The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies:
Ethnic encounter and culture change
Joensuu, Finland, 19-22 June 1995

Cairo - A Mega-City and Its Water Resources

Susanna Myllylä
Tampere University

The Middle East region has illuminated us how a natural resource, such as water, can become an ever-growing heated political issue. In the Middle East freshwater problems have arisen from increasing demand for water generated by rapid population growth, urbanization, industrialization, and irrigation needed to satisfy increasing demand for food. Irrigation is by far the largest user-accounting for 80 per cent. Severe water quality issues have also emerged from inadequate treatment of domestic waste, high agriculture run-off and uncontrolled effluents from industry. Challenges to proper water management are complicated by the international nature of the region's freshwater resources; many countries rely on shared aquifers, and inflows of water from outside their borders, such as the Jordan, Nile, and Euphrates/Tigris rivers. This kind of mutual dependence raises issues of competing national interests over allocation and water rights, conflict of management, and protection of down-stream from upstream pollution. Water conservation is essential as severe shortage in the region becomes more obvious when water consumption is increasing exponentially. [1]

Cairo with 13 million people is the largest city in the Middle East region. As typical of giant cities, it has continuous rapid population growth and spatial expansion. Since the city is an open environmental system, Cairo's surrounding regions are burdened with heavy waste water discharges and increasing water demand. Also the city's water resources are affected by discharges from other regions.

When building water system infrastructure, the role of the international donors is essential in terms of finance and technical know-how, but they need to have information about the local circumstances, too; e.g. the social and cultural structures of local communities as well as the institutional level constraints which are connected to country's development path, historical-economical factors etc. Local NGOs are important channels between the donors and recipients. They are perhaps the best actors in raising public awareness, which finally aims to lead real action and chances in people's water consumption patterns.

The River Nile

The Nile River runs about 6,650 km through six countries from its headwater in Burundi to the Mediterranean Sea. The last 1,600 km of this journey goes through Egypt. The main part of water resources come from the Blue Nile, from Ethiopia, and the rest from the White Nile, from Uganda. [2]

More than 96 per cent of Egypt is desert, and only 4 per cent is inhabited; the cultivable land is limited by fresh water availability. In addition to that fact that the Aswan High Dam - which was built 30 years ago - saved the country from famine by helping to expand the agricultural land, it also served the growing needs of vast urban population, the Cairenes. Afterwards there have emerged many ecological and economical problems. [3]

Cairo is located immediately upstream of the delta about 250 km from the Mediterranean. The River Nile and its alluvial aquifer meet all of Cairo's freshwater demand; human daily use (consumption and domestic uses), agriculture, and industry. Just as the Nile is the primary source of fresh water, it is also the primary receptor of wastewater and drainage generated by different activities. [4]

Cairo's wastewater and its problematic infrastructure

1. External factors

Upstream of Cairo (i.e. to south of the city), the Nile receives large flows of mostly untreated domestic, agricultural, and industrial wastewater:

a) between the Aswan High Dam and Cairo, 43 towns with population exceeding 50,000 and approximately 1,500 villages discharge their wastes to the Nile

b) most of the residents in the region depend on irrigated agriculture for their livelihood, and 2.3 billion m3 of drainage water loaded with fertilizers, pesticides, and organic material is returned to the Nile annually in the Upper Egypt, upstream of Cairo

c) 35 major factories discharge 125 million m3 per year of industrial wastewater 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 megapolitan area is the largest water quality degradator in the region. [5]

2. Internal factors

Contemporary rapid and almost chaotic growth of Cairo makes the assessment of the drinking water and wastewater 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. [6]

a) domestic wastewater

There are often operation problems in the sewer networks, especially when they become underdimensioned. Most of the wastewater collected by sewerage is not treated or has ineffective treatment. Also many wastewater treatment plants do operate unsatisfactorily. [7] In the result, 25 per cent of the population is left unsewered. Furthermore, even though 75 per cent of the population is connected to the public sewerage system, still only 15 per cent of the wastewater collected is fully treated, and of the remainder, 25 per cent is partially treated and 60 per cent is carried raw via open canals, finally to the Mediterranean Sea. [8]

At the moment there are at least six operating domestic wastewater treatment plants serving the Greater Cairo area, and none of them discharge to the Nile near Cairo: three plants discharge through agricultural drains to the Northern Lakes and the Mediterranean, and the effluent from two plants will be used largerly for desert irrigation and land reclamation (i.e. desert development); only one plant discharges to the Nile, through an agricultural drain. Hence Cairo's domestic wastewater is nearly completely conveyed away from the megapolitan area. [9]

In the edge of the city so called 'informal areas' houses are usually built illegally, but people assume they will eventually get sewer and water connections since some areas around them have already succeed in doing so. Especially poor areas have to undertake huge efforts to raise funds for these connections. [10] In a vast informal area called 'the City of the Dead' the government has built some services, such as electricity, or water taps, but not sewerage networks. [11] Also in some poor areas standing sewage is a constant problem, as residents cannot always pay the high fees demanded by 'evacuators'. The sewage pumping vehicles used by residents of settlements are dumping their wastes, for example, into old irrigation canals. [12] Thus different environmental systems are interconnected, for instance, also dumping solid waste - due to lack of solid waste collection - into waterways increases water pollution; in the city districts many small Nile canals are totally filled with plastic bags full of solid waste. [13]

In the end of 80's a large project conducted by the Egyptian Government and international donors, 'Cairo Sewerage I', upgraded most old districts which had continuing problem of overflows that swamped streets and homes with raw sewage; this was caused by the overloaded sewerage system. In addition to local people, it was a threat to Islamic monuments as well. [14]

b) industrial wastewater

In Egypt the industrial wastewater is considered one of the main sources of water pollution because of their toxic chemicals and organic loading. [15] Even 80 per cent of the whole country's annual industrial effluent is discharged untreated into the Nile, canals, wells, municipal sewerage 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. [16] For example, Cairo's Shoubra El-Kheima is an industrialized district north of the city, and its industries discharge to drains - which are heavily polluted - finally flowing to the Mediterranean Sea. [17] In general, water use of Egypt's chemical, iron, and steel companies - which produce the most toxic wastes - is expected to increase tenfold by year 2000. [18]

Cairo is one of the main industrial centers in Egypt: 50-64 per cent of industrial activity is mainly located to capital. [19] Its public sector industries (75 per cent) consist of chemical, textile, metal (iron and steel), food, engineering and cement production operations, and 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, marble and tile factories. While most of the discharges to the sewage collection systems are from domestic sources, also industries in Cairo discharge 56 million m3 annually to the collection system, in many cases without pretreatment: only half of the industry had in 1992 some type of effluent treatment before discharging to the collection system. Available limited data restricts evaluation of different pollution concentrations from effluents from discharged wastewater; no accurate information is available of the amount of toxic substances. [20]

One of the top priorities of the Egyptian Environmental Agency (EEAA) is the treatment of industrial wastewater. EEAA's strategy is to attack water pollution at its source. The strategy consists of several issues. [21]

Most water pollution control projects implemented in Egypt have been made by the public sector. Within the private sector, few industrial wastewater 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 wastewater situation is likely to improve. The law will not only rely on command and control approach with penalties, but it will also include economic tools and incentives: fewer taxes on industrial wastewater equipment, subsidies etc. [22]

Cairo's domestic water and its infrastructure

The majority of the Cairenes receive treated drinking water in individual connections in their homes, but it is not known with certainty exactly how many per cent have this service. The Cairo Water Authority has cited an estimate of over 90 per cent, but on the other hand, it has also been evaluated that the estimates may be accurate in showing more than 90 per cent of the population with a water connection to their building, but that many buildings served many not have indoor plumbing that further distributes the water to apartments. Also it has been noted that since water service is often erratic in terms of pressure, hours of service and volume, interrupted service during peak hours is a common complaint (many residents must store water in the evening in bathtubs for use in the morning). A 1990 study estimated that a even 1.4 per cent (about 100,000 people) of East Bank residents were served by public fountains, rather than individual household connections. Another study estimates that 23 per cent of the Cairenes lack access to safe and adequate water supplies, and the study stresses that the numbers of people adequately served are overestimated; it is often assumed that all those with water taps in their settlements are quite adequately served, but there are in many cases so few communal water taps that people have to wait for a long time in queues, or, where is not even communal taps, the (poorer) people have to buy the water through unsafe containers at very high prices. Thus individuals relying on a neighborhood standpipe for water will individually use much less water than will people with connections in their home. [23]

Over 90 per cent of Cairo's drinking water is drawn from the Nile. In general, in the 70's the river's water quality appeared quite good, as well as in the 80's, but during that decade deterioration indicators started to appear which monitoring over the entire Nile confirmed. This deterioration was due to increased industrial and agricultural discharges, and also (moderate) contamination from human sewage. [24]

The Cairo Water Authority has 16 clean water treatment plants. Most of the water supply is drawn from intake points in the middle of the Nile, and ground water sources provide about 8 per cent of the supply. The finished water goes to storages or pump stations for distribution; at this point, as it enters the distribution system, Cairo's drinking water is nearly always clean. However, some problems in the water distribution system or storages sometimes lead to erratic water supplies and/or contamination entering the drinking water in several areas. Erratic water pressure and unreliable supply may cause pollution from contaminated groundwater or sewage from leaking drains and sewers when entering the drinking water distribution system through damaged joints. [25]

According to one report [26] which compares different studies, the health effects of drinking water are not sure since the data differs very sharply and there is discrepancy among the results. Estimated health effects were, for instance:

Working, swimming, bathing or washing articles in the Nile and canals could cause microbiological disease among those doing so. Concentrations of bacteria in the Nile water vary widely with proximity to sources of human waste. The snails which cause schistosomiasis disease have been nearly eradicated from waters in megapolitan region, so this is not serious health risk any more at Cairo. [27]

Ground water comes entirely from a semi-confined highly permeable sandy aquifer under the Nile Valley. Ground water quality varies widely. A study in Giza has surveyed ground water throughout the governorate and found it to be of good quality, except for concentrations of iron and manganese; these contaminants impart an undesirable taste and odor to the water. Also bacteriological testing found occasional contamination, but the levels of contamination were not quantified. [28]

How to use water more effectively?

There are several societal, especially institutional and technical obstacles for water pollution control; upgrading the whole water network infrastructure and treatment plants. In general level constraints are focused on following questions. [29]

In water management there has emerged the following difficulties. [30]

On the other hand, there are some positive actions being made; [32] The World Bank (GEFF) is investing over two billion dollars in water projects in Egypt, and Cairo is usually an essential part of the projects, receiving half of this sum. USAID is another supporter and it gives to Egypt institutional help in freshwater and wastewater issues, as well as contribute in several projects: 'Sewerage II' was finished in 1994 ($ 816 million), and 'Water supply II' will be completed in 1996 ($ 104 million). [33]

By 'Integrated Water Resource Management' [34] is meant the optimum use of water throughout its cycle, without negatively impacting the environment. In the Egyptian context this includes, for instance:

In addition to institutional or technical management of water issues, perceived from governments' and international donors' aspects, are especially informal settlements, which usually have no adequate access to clean water or sewerage. It is the governments who have failed to offer the poorer groups basic amenities. Tackling this type of 'human', poverty factor mere 'up-to-down' management is not relevant and adequate. In upgrading projects the participation and commitment of local people is essential in achieving success and continuity. [35]

Conserving existing resources and finding new ones

As conclusion, Cairo's drinking water is quite well treated but wastewater 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 wastewaters 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.

Cairo's water question ought to be looked in the context of the whole country. In 2025 the Nile River will become one of the world's most populated river basins: the then 86 million Egyptians. [36] - of which approximately 20 million are Cairenes - are totally dependent on the Nile system, and this creates also politically most fragile position for the country. It has been crystallized that ruling the water of Nile means ruling the whole wider region. [37] The question of the security of Egypt's only water source entails several factors with special problems. [38]

It is essential that new water sources are found, and new agricultural areas and cities outside the valley are created. The only direction is to expand to the dry lands, 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. [39] There are already several new cities and agricultural areas in desert.

Beside 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: use the non-renewable groundwater aquifers and expensive desalinization of sea water. [40]


1. Civil Society, September 1993, p. 34; Radi, Mohamed A. H., Public Works & Water Resources, Cairo, CEDARE Chronicle, July/August 1994, p. 1. [*]

2. El-Gohary, Fatma, 1994, "Comparative Environmental Risks in Cairo: Water Pollution Problems", in Comparing Environmental Health Risks in Cairo, Egypt, USAID & GoE, Vol. 2, May 1994, draft, p. 2.1. [*]

3. Gupta, Avjit, 1988, Ecology and Development in the Third World, Routledge, New York, pp. 32-4. [*]

4. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.1-2.21. [*]

5. Egypt-Canada 2000 Programming Consultations, Background Document No 2; CIDA and Economic Reform in Egypt, Cairo, November 1993; Interview with Robert B. Fraser, CIDA, Cairo, 1994. [*]

6. Finnida Report, 1994, Environment in Egypt, p. 21. [*]

7. Finnida, ibid., pp. 21-2. [*]

8. Grenon, M. & Batisse, M., 1989, Futures for the Mediterranean Basin - The Blue Plan, Oxford University Press, New York. [*]

9. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.6.-2.7. [*]

10. Assaad, Nadim, 1980,"Living without water",Cairo Papers in Social Science, The American Unversity in Cairo Press, Cairo, p. 73, 123. [*]

11. Khalifa, A. & Mohieddin, M., 1988, "Cairo", in Dogan, M. & Kasarda, J. (Eds), The Metropolis Era, The Mega-Cities, Vol. 2, Sage Publications, p. 50. [*]

12. Oldham, Linda et al., 1987, "Informal Communities in Cairo, The Basis of a Typology", Cairo Papers in Social Science, Vol. 10, Monograph 4, The American University of Cairo Press, p. 34. [*]

13. Writer's observation in Cairo in 1994. [*]

14. El-Gohary, ibid., p. ,2.6; Antoniou, Jim 1981, Islamic Cities and Conservation, The Unesco Press, Paris. [*]

15. Finnida, ibid., p. 22. [*]

16. Sadek, Hanifa 1994, "A Cost-Effective Clean-Up", Business monthly, Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, January,, Vol 10, no 1, pp. 14-16. [*]

17. El-Gohary, ibid., p. 2.8. [*]

18. Finnida, ibid., p. 22. [*]

19. Finnida, ibid., p. 22. [*]

20. Finnida, ibid., p. 22; El-Gohary, ibid., 2.7-2.9/METAP 1992. [*]

21. Sadek, ibid., pp. 14-16; USAID Report 1992, Profile of the Environmental Business Sector in Egypt, Cairo. [*]

22. Sadek, ibid., p. 16. [*]

23. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.9-2.11. [*]

24. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.4-2.5. [*]

25. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.9.-2.11/Abdel-Gawaad 1994. Chlorination is tastable in drinking water all over Cairo, and in new settlement districts drinking water appears to be turbid. Many Cairenes buy bottled water, but its quality may not be any better than the Nile water. [*]

26. El-Gohary, ibid., pp. 2.12-2.15. [*]

27. El-Gohary, ibid., p. 2.16. [*]

28. El Gohary, ibid., p. 2.4-2.5. [*]

29. Interview with Alvin Newman, USAID, Cairo, 1994. [*]

30. Finnida, ibid., annex 15. [*]

31. In case of wastewater treatment plants they operate unsatisfactorily due to poor design, overloading, poor operation and maintenance practises, lack of spare parts, lack of training and motivation of the treatment personnel, etc. (Finnida, ibid., p. 21). [*]

32. Finnida, ibid., annex 15. [*]

33. Finnida, ibid., annexes 13, 14 and 16. There are already going on campaigns, for example, by using the Egyptian media; TV information shows different ways how to preserve water; The Arab Organization for the Youth and Environment (AOYE) is one NGO which is making water campaings with donors. UNICEF in Cairo has plans to start water information campaign in schools (Interviews with Alvin Newman, USAID, Cairo, 1994; Mohamed Hafez Ali, NGO Steering Committee, Cairo, 1994; UNICEF representatives, Cairo, 1994). [*]

34. Radi, ibid., 1. [*]

35. Myllylä, Susanna, 1995, "Third World Mega-Cities, Case Cairo: Environment Runs Parallel with Development", in Sotarauta, M. & Vehmas, J. (Eds)Regions and Environment in Transition; In Search for New Solutions, University of Tampere, Department of Regional Studies, Series A 16, pp. 217-8. [*]

36. The Egyptian Environmental Action Plan (EEAP), GoE, 1992, p. 6. [*]

37. Abdel-Malek, Anouar, a lecture in the American University in Cairo, 1994. [*]

38. Said, Rushdi, 1994, "The Nile in Egypt- with Emphasis on Future Challenges", CEDARE Chronicle (Centre for Environment & Development for the Arab Region& Europe), July/August 1994, p. 2. Egypt is already using part of Sudan's share. Sudan could not have raised the issue in serious discussion since it has too many other conflicts in its area. [*]

39. Said, ibid., p. 2. [*]

40. EEAP, ibid., p. 7.[*]

Susanna Myllylä
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