Urgent action for Lake Manzala

16-03-2016 01:13 PM

Claire Sidqy





Lake Manzala is one of the largest and most productive natural lakes in Egypt. Located in northeast Egypt between the Dumyat (Damietta) Nile branch and the Suez Canal, the shores of this brackish lake straddle four governorates: Daqahliya, Port Said, Dumyat and Sharqiya. Environmental conditions such as the year-long moderate climate and the availability of natural nutrients made Lake Manzala the perfect habitat for important fish species. The inlets connecting the lake with the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal allow for the exchange of sea water and fish; in fact, in the past Lake Manzala’s fish yield reached 48 per cent of the overall fish production of the lakes of the Egyptian Delta region.

However, for the last four decades unregulated human activity in Lake Manzala has resulted in a number of environmental problems. Violations and encroachments are changing the landscape and huge portions of the wetlands are being filled with land and reclaimed for the purpose of agriculture, especially on the east side of the lake. As a result, the area of Lake Manzala has decreased considerably from the original 750,000 feddans (50 kilometres in length and 30 to 35 kilometres in width) to 190,000 feddans in 1990 and 125,000 feddans today. This has called for an urgent project to rescue the lake.


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Useless to protest

“I recently took part in a protest organised by the fishermen and friends of Lake Manzala in front of the Port Said governorate building. More than 15 similar protests have been held in the past few years, but to no avail,” says Magdi Khalil, professor of Aquatic Ecology at Ain Shams University, a former consultant with the General Authority for Fish Resources Development (GAFRD) and Secretary General of the Environmental Research Committee at the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology.

“Fishing on the Port Said side of Lake Manzala has nearly died out as economic activity, mainly owing to the pollution which has altered the lake’s ecosystem. Many fishermen have taken their fishing gear to other non-polluted places or have engaged in commercial activities. In Dumyat, many fishermen have given up their time honoured livelihood and shifted to other economic activities. Dumyat is famous for its furniture and confectionery industries. But the Sharqiya fishermen have stayed because they have no alternative livelihood to engage in.

“It is a pity that uncontrolled human activity is turning this once-thriving source of fishing wealth into a polluted sluggish lagoon. Lake Manzala receives the flow of several drains, the largest of which are the Bahr al-Baqar and Hadous drains which carry untreated municipal, agricultural and industrial waste from nearby governorates, including Cairo’s sewage. The increasing level of pollution in the lake, in addition to siltation, are blocking the inlets that allow the inflow of sea water and fish from the Mediterranean to the lake. High grade fish species have disappeared and been replaced by lower grade species able to sustain the high pollution level.”


Conflicting currents

Hydrology studies show that Lake Manzala receives an annual 7.2 billion cubic metres of water inflow; 3.9 per cent of which from sewage, 0.1 per cent from industrial drainage and 96 per cent from agricultural drainage, Dr Khalil explains. Given that the original capacity of the lake is 0.43 billion cubic metres, this means that Lake Manzala receives 16 times its original size in drainage water inflow. This makes the water current of the lake move in a single direction from the lake into the sea all year long without allowing any water flow from the sea into the lake, except during the winter nawwat (storms). This has a negative impact on the lake’s hydrological cycle, which works to renew its waters, adjust salinity levels and reduce pollutants. It has resulted in the growth of reed thickets and water hyacinth which now cover about 38 per cent of the surface of the lake, reducing water currents inside the lake and also the area available for fishing. After the plants die, they accumulate around the shores of the lake and contribute to the blockage of inlets which are essential to ensure the flow of seawater into the lake.

“Lake Manzala was once the main source of income for the area’s fishing community,” says Hussam Khalil, spokesman for the Lake Manzala fishermen. “But now that the lake is polluted and fishing is not as profitable as it used to be, many fishermen have quit the profession. Fresh water vegetation now covers a large area of the lake and is replacing the natural lake flora on which the fish feed. The best fish species such as the Gilt-head Bream and Sea Bass have disappeared and the fish stock of the lake now consists of lower-grade Nile Tilapia and Catfish, making the catch less profitable.”

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Fish consumers suffer

Analysis of fish specimens from the lake shows a high concentration of chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals in the fish. Because fishermen are usually the highest consumers of fish, it is no surprise that the fishing communities around Lake Manzala suffer from high levels of pollution-related diseases.

Dr Khalil believes the real problem lies in the laxity of the Environment Law and the inability of the Environment Ministry to implement the law and prevent the untreated municipal, industrial and agricultural drains from flowing into Egypt’s waterways.

Any solution for the problem must be devised jointly by the ministries of irrigation and agriculture and GAFRD, Dr Khalil says. They should set strict regulations for the management of Egypt’s water resources. The Ministry of Environment must ensure that water from agricultural and industrial drains is treated before it goes into the lake.

“Many of the water monitoring procedures currently adopted need amendment. The water from drainage and sewer systems must either be treated before it flows into the lake or routed away from the lake and used to irrigate tree plantations. The Ministry of Environment spends millions of pounds on analysing the water four times a year, and these analyses show that the high levels of water pollutants have not changed much over the five-year period 2009 – 2014. A more efficient plan to manage the available funds would be to analyse the waters only twice a year and allocate the remaining funds, along with a portion of the yearly fishing revenue, to improve the existing water treatment plan.”


Failed land reclamation

Part of Lake Manzala’s problems owe to miscalculated government moves. Over the past decades the government set up projects attempting to reclaim parts of Lake Manzala and turn it into agricultural land, while other portions were filled in to build the coastal highway. The land reclamation project was unsuccessful, however, and fishing proved much more profitable. This now makes the development of Lake Manzala all the more urgent.

However, as portions of the lake were filled legally by the government for the purpose of agriculture, other portions were filled by local residents who settled on the illegally reclaimed land and established ‘zones of influence’, using thugs and strongmen to deny approach to the fishermen. Fishing areas thus became more limited.

In the 1980s the government promoted fish farming activities, especially to the west of the lake in Dumyat governorate. The number of enclosures increased to the point of limiting the small fishermen’s access to the lake or denying access to the lake’s open waters altogether. The increase in fish farming increased the demand for fingerlings, usually rather costly and provided by GAFRD. Many fish farm owners preferred to catch them directly from the lake using fine mesh nets, which added an ominous dimension to overfishing.

“This operation must be criminalised since it depletes the lake’s fishing resources,” Dr Khalil says.

The number of fish farm enclosures has increased and now extends to the banks of the Bahr al-Baqar drain. “As though pollution were not enough, the Lake Manzala fish farms now feed their fish directly from the drain water,” complains Magdi Tewfik, Professor of Aquatic Ecology at Ain Shams University. “This is a major cause for the high incidence of cancers and renal and hepatic failures.”

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Steps against pollution and shrinkage

The Lake Manzala development project is the first step among several projects recommended by the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. A scientific strategy was set by the relevant ministries and governorates to purge the lake from suspended solids and other pollutants, improve the quality of water and increase the fish stock in the lake. This will also protect the lake from further shrinkage caused by land reclamation activities and encroachments and will preserve the open area in which fishermen are allowed to engage in their fishing activity, according to the head of al-Masriyeen Centre for Economic Studies, Adel Amer.

The first phase of the project includes conducting dredging operations in the northern part of the lake to increase the depth of water from the current 0.7m to 1.25m, and the construction of a radial canal. The estimated cost of this phase amounts to EGP230 million and serves 50,000 feddans, says Sherif Fayad, researcher in agricultural economy at the Desert Research Centre.

The second phase consists of dredging the inlet of the Gameel and al-Deeba triangle and building water canals that extend from behind the Gameel inlet to the middle of the lake. The estimated cost of this phase, according to Diaa al-Qusy, former consultant for the minister of irrigation, amounts to EGP260 million. It also serves 50,000 feddans and is to be implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and financed by the Ministry of Planning.


Answer to many problems

 “Where is the efficient management of water resources in Egypt?” Dr Tewfik asks. “Why is this huge amount of drainage water dumped into the sea when it could be treated and used in desert land reclamation or fish farming projects? Dumping 7.2 billion cubic metres of drainage water into Lake Manzala raises the water level of the lake to 30 – 40 cm above sea level, causing the lake currents to flow in a single direction from the lake into the sea. Even if the inlets are dredged and cleaned, the sea water is still able to flow into the lake only during winter storms.”

Dr Tewfik believes that channelling drain water to agricultural projects away from the lake would be the best way to reduce the pollution of the lake and allow the inflow of seawater to the lake. This would restore the salinity of the lake and consequently destroy reeds and other fresh water plants and allow for high grade fish species to find their way back to the lake.

For any development project to bear fruit, however, the State must remove all encroachments and prohibit all illegal activities that pollute the lake and deplete its fish resources. In 2009 GAFRD, in cooperation with the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences, digitally determined the latitude and longitude coordinates demarcating the geographical borders of all the lakes in Egypt. These measurements were confirmed by ground survey using advanced GPS, and the maps were approved by the Egyptian Geological Survey. These maps must be used, in coordination with the Environment Police and the water bodies authority, to remove any existing encroachments and prevent future ones.


Watani International

16 March 2016


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