Water Security and Rural Sanitation in Egypt, A Revolution Awaits its Hero: Current status part 1
The Nile Delta is a very challenging area, with very dense housing, growing pressure on the agricultural land, high water demands and high population growth. Villages of the Nile Delta are now served with water supply, but few of them already benefit from proper wastewater collection and treatment. There is a clear demand to properly dispose of wastewater in small communities, with some of them building “informal” or “groundwater lowering” sewer systems. Otherwise, people rely on on‐site sanitation. In both cases, wastewater and sludge are dumped in the nearest water body (drain or, often and illegally, canal) or directly on agricultural fields. At the same time, the situation is worsening due to rising water tables caused by perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water, often leading to the malfunctioning of existing on‐site treatment facilities. So far, there is no viable small‐scale system (including viable financial and management schemes) available for replication in Egypt. Most small‐scale initiatives in Egypt did not stand the test of time or remained at a pilot stage.
The process of disposal of wastewater in Egyptian villages represents a dangerous challenge to environment and public health. In spite of the fact that at least 85% of rural residential buildings have some type of sanitary facility, a limited percentage of villages have recent facilities for safe collection, conveyance, and treatment of wastewater. Water pollution in canals and drains still represents the greatest threat to public health. Currently, wastewater is finally discharged (with or without treatment) to agricultural drains and sometimes to canals, where its use becomes unsafe. Also increased subsurface water level within boundaries of human settlements in villages makes many septic tanks (house vaults) a useless (not effective) mean, in addition to damages they cause to the houses. The challenge imposed by sanitation problem in rural Egypt was developed from wastewater collection only to how to safely dispose of wastewater, and the domain of the problem was enlarged from the house level to the irrigation system level.
Up to now, very little has been done for sanitation in small and mid‐sized settlements in the Delta. People rely on on‐site sanitation or informal sewer systems, with the wastewater and sludge being dumped in the nearest water body or directly on agricultural fields. At the same time, the situation is worsening due to rising water tables caused by perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water, often leading to the malfunctioning of existing on‐site treatment facilities. As a consequence, water in the drains and groundwater are heavily contaminated (Abdel‐Shafy and Aly 2007; EcoConServ 2007; HCWW 2008). As mentioned by Prof. Ahmed Gaber, Nile Delta villages are getting more and more “vulnerable”. It is expected that at least 15‐20 years will be needed to cover the backlog in rural sanitation coverage. Many people are now blaming decentralisation and so‐called “decentralised” systems. However thousands of villages and ezbas are not connectable to large sewer networks in the short and middle‐term. What is the alternative? If no alternative is provided, people will continue “business as usual”: discharging raw wastewater and sludge in drains and canals, injecting wastewater into the ground, or resorting to mitigation measures such as raising the level of their houses, as has already been seen in Kafr El Sheikh Governorate. So far, there are no viable small‐scale systems (including viable financial and management schemes) available for replication in Egypt. Most small‐scale initiatives in Egypt did not stand the test of time or remained at a pilot stage. It is high‐time to draw lessons learnt, in order to move forward.
Conventionally, sanitation is measured by the possibility of connecting houses to systems constructed for wastewater collection and transfer to a site far from the house or public activity zones, or transferring wastewater outside human settlement boundaries 1. Official data indicates that 85% of rural residential buildings in rural governorates had some type of sanitary facility in 2002. Nearly 10% of buildings were sewered; the other 75% had some type of on-site storage (Septic tanks or house vaults). Coverage levels have improved steadily, and data obtained from the ORDEV Information Centre show that in 2003, the percentage of rural households without any type of sanitation latrines had decreased to between 2% and 6%.
These data indicate that sanitation coverage did not usually keep pace with water supply coverage. 1996 census results showed that 84% of rural households in rural governorates had access to water supply in the home; 40% house connections, 17% yard or building top, 27% hand pump. But in spite of this, Egyptian villagers remain at risk of water- and excreta-borne diseases. Visible manifestations of unsanitary conditions include heavily polluted waterways, street damp and occasional wastewater ponding, and solid waste accumulations in settled areas and waterways. In the absence of wastewater treatment and safe disposal, wastewater returns to the human environment through a number of pathways. Solid waste accumulations can pollute groundwater or surface water through leaching of contaminants or pollutants, and they attract insects and vermin, which may transmit disease. Increasing population densities and rising water tables in the Nile Valley and Delta allow for the increased movement of pollutants between groundwater and surface water bodies.
The first root cause of the problem of pollution and hygienic and environmental hazards in rural Egypt is the discharge of most rural wastewater to the environment with little or no treatment. The number of rural wastewater treatment plants in operation may not exceed 500, while the total number of villages exceeds 5,500. The number of village sewer systems is far greater than the number of village wastewater treatment plants. Many State-funded village sewer systems were constructed without treatment facilities in order to solve urgent problems of widespread septage ponding in streets and house collapse. Moreover, an undetermined number of villages, especially villages in areas of high water table, which are prone to these types of wastewater up flow, have used self-help to resolve their problem by installing “informal” sewers on a household, neighborhood, or village scale. The public sewer systems discharge to agricultural drains, but the informal systems may discharge to drains or canals.
The second root cause of the contemporary rural sanitation problem in Egypt is that population growth, water scarcity, and above all increasing poverty level in last three years especially in pre urban and rural areas alongside, expanded residential area are bringing wastewater disposal points into closer proximity with water abstraction points. The nexus of factors associated with this root cause is complex: Population growth has led to an expansion of settlements over the waterways. The possibility to dump wastes into a waterway has been increased than before. Water tables are rising as a consequence of perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water. These factors lead to the failure of on-site sanitation systems and to the increased exchange of pollutants between surface water and groundwater.
Water demands are increasing, resulting in increased need to reuse drain water for irrigation, particularly by tail-end farmers who suffer increasingly from shortages as water scarcity grows. Drain water reuse is not a marginal or deviant phenomenon in Egypt. With growing water scarcity, drain water reuse is now a central GOE strategy for increasing Egypt’s water efficiency, and MWRI expects drain water to supply 10-15% of Egypt’s water requirements by the year 2017. Drain water pollution is a threat to this goal.
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).