Egypt's poor

15 August 2008

Despite Egypt’s strong economic growth, many sectors of society are yet to enjoy the benefits.

From a rooftop in Giza, southwest of Cairo, the Great Pyramids are just visible on the horizon. The views are deceptively idyllic. This vantage point is not in prime real estate territory. The bare brick walls speak of cash-strapped residents without building permits.

Neighbouring rooftops are dotted with chicken coops, and bread dries in the midday heat alongside animal dung. The neighbourhood’s residents are not the poorest of Egypt’s poor, but for the government, this sprawling settlement is a blind spot. The people who live here have grown accustomed to living without basic necessities such as sanitation and clean water.

The area is connected to the government’s water distribution network, but the water it receives is undrinkable. “No one is allowed to drink the water in this house,” says Omar, a local resident and father of three. His wife, Umm Mohammed, adds: “We have been buying water for 13 years, from the day we moved here.”

The locals are forced to buy water that is delivered every day by horse or donkey-drawn cart at £E0.75 ($0.14) for a container.

Wastewater is an equally serious concern. Without sewers, the neighbourhood is completely reliant on septic tanks. When the tanks overflow, the dirt streets are flooded with effluent. “Sometimes I have to stop the water pump for the building so the tank does not overflow,” says Omar.

The tanks need to be emptied every two to three weeks. A sewage tanker completes three runs to remove the contents of a tank, each run costing the residents £E30-40.

There are plans to build a drainage system, and segments of pipelines have been left out on some of the streets in preparation for the work. But the locals are sceptical, saying the pipes have been there for some time and they have heard all the promises before.

Refuse collection has also been neglected, leaving residents to cope with the problem in their own way. “I take a bag of rubbish with me on my way to school in the morning,” says Omar’s 12-year old daughter, Leila. “There are bins outside school.”


Polluted water

Most rubbish is dumped in open spaces and later burned. Alternatively, it is left along the banks of an irrigated channel of the Nile flowing through the neighbourhood.

Long-term media campaigns highlighting the dangers of swimming in the river seem to have little impact on the residents. Children who bathe in the polluted water risk contracting diseases such as bilharsia, a chronic disease carried by parasites that attacks the liver and kidneys. However, in the absence of any recreational facilities, there is not much else for them to do.

“The people living here are not living,” says Umm Ahmed, one of Omar’s neighbours. “For them to feel they are alive they have to go to their relatives’ houses.”

One group of children is cooling down in the water not far from a half-submerged buffalo carcass. A new luxurious villa stands strangely out of place on the river bank.

There is a sense of resignation among the local residents. Umm Ahmed says her husband has filed a complaint about the rubbish problem with the office of the Giza governor twice and nothing has changed.

“What can I say? He wants this,” says Umm Mohammed. “Who?” asks her husband. “God,” she replies.

“If President Hosni Mubarak knew what went on here, all this would be removed immediately,” says Omar with an exaggerated wink. “Unfortunately, the people below him darken his view.” A burst of laughter shows the joke is not lost on anyone in the room.

The plight of this community is far from unique. Despite Egypt’s economic growth of more than 7 per cent a year, the benefits are
failing to trickle down to the majority of the population.

“The officials need to come here among us and see for themselves,” says Omar. “If one of them is willing to drink the tap water here, I will drink it after him. If he is willing to drive on the broken road that I have to use to get to my house, and if he is willing to suffer the way that I suffer, I will accept this situation.”

The names of those quoted have been changed to protect their identities.

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