The damage inflicted on Egypt’s lakes testifies to man's ability to quickly destroy what nature took centuries to create.
Lakes — or wetlands — add to the varied topography of the country, but environmental damage is seriously jeopardizing their habitats. In some cases the damage is irreversible.
This severe ecological damage is due to industrialization, land reclamation, modern agricultural practices, over-fishing, bird hunting and coastal erosion.
Speaking to Egypt Independent, environmental consultant Mindy Rosenzweig describes the damage to the wetlands, particularly those in the north of Egypt, as “one of the greatest environmental crimes which took place under Mubarak’s regime — it is a truly tragic environmental tale.”
Travelers' and naturalists' accounts from the 19th and 20th centuries describe this region as Earth’s paradise, but its ecological value has been largely destroyed.
Sherif Baha Eddin, an environmental consultant and one of the founders of Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE), describes the wetlands as some of Egypt’s most important habitats in terms of biodiversity, second only to the Red Sea’s coral reefs. They support the greatest diversity and density of bird species, and consequently “it should be a conservation priority in Egypt to protect at least representative wetland habitats,” he says.
Several of Egypt’s lakes are located in the north, where their proximity to large populations and industrial centers makes them extremely vulnerable to environmental transgressions.
Northern Delta lakes include Lake Manzala, Lake Maryut, Lake Idku and Lake Burullus.
A predominant cause of damage is the systematic drainage of large segments for conversion into farmland. Urban encroachment has also had a devastating effect.
A study by Eddin on Important Bird Areas (IBAs) as priority areas for conservation describes in detail the damage inflicted on lakes.
For starters, he writes that Lake Manzala — located in the northeastern corner of the Nile Delta, it is the largest of Egypt’s Mediterranean wetlands and the most productive for fisheries — covered some 1,698 square kilometers at the beginning of the 20th century. Land-claiming projects reduced this to 905 by 1981 and to 770 by 1988. Further land reclamation is expected to reduce the area to 469 square kilometers, and encroachment from adjacent urban centers may reduce it even further, the study says.
Lake Idku — a shallow coastal wetland west of the Rosetta Nile branch — has also suffered greatly from systematic drainage and land reclamation policies. Eddin says Lake Idku has been reduced to less than half its original size.
Lake Maryut has been reduced by more than 75 percent and is still shrinking, according to Eddin. The main causes are urban encroachment and solid waste dumping from the rapidly growing city of Alexandria. Lake Maryut’s area covered 200 square kilometers at the beginning of the 20th century, but at the beginning of the 21st it covers only about 50.
Lake Burullus, despite being declared a protectorate by Prime Ministerial Decree 1444/1998, has lost an estimated 37 percent of its open-water area and 85 percent of its marsh area in the past 40 years, largely as a result of ongoing drainage and reclamation of the lake’s eastern, western and southern margins.
The situation is compounded by the fact that the water quality in what remains of these lakes has been seriously compromised through the systematic discharge of waste into them. In the words of Rosenzweig, “these northern Delta lakes have essentially been converted into drainage basins.”
While the severity of the pollution varies among the various water bodies, the main causes in all cases are the discharge of untreated or partially treated industrial and household waste water (mainly sewage) and the dumping of agricultural drainage loaded with fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide residues.
Eddin tells Egypt Independent that in Lake Manzala, “the pollution problem is very severe and is caused by many factors. Municipal waste water is, perhaps, the most serious source of pollution, as much of the raw and treated sewage from Cairo, Port Said and Damietta ends up in Manzala.”
He says that “industrial waste water is also discharged into the lake from various sources — 65 percent of the industries located in Alexandria are disposing of their waste water in this lake.” In addition, it is contaminated by agricultural drainage water with high concentrations of fertilizers and pesticides, while solid waste from urban centers is regularly dumped into the lake, which is used for landfill, he says.
Similarly, in Lake Maryut and Lake Idku, industrial waste and chemicals used to spur agricultural productivity nearby are severely damaging fish habitats; fishermen say that in Lake Idku the fishing industry is dying.
According to Eddin, Lake Maryut is the most polluted wetland in Egypt. Contaminated agricultural drainage water and huge quantities of largely untreated municipal and industrial waste water are again the culprits, and it too suffers particularly due to its close proximity to Alexandria. The outlook for the future of this wetland is rather grim, Eddin's study shows.
Lake Burullus is the least polluted of the northern Delta lakes, but is subject to increasing quantities of agricultural drainage water which contributes significantly to eutrophication — a harmful vegetation bloom caused by fertilizer-filled agricultural water — and pollution.
The livelihoods of several population centers (such as Alexandria, Damietta, Idku and Port Said) are tied to the lakes one way or another. Being exposed to the lakes' high levels of pollution has thus led to a lot of illnesses being documented among those living near them.
Rosenzweig says “nitrates in fertilizers have been reported to cause a high incidence of cancer.” She adds that the fact that birds have virtually disappeared from Lake Manzala, for example, serves as a testament to the degree of environmental degradation there.
She explains that although several projects have been undertaken in recent years for pollution abatement, there is no study of the improvements on the ground.
To be able to properly address these problems, we need to have detailed information on the present-day status of the wetlands. “It is essential that we look at these lakes from an integrated point of view, one which comprises several dimensions. Otherwise this situation will never be properly addressed,” explains Rosenzweig.
Hadeer al-Shafie, an environmental researcher, points out the necessity of amassing political will to address the dangerous policies in place. In her words, “the degradation of Egypt’s northern Delta lakes is a cry for improper environmental management, a clear example of the environment being relegated to the bottom of the priority list with no concerted efforts to address ongoing environmental problems.”
It is high time the government intervenes to salvage the last remaining vestiges of wildlife in the northern region before it is lost forever.