People in Fayoum, the verdant depression some 80 kilometres southwest Cairo, believe that if one has not visited the lake then one has not visited Fayoum. The lake has the most beautiful picturesque views, and taking a small boat on the lake is a wonderful experience.
In reality, Lake Qarun, which lies some 45 metres below sea level in the Fayoum depression, is a huge salty body of water that makes it unfit for drinking. And while its southern and eastern shores are populated, where fresh water can be brought from irrigation systems, the northern shore is bare desert, uninhibited, and difficult to reach. It is one of Egypt’s most treasured natural landmarks and a resource that has helped support human culture for some 8,000 years.
Much of the area around the lake was cultivated in ancient times and until the decay of the Roman Empire in the sixth century, when local governmental mismanagement led to the loss of good land to the desert and the abandonment of the towns. Even recent reclamation work, which has made the southwestern shore of the lake green again, has failed to make good the huge losses of agricultural land incurred during the late Roman times.
The lake’s banks boast some of the most beautiful tourist resorts today. The most famous, the Auberge Fayoum, was founded in 1937, as a hunting lodge by King Farouq who mainly used it as hospitality for his hunting expeditions and parties. The hotel has since hosted official banquets for the royalty, heads of state, and celebrities. It has been a favourite retreat to many famous personalities, political figures and prominent guests, and has witnessed several international treaties, meetings, and conventions.
Last Monday saw the lake waters rise and deluge the buildings and resorts on its banks, including the Auberge—all of which are built on a level lower than that of the lake. The water inundated the ground floor, a number of halls, as well as some that date back to the time of King Farouq and belong to the Auberge. Several other resorts sank entirely under the water, including al-Ahlam, Konouz, Lu’lu’at al-Waha, and Shakshouk. Some villages also went entirely under the water.
The storm is considered the worst in the history of the lake since the one that occurred in 1992 and destroyed all tourist resorts.
The residents and villagers expressed anger because they had complained to the authorities of a rise in the water level of the lake—agricultural drainage water runs into the lake and feeds its water—but nothing was done. The mud or silt sediment carried by the agricultural run-off and precipitated on the lake bed helps increase the rise in water level, as well as the sand creeping in from the north side, which serves to decrease the water capacity of the lake.
The deluge came about at noon when the western fencing wall between the Auberge and the lake partly fell down, as a result of restoration work that was being carried on the wall. It did not help that the lake was already stormy due to unfavourable weather conditions. Salvage efforts were carried out by the Irrigation Directorate and the Fire Fighters of Fayoum, who tried to divert the waters elsewhere.
Mohamed Eraqi—General Manager of Irrigation in Fayoum told Watani that the level of the water in the lake is measured daily to avert threats to the neighbouring lands. There were plans, he said, to stabilise the water level by diverting some of the agricultural run-off to Wadi al-Rayan, which would also help to conserve the water and reuse it for irrigation purposes. The project would cost some EGP473 million. Cultivating rice in the adjacent lands has been moreover prohibited, he said, to reduce the amount of agriculture drainage.
The water level of the lake, Hosam Hassan director of the Auberge told Watani, had already been rising for a long time but, since the area is a national park, it is forbidden to build any fortifications against the water. Mr Hassan said the hotel was undertaking work to repair the damage, and would soon reopen to the public. The Auberge had already been undergoing restoration and renovation; the first phase of the renovation cost some EGP20 million, he said.
One of the villagers, Mohamed Abdel-Ghani, was seen carrying big amounts of earth to fill in the land around his house, which was submerged by the water. He said he had to do that every year to protect his house. He condemned the negligence of the officials who failed to carry out necessary maintenance work to protect the area from the lake water.
“The villagers will face future problems because of the continuous rise in water level of Lake Qarun, Ewais Said, head of environmental affairs department of Fayoum, said. A fence must be built, he said, around the lake bank, and the water level must be maintained at no more 42 metres.
Fayoum governor Galal Said has already made an agreement with the Social Development Fund to building a fence in front of the villages of Khalaf, Raghay, Haboun, Shamata and Tahoun, at some two million Egyptian Pounds million. Another protective fence will be built in front of the residential area of Shakshouk village, as part of a EGP3.5 million development project for the entire village.