Searching for water: Residents of Giza district protest unstable supply

The baby word “imbou,” said to have been Arabicized from the language of ancient Egypt, is used by kids who want to drink. Today, with the frequent water cuts, the same word is used by grown-ups.

In front of the Giza Governorate headquarters, dozens of residents from Saft al-Laban — one of the largest neighborhoods in the city, with close to a half million residents — set up a tent under a banner reading “Imbou.” They have been staging a sit-in since Saturday after water supplies to their homes had been cut off for more than a week.

Saft al-Laban is one of 11 districts in Giza, which has a total population of 7 million. Protesters say their neighborhood is the only one that has suffered from an unstable water supply over the past six years, compared to other districts in Giza.

This protest is novel because all former protests staged by residents of Saft al-Laban after the 25 January revolution were either to demand permanent contracts in government institutions or to receive apartments and compensation for violence that erupted during the transitional period after the breakout of the uprising.

President Mohamed Morsy’s plan for the first 100 days of his rule includes promises to address issues related to traffic, fuel, security, bread and sanitation. It seems, however, that water cuts will be another urgent issue to feature prominently on his first 100-day agenda, particularly since protests against the scarcity of water recently erupted in eastern Cairo, Alexandria, Daqahlia, Gharbiya and Fayoum.

Protesters say the solution to the problem is simple but needs years of work. On the ground, however, there is a lack of trust, mutual recrimination between residents and government officials, and corruption at the municipal level.

One of the protesters, 37-year-old Ahmed Ali, says Morsy’s platform lacked any solutions to the problems of densely populated areas, which he said are mostly technical issues related to infrastructure and facilities.

“The problem of water shortages was exacerbated over the past six years, prompting people to dig for underground water. Water was only available 12 hours a day, pumped from secondary pipes connected to the main pumping station in Warraq, located at the heart of Giza,” he says.

Ali added that the lack of radical solutions led to more hours without water, until water became almost entirely out of supply since last year.

“We have since depended on underground water or other nearby neighborhoods to satisfy our needs of water,” Ali says.

Another protester, Medhat Maher, 37, says there are two solutions to the water shortage problem. The first is to complete the water reservoir, which was supposed to have been in use three years ago. The second, a more permanent solution, is to pump the water directly from the main pumping station in Warraq.

The protesters accuse Giza Governorate of intentionally delaying the construction of the reservoir, which they attribute to internal corruption within the bureaucracy. The idea of building the reservoir came up six years ago, when the water crisis erupted, but its construction only started three years ago and was never completed.

Giza Governor Ali Abdel Rahman accused Saft al-Laban residents of hampering the construction of the reservoir.

In a statement issued on the governorate’s website Sunday, Abdel Rahman said the governorate had to change the design of the reservoir after residents illegally annexed the land allocated to it.

Abdel Rahman has promised to finish the construction of the reservoir within six days of his statement.

“We do not trust the governor — he is the engineer contracted to make the original design for the reservoir six years ago who is now accusing us of annexing the land,” says Maher, suggesting that there is a conflict of interest.

Maher adds that building a main pumping line that extends from Warraq to Saft al-Laban would have its own set of problems, even though it is the only solution to water cuts. Saft al-Laban’s water quota was distributed to other districts by employees from the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater who controlled the valves in the Warraq station.

“After investigations, we found out a few months ago that two workers from the [company] in Giza controlled the pumping of water and allocated more water to neighborhoods next to Saft al-Laban — such as Motamadeya, Kafr Tohormos and Saft al-Laban al-Gadida — which have taller buildings and shops that need a continuous flow of water,” says Ali.

He says he can “almost conclusively” say these employees have a direct interest in making this change.

”It appears the problem is not technical. Last year, we blocked the ring road to protest the little supply of water, only to find water being pumped strongly into our homes hours later,” he adds.

The protesters say these are signs of corruption, calling on Morsy to make a plan to address their problem and to change involved state employees. They believe that the corrupt networks of interest permeating some of the state’s executive bodies will make the president’s mission difficult.

“We will continue our protest because suspending it will cause Mubarak’s regime to return, though under the leadership of a new president,” says Ali.

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