Environmental Rights in Egypt: The Right to Water

2015-02-16    |   

Environmental Rights in Egypt: The Right to Water

The right to clean water helps enshrine the right to health, food safety, and the protection of fish resources. The conservation of clean fresh water ensures clean drinking water, while clean water for agricultural irrigation contributes to food safety and better health for citizens. Protecting fresh and salt water from pollution also contributes to protecting fish resources and ensuring food safety. In Egypt, however, the right to access clean water has been blatantly violated. Reports indicate a rise in the rate of water pollution[1] due to a number of factors, including industrial pollutants and the disposal of agricultural and home sewage water.


Nile Pollution: Violating the Right to Clean Water and the Right to Health


Reports indicate that 5.1% of all deaths and 6.5% of all disabilities annually in Egypt are due to water that is unfit for drinking, a shortage of sewage utilities, a lack of cleanliness, and the mismanagement of water resources.[2]


The Causes of Nile Water Pollution


There are several causes for the pollution of the Nile’s water including industrial pollution, and agricultural and home sewage water disposal. Industries are responsible for a large part of the Nile water pollution. An estimated 350 factories dispose of their sewage water directly in the Nile or through municipal sewage networks.[3] In 2008, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) documented violations committed by nearly 102 industrial facilities.[4] In addition, numerous cafes and floating restaurants dispose their waste in the Nile.[5] These constitute clear violations of the Law for the Protection of the River Nile and Waterways from Pollution. Article 2 of the latter explicitly prohibits “discarding or disposing of solid, liquid or gas waste from real estate, shops, commercial, industrial and touristic facilities, or from sewage networks, in [the river’s] waterways, either along their banks or over their surface, without a license from the Ministry of Irrigation”.[6] Article 5 also states that “owners of residential, tourist and other facilities floating in the Nile stream and its [distributaries] shall commit to finding the means to treat their waste or collect it in certain locations, and to drain and dispose of it in sewage networks or facilities. They shall not be allowed to dispose of any of their waste in the Nile or in waterways”.[7]


Industrial waste contains many harmful substances, such as detergents, heavy metals and the more toxic variants of pesticides. The amount of industrial pollutants dumped into the Nile is estimated at 4.5 million tons a year, while the amount of industrial organic pollutants is estimated at nearly 270 tons a day.[8] It should be noted that these pollutants mix not only with the water used by citizens for drinking, but also with the water used by farmers to irrigate their crops. Thus, they pose a threat to both water safety and food safety.[9]


Pollution resulting from the disposal of agricultural sewage water, on the other hand, is mainly due to fertilizers, pesticides and organic substances used in agriculture, as well as illegal insecticides such as DDT. Those substances seep directly into the Nile and pollute its waters, in addition to polluting groundwater and waterways to the river.[10]


The Nile also suffers from pollution due to sewage water and wastewater disposal originating from 43 towns, and nearly 2,500 villages all along the Nile valley, between the Aswan Dam and Cairo.[11] Reports indicate that only 25% of the rural population and 88% of the urban population have access to a sewage network. This means that over 70% of people in rural areas, and over 10% of people in urban areas dispose of their waste by dumping it in the Nile, or burying it in the soil. According to a report issued by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), those with access to septic tanks dump their contents into the Nile near fresh water sources, or on the ground, which leads to water pollution through the soil.


The Consequences of Nile Water Pollution


Polluting the water Egyptians rely on for drinking and agriculture leads to raising the cost of purifying the water, and making it fit for drinking before it reaches people’s homes.


Water pollution also represents a direct violation of the right to health. Indeed, reports indicate that polluted water is among the causes of kidney failure and cancer suffered by Egyptians.[12] It contributes to the spread of Hepatitis. The percentage of Egyptians infected with this disease estimated at 10% to 20%, is higher than the global average.[13] Water pollution also causes the spread of schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) among farmers, a disease contracted by direct contact with water, and in particular, the water used in irrigation.[14]


Unsafe drinking water and exposure to insecticides is estimated to be the cause of kidney disease for 72% of those afflicted, according to a statement by public health researchers in al-Minya.[15] Moreover, water pollution is causing the destruction of the Nile’s fish resources. The Nile used to be home to 40 different species of fish; only seven species survive today. Pollution has also led to the death of a large number of fish, reaching up to about 15 tons.[16]


The rising rate of illnesses due to water pollution in turn leads to rising costs of treatment, thereby increasing the financial burden on citizens and on the state. Such a state of affairs would be preventable if care were given to conserving clean and unpolluted water.


The Quality of Water in Egyptian Homes is Subject to Regional and Class Differences


Approximately 95.5% of Egypt’s inhabitants drink untreated water,[17] which exposes them to the illnesses mentioned above. This high rate is due to the unfair distribution of potable water among the country’s governorates, in addition to the lack of water supply and sewage disposal infrastructure. Indeed, only 38% of villages have access to sufficient drinking water, while 56% receive insufficient amounts, and 6% are completely deprived of it.[18] In sum, nearly 38 million Egyptians drink sewage water, 4,500 out of 7,000 villages have no sewage networks, and 76% of the water supply in villages is mixed with sewage water.


One also finds higher rates of water pollution in distant villages and governorates, and relatively lower rates in Cairo and its neighboring governorates, as well as in tourism-dependent governorates. This is most often due to the greater attention accorded by the state to certain regions at the expense of others. For instance, 13% of rural areas have no running water, in contrast to only 1.5% in urban areas.[19]


News of water pollution are more common in relation to distant provinces, impoverished villages, slums, and rural areas rather than in relation to cities. Selling water became widespread in villages after the water provided by treatment plants turned out to be polluted, and containing high rates of manganese and iron, making it unfit for drinking.[20] The same occurred in the al-Sharqia governorate whereby 65% of the population relies on groundwater, which is often contaminated with sewage water.[21]


Water pollution in Egypt affects all governorates, and many water treatment plants need to be shut down and replaced, or at least renovated.[22] Yet some governorates suffer more than others, reflecting the unfair distribution of clean drinking water.


Water Shortage in Egypt


As mentioned earlier, the problem of the Nile pollution poses a threat to the quality of water in Egypt and its fitness for drinking, which in turn poses a threat to the right to water and the right to health. However, threats to Egyptian citizens’ right to water do not end there. Indeed, water usage in Egypt is 127% of its water resources, which means that it imports water in the form of food products and other goods. The United Nations predicts that Egypt will be suffering from water scarcity by the year 2025.[23]


Another reason for water shortage in Egypt is population density, in addition to water wastage and misuse. The rate of water use per individual in Greater Cairo and Alexandria is nearly 400 liters per day. That is twice the global average. Meanwhile, Egypt does not produce enough drinking water, having reached a production rate of 250 liters per day per citizen in 2009.[24] The misuse of water also leads to wasting the available amount at a much faster rate than anticipated.


Certain methods of irrigation waste water resources as well. Thus, while surface irrigation methods are used for most agricultural crops, they waste 70% more water than necessary. It should also be noted that nearly 60% of the water used in surface irrigation never reaches the crops.[25] Making matters even worse, corroded pipes in the distribution network cause the loss of about 34% or 35% of a total of 791 cubic meters per year.


Egypt had requested an increase in its share of the Nile water in order to face its water shortage problem, but the countries of the Nile Basin turned down its request. In fact, some of these countries demanded the redrafting of the Nile Basin Initiative’s Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which grants Egypt the largest share, so as to share the water more fairly.[26] Matters grew even more complicated when Ethiopia announced that it was building a dam at one of the sources of the Nile, which is likely to adversely affect Egypt’s share of the water.




The way the issue of water has been addressed in Egypt reflects a kind of confusion on the part of the state. Government response to the decision by Ethiopia to build a dam, for example, was marred by numerous conflicting statements. The same is true in relation to the building of a number of water treatment and sewage plants. These measures increased the number of facilities but did not lead to a qualitative change, and failed to reach a solution to the crisis.[27]


What has been the role of civil society groups in proposing solutions that would contribute to raising awareness about the water problem among farmers and the general population, as well as encouraging citizens to play their part in conserving water?


The Habi Center for Environmental Rights (HCER) focuses on the water problem in Egypt, and on raising awareness among farmers and working with them. It also publishes reports about the right to water in an effort to put pressure on the government to find solutions. Similarly, the ECESR launched a new environmental justice program through which it has published several papers about the right to water, aimed at raising awareness and encouraging debate on the issue.


Yet environmental rights require more attention from civil society organizations. Working on the ground with citizens and with the government, their goal should be to attain the right to a healthy and safe environment, as stated in the Egyptian Constitution.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


[1] See: “Water Pollution: A Time Bomb Threatening the Lives of Egyptians”, report issued by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), December 2009.

[2] See: “The Death of a Huge Number of Fish Near Kafr el-Sheikh Affects the Right to Life and Clean Water”, statement issued by ECESR, January 24, 2014.

[3] See: Aneesah Akbar-Uqdah, Sam Highsmith and Sara Tonsy’s, “Drinking Water in Egypt: The Effects of Water on Egyptians’ Health”.

[4] See: Isabel Bottoms’s, “Water Pollution in Egypt: Causes and Concerns”; a paper issued by ECESR, March 2014.

[5] See: “Video: al-Dostor Reveals a New Environmental Disaster in the Nile”, published on the al-Dostor website on October 23, 2014.

[6] This quote was modified for syntax and style purposes. For official translation see: http://www.emwis-eg.org/legisulation-low48-1.htm

[7] See note 6 above, idem.

[8] See note 1 above, idem.

[9] See note 3 above, idem.

[10] See note 4 above, idem.

[11] See note 4 above, idem.

[12] See note 4 above, idem.

[13] See: O.G. Pybus, A.J. Drummond, T. Nakano, B.H. Robertson and A. Rambaut’s, “The Epidemiology and Iatrogenic Transmission of Hepatitis C virus in Egypt: A Bayesian Coalescent Approach”, November 2002.

[14] See note 3 above, idem.

[15] See note 4 above, idem.

[16] See: “Chairman of the General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) to al-Shorouk: Industrial Pollution Threatens Egypt with the Loss of its Fish Resources Within Years”, published on the al-Shorouk website on January 3, 2015.

[17] See note 4 above, idem.

[18] See note 1 above, idem.

[19] See: “How Egyptians Get a Glass of Clean Water”, published on the website of the Tadamun Initiative on November 29, 2013.

[20] See: “Egypt’s Governorates Afflicted by Water Pollution”, published on the Veto Gate website on July 27, 2014.

[21] See note 20 above, idem.

[22] See: “Water Expert Dr. Maghawry Diab: There is Corruption and Injustice in our Drinking Water Distribution”, published on the al-Masry al-Youm website on July 22, 2007.

[23] See note 4 above, idem.

[24] See note 1 above, idem.

[25] See note 1 above, idem.

[26] See: “Egypt Facing Water Shortage by 2017”, published on the al-Wafd website on November 1, 2011.
[27] See note 19 above, idem.

Share the article

Mapped through:

Articles, Egypt, Environment, Urbanism and Housing

For Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *