The Nile, a vital source of water, turns into source of disease
CAIRO - The Nile river, which meanders from southern Egypt to the Mediterranean, has always been a lifeline for the country of almost 90 million people. It is, however, becoming a source of death and disease.
Pollution is turning the Nile, which provides Egypt with almost all its water needs, into a scourge.
Around 4.5 million tons of pollutants, which include untreated or partially treated industrial waste, agricultural waste and sewage, flow into the Nile every year, according to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.
Almost half of Egypt’s population drinks water either polluted or unfit for human consumption, the organisation said in a recent report.
“It gives me pain to say that we as a people do not have any respect for this great river,” water expert Maghawri Diab said. “We have turned the river into a major basket for our trash.”
Egyptians use the Nile for almost every purpose. Apart from drinking and irrigating agricultural fields, they use the Nile to bathe, clean clothes, wash pots and dishes, dispose of rubbish and toss away dead donkeys, dogs and cows. Some canals across the Nile delta have turned into rubbish dumps, where residents from nearby villages throw unwanted things. The sight of an Egyptian throwing a pile of papers or food into the river is common.
Hundreds of factories — some owned by the government — discharge waste, which often include dangerous chemicals, into the river. The residents of river islands also throw waste, including sewage and garbage, into the water.
Egypt now must deal with the ramifications of its neglect of the river. These consequences include a surge in terminal diseases, such as cancer and kidney failure.
“The links between water pollution and kidney failure and liver diseases are undisputable,” said Mohamed Fathi, an internal medicine specialist from Ain Shams University. “Polluted water also causes cancer.”
Egyptians have to use a filter to make drinking water safer, ushering in a lucrative business for importers and manufacturers. More and more Egyptians abstain from drinking tap water or using it in cooking. Nevertheless, they are exposed to pollutants from the water when they eat vegetables sold in local markets, most of which were grown in fields irrigated with sewage water or containing chemical residues.
Egypt, which receives 55 billion cubic metres of water from the river every year, needs 74 billion cubic meters of water a year to meet the needs of its people. Diab says the country loses at least 15 billion cubic metres of water each year because of pollution.
Other experts say pollution costs Egypt up to 6% of its national income through money spent on water purification and treating diseases caused by contaminated water.
According to environmental expert Khaled al-Qadi, from Helwan University, 40% of the water and more than half the fish in the Nile are not fit for human consumption. The lack of official deterrence is one reason the Nile is so polluted. A person, factory or industrial or agricultural institution that throws waste into the river is fined no more than 200 Egyptian pounds — about $25.
Six government bodies, including the Irrigation Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry, are responsible for the protection of the Nile from pollution and other violations. All the agencies end up depending on each other and not doing anything, experts say.
“This is why it is important that only one agency becomes responsible for carrying out this job,” environmental expert Ahmed Abdel Wahab said. “Water pollution is originally a problem of the lack of supervision and action.”
The government recently decided to take action against Nile violators. On September 7th, the Ministry of Environment said that it would close factories that discharge waste into the Nile after October 31st. The ministry also said that it had summoned the heads of seven major sugar factories that discharge drainage into the Nile to discuss plans to end that pollution. However, experts such as Diab, who heads local non-governmental organisation Nile Water Society, say the measures are far from enough.
“There can be no life in this country without this river,” Diab said. “This is why we must do everything to protect it, from toughening penalties for violators to imposing strict supervision.”