On Egypt’s Nile and canals: The days the fish come out

16-03-2016 01:05 PM

Georgette Sadeq



Shocking episodes of mass fish death have recurred in Egypt’s waterways during the past year. When Watani decided to investigate the phenomenon, there could have been no clue to the appalling scale of the findings. The death of more than 2,500 tons of fish was in general the result of mismanagement but was, in specific cases, premeditated. The wrongdoers were not afraid to admit their crime; they claimed they had been subjected to injustice and were only securing their rights.

The dead fish pollutes the water and may cause many diseases. Why are not the local authorities applying a firm hand against the offenders? Will the law be applied only after disease spreads among Egypt’s families and children? Or perhaps not at all?


The culprit fish cages

To investigate the reasons behind the successive incidents of mass fish death in the Nile and canals, Watani talked to Kawthar Hefny, head of the Central Department of Crises and Environmental Disasters at the Environment Ministry. “The waters of the Nile and canals in Egypt,” Dr Hefny said, “are protected by Law 48 of 1982 and by the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Decree 92 of 2013 which amended the executive regulations of the law. Article 7 prohibits the renewal of licenses to establish cages or farms for animal or fish production in fresh water, the Nile and its canals; and restricts such activities to brackish lakes. The lack of strict law enforcement and supervision resulted in illegal cage fish farming along the Nile, especially in the Delta regions of Beheira, Kafr al-Sheikh and Dumyat (Damietta).”

Every year between January and February, the Irrigation Ministry restricts or in some cases entirely blocks the flow of Nile water into irrigation canals because agricultural activity does not usually need much water at this time of year. The practice is routine and is known as the ‘winter blockage’. Some incidents of fish death have been known to occur during the winter blockage, Dr Hefny explained. This year, however, these incidents have risen, in number and in the size of fish death, to unprecedented proportions. The reason relates to the large number of fish bred in illegal, incorrectly designed fish cages; the erroneous fish feeding methods used there; and the resultant high concentration of fish excrement and fish feed waste in the water. All this places a huge demand on the oxygen in the water. Add to this the scarcity of water during the winter blockage, and we have an explosive mix of conditions that lead to death of the fish.


Depleted oxygen level

“Even worse,” according to Dr Hefny, “we expect another mass fish death at al-Rahawi drain which is the main drain that gathers the sewage and the agricultural and industrial wastewater from the Rasheed (Rosetta) Nile branch, the western branch of the Nile Delta that flows into the Mediterranean.

“The 2013 decree was not implemented owing to the state of lawlessness that followed the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, which encouraged the increase in the illegal fish farming activities. In 2015, a Prime Ministerial decree was issued ordering the enforcement of the law and the immediate removal of the fish cages from fresh waterways. The water environment police conducted intensive campaigns to remove illegal fish farming cages from the Nile and canals, especially in Beheira and Kafr al-Sheikh which have the highest incidence of violations. Fishermen who owned illegal fish farming cages resorted to immersing the cages all the way down to the river or canal bed to hide them from the police. With oxygen levels at their lowest near the river bed, the decomposition of the fish excrement and remains of fish feed—mainly poultry offal and agricultural waste—and the slow water currents because of the winter water blockage, ammonia is increasingly produced, decreasing further the oxygen. The decrease in oxygen together with the increase in ammonia destroys the gills of the fish and causes their death. The fishermen open the cage lids for the dead fish to float on the surface of the water and very often they sell the dead fish in markets of populous, underprivileged areas. Such scenarios took place more than once in Beheira, in June and July 2015, and again last January in Kafr al-Sheikh.”


Untreated sewage

“We inspected a canal on the eastern branch of the Nile Delta, the Dumyat branch, in which dead fish had surfaced,” Dr Hefny said. “The water level was very low; the canal bed was visible. A sewer pipe from the town of Talkha flows into the canal. The local government, in coordination with the Irrigation Ministry, is currently clearing the canal bed of the dead fish and other wastes; and the fish samples are being dissected to discover the cause of their death.”

Magdi Tewfik, Professor of Aquatic Ecology at Ain Shams University, and former consultant at the General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD), talked to Watani about al-Rahawi drain which is among the largest drains in Egypt. He said that 2009 figures, cited in a research by Iman Galal who works with the Irrigation Ministry, indicate that a daily estimate of 1850 cubic metres of industrial drainage and 1.59 million cubic metres of sanitary sewage pour into al-Rahawi, travelling some 250km from Beni Sweif in the south to Rasheed.

Fish death has been occurring for the past eight years in al-Rahawi at the same time every year, he said.

 “There are four major factories and three smaller factories which dump their industrial wastewater either directly or indirectly in al-Rahawi drain,” Dr Tewfik said. “These factories produce food products, oil and soap, fibre boards and fertilisers. The industrial wastewater resulting from these factories was sampled and analysed and the results showed that it did not abide by the required water treatment standards stipulated by the law; the factories are currently working on improving their industrial water treatment plan.”


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World Bank loan

Watani went back to Dr Hefny for comment on what Dr Tewfik said. “There are three main drains through which sewage, and industrial and agricultural waste flow into the Rasheed Nile branch,” Dr Hefny said. “They are al-Rahawi, Sobol and Tala. The largest of them, al-Rahawi, receives inflow from Abu-Rawash sewage treatment station which conducts only primary treatment of sewage. Many villages in the vicinity of al-Rahawi, however, are not connected to the municipal sewage treatment network; their untreated waste flows directly into al-Rahawi. One can thus imagine the huge amount of untreated sewage and agricultural waste that pour into al-Rahawi.

 “Most factories,” she explained, “have established treatment plants for their industrial waste, but it is only initial treatment. But given the huge volume of untreated sewage that flows into al-Rahawi, the industrial waste is not the main problem, rather it is the untreated sewage. Only 25 per cent of Egypt’s towns and villages are connected to the municipal wastewater network whereas the remaining 75 per cent dump their untreated sewage directly into drains that flow into the Nile. During the winter blockage, the water level in the Nile and canals goes down and the concentration of pollutants and heavy metals increases, which causes the death of the fish.”

To solve this problem, the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development must establish a nation-wide municipal wastewater treatment network that drains separately from the industrial and agricultural drainage systems, Dr Hefny said. It must be under the supervision of the Environment Ministry which plays a coordinating role among the various authorities in charge of Egypt’s fresh water resources. The Housing Ministry was recently granted a World Bank loan to establish a sewage treatment network that would cover 70 per cent of Egypt in the next five years.


Criminal practices

Even with the prospect of a future solution for the sewage problem, Dr Hefny sounded a warning. “I insist that the main target is not merely to improve the efficiency of wastewater treatment but to establish uninterrupted, efficient management and maintenance of the system. This is a costly procedure but it is of top priority,” she said.

Fish death causes rooted in pollution or legal violation, however, pale before positively criminal practices that lead to fish death.

A recent TV show investigating the issue of fish death aired a video in which fishermen in Kafr al-Sheikh and Beheira regions admitted to using harsh measures to garner substantial fish catches. Among the methods they described in detail was the use of electricity to electrify the fish dead, and cyanide to poison the fish. The catches are then sold on the market despite the fact that eating fish caught by such methods can cause life-threatening diseases such as renal and hepatic failure.

Some fishermen say that the GAFRD used to increase the number of fish by introducing fingerlings into the Nile, but now sell the fingerlings at a high price directly to the fish farm owners and disregard the simple fishermen who find no other way but to resort to illegal fishing methods. Officials at the GAFRD denied the fishermen’s allegations and said that the fisherman are not aware of the fact that the fingerlings can only be introduced into the water during specific times in the year, and definitely not during the winter blockage.


The filth

Consumers are advised to buy fish from reliable sources such as State-owned outlets and avoid street vendors. To guarantee the freshness of the fish, they must inspect the gills to make sure they are intact and bright red; the fish eyes must be clear and not cloudy; and when the flesh of the fish is pressed, it should spring back to its natural shape.

It is thus clear that the main problem is not the death of fish but rather the death of some people’s consciences and the poisoning of the Nile which is the source of life to all Egyptians. After each water pollution incident, the ministries of irrigation and environment and the GAFRD disregard the winter blockage regulations and increase the water discharged into the Nile to wash away the pollutants from the affected areas. But how can one wash away the filth from people’s consciences?


Watani International

16 March 2016

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