasr City and Maadi’s tap water between 2005 and 2008. “The problem is more with high levels of chlorine and trihalomethanes (THMs, byproducts of chlorine), which occasionally exceed local and international standards, but when you have to choose between dangerous diseases resulting from inadequate water treatment and high levels of those chemicals that might lead to future health issues; you opt for the latter without the slightest of doubts.”
One of the top priorities of the Egyptian Environmental Agency (EEAA) is the treatment of industrial waste-water. EEAA’s strategy is to attack water pollution at its source. The strategy consists of several issues:
- The focus will be no-cost or low-cost clean technology measures. This will include b
etter housekeeping with pollution reduction by as much as 60-70%. Where the situation is serious, waste-water treatment facilities will have to be installed.
- Working with the different sectors such as foods, soap and oil, textiles, and to examine the problems common to each sector (e.g. spinning, weaving and cotton ginning factories in Helwan and other southern places in Cairo who are notable polluters).
- Not focusing only obtaining a cleaner environment, but also on the economic benefits that will come in this process.
In some industries, waterrecycling can be used. For instance in irrigation, afforestation, irrigation of non-edible agriculture (such as cotton, or even for the irrigation of vegetables and fruits, depending on the chemical content of the water), and sludge generated in the process of separation and sedimentation could be used for soil conditioning or composting. For most severe cases treatment facilities will be necessary. S uch systems have been installed in certain industries, but some are not operating properly.
- Promoting local design and manufacture of equipment and facilities will bring the cost down by 70 percent. O
n-the-job training in operations and maintenance will be conducted as part of a built-in-program (for the Egyptian companies it is most useful to enter the huge industrial waste-water markets).
Most water pollution control projects implemented in Egypt have been made by the public sector. Within the private sector, few industrial waste-water treatment projects have been set up, since regulations are not enforced yet. But, this is likely to change over the next
years. The new environmental law will require plant owners to clean up their discharges, so the industrial waste-water situation is likely to improve. The law will not only rely on a command and control approach with penalties, but it will also include economic tools and incentives. There will be fewer taxes on industrial waste-water equipment, subsidies, etc.
Therefore, Cairo’s drinking water is quite well treated but waste-water treatment has many severe deficiencies. It is a dilemma that the state itself seems to be one of the biggest water polluter. Conveying Cairo’s waste-waters through agricultural drains is just shifting the environmental problem to other regions, so the original problem still remains. Also this factor should be taken account when tackling the Mediterranean Sea pollution.
It is essential that new water sources are found, and new agricultural areas and cities outside the valley are created. The only choice is to expand to the dry lands and, desert, which is described as ‘Egypt’s last frontier’. Such a solution could provide an alternative to Cairo and relieve the pressure coming from a growing population. There are already several new cities and agricultural areas in desert. The huge population density and deteriorated water pipe network causes a huge water loss in the city network that reach the values of 34-35% which is equal to around 791 million m3/year which if saved can provide fresh potable water to additional 11 million inhabitant . Thus the solution is expanding into the desert thus decreasing the population density, installing new network and changing water consumption patterns will lead to a significant increase in water quality as also the water pollution won’t be fixed point source rather than distributed.
Besides finding new sources, water conservation is another strategy in national water management. In case of Cairo this needs commitment of government institutions and international donors, as well as Cairenes and local NGOs. Finally, if water consumption continues to grow intensively, Egypt will have to rely on extreme measures: The use of the non-renewable groundwater aquifers and expensive desalinization of seawater.
Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad is an engineer and Water Resources Advisor at National Water Resources Plan (NWRP-CP), and has been involved in the future vision for Alexandria integrated water urban development. He also teaches applied hydraulics at Alexandria Universities, and serves as the Egyptian Coordinator for NAYD (Network of African Youth for Development).