Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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ALEXANDRIA’S PEA SOUP

Pollution of all kinds is strangling one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful ports - Alexandria - spelling disaster for fishermen, tourists and underwater archaeologists.

A native of Alexandria, Asma al-Bakri is an Egyptian filmmaker and a woman with character. Looking back to her childhood, she can hardly contain her rage. "I used to swim across this bay. Through the clear water, you could see fish and the shafts of ancient columns. All of that has disappeared under the muck. This city and its port, one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean, has been assassinated."

Few would risk taking a dip in the port. Jean-Pierre Corteggianni, an Egyptologist from the Institut francais d’archéologie orientale (IFAO), who participated in the exciting underwater exploration aimed at uncovering vestiges of the Alexandria lighthouse, explains: "Everything depends on the wind. When it blows from the south, debris is carried out to sea and the water is almost clear. When it blows from the north, as is the case most of the time, the debris moves around the jetty and into the eastern port. Then, it’s pea soup. A huge, disgusting, three to four-meter blob suspended in the sea. Once I came up from a dive to find a condom stuck to my mask."

TOXIC WASTE

Oceanographer Oussama Aboul Dahab al-Rayis draws a catastrophic picture of the situation. "The main source of pollution," he says, "is the sewer off Fort of Qaitbay. It discharges 250,000 m3 of untreated industrial and domestic waste-water daily. It should be closed next year."

But other sources of pollution are even more complicated: first of all, the main sewage system which empties into Mex Bay, the western port and second largest in the Mediterranean after Marseille. It spews out a mixture of agricultural wastes from the north of the Delta along with industrial and domestic effluents from two treatment centres with a total capacity of 600,000 m3 a day. This foul mix eventually ends up in Lake Maryut, south of the city. These centres, built with the help of the American development agency USAID, eliminate solid effluents but do not treat the water chemically.

The concentration of pollution is low but the quantity is enormous: eight million m3 a day. And then there are the small direct sources like that from the Misr Chemical Industry which up until recently discharged 35,000 m3 of chlorine daily. Thanks to German aid, the plant now boasts a filter system. The Mahmudiya Canal has been closed off, but small quantities of highly toxic waste - about 9,000 m3 a day - continue to filter through to the port. Farther to the west where the most beautiful beaches are found, pollution can be blamed on the Sumed pipeline and the Al-Alamein oil fields.

To the east in the Abu Kir Bay, the Tabia pumping station discharges l.8 million m3 a day. The Lake Edku sluice, running out over the sea, evacuates 3.5 million m3 of moderately toxic agricultural wastes. And this doesn’t include the dozens of paper mills, refineries and chemical fertilizer plants which empty their waste-water into the sea.

The consequences are dramatic. The Abu Kir Bay is biologically dead. Only a few stray migrant fish are left. The city’s eastern coast is somewhat cleaner, mainly because the current carries pollution farther out. Since the main sewers were closed five years ago, the fauna and flora are beginning to return. The eastern port, which contains most of the underwater antiquities, including Cleopatra’s famous palace, is extremely polluted. The same goes for the western port where the bottom is "black and lifeless", according to Jean-Yves Empereur, the French archeologist who dives there to study the vestiges of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in his work directing the Alexandria Study Centre.

It is difficult to say to what extent pollution has damaged underwater relics. But the effect on fish is radical. Not long ago, Alexandria supplied 10% of the fish and shrimp consumed in Egypt. Today, local fishermen must ply the seas further away towards the Libyan coast. Tourism also suffers severely from the state of beaches.

The main culprit is demography. Four million people live in Alexandria, with another two million expected in the summer when Egyptian vacationers come seeking the cool sea breezes. Making matters worse, the local government seems to have taken the cue from the former governor, Ismail al-Gawsaki, who was more concerned with cashing in on building speculation than development. Wanting to tackle the city’s problems head-on, his successor may find more than he bargained for.

For Oussama Aboul Dahab al-Rayis, the simplest and least expensive solution would be to evacuate the treated sewage from the two main centres in the desert instead of the already polluted Lake Maryut. This would irrigate the land, thus creating a green belt around Alexandria which would serve as a barrier against sea erosion which will attack the coast as soon as Lake Maryut is completely dead. Another imperative lies in technologically updating the most polluting factories. As the oceanographer points out, this would be less expensive in the long run than building new water treatment plants, too costly for Egypt.

Christophe Ayad
Alexandria

Extract from UNESCO S0URCES What on earth are we doing to the oceans? No. 96 December 1997

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