I first met Ahmed Nasr El-Din, Al-Ahram newspaper’s notorious “water man,” in Kyoto, Japan during the World Water Forum in March 2003. Dubbed “victor of the Nile” by his colleagues—a play of words on his family name, which literally translated from Arabic is “victor of the religion,” Nasr El-Din has been working the Egyptian water beat for the past 15 years. He talks about Egypt’s water issues with the expertise and knowledge of the country’s top academics and with the zest of a man with a mission.
Nasr El-Din found his niche in covering water issues for Egypt’s largest national newspaper in 1989, when water issues were just beginning to gain momentum in the international arena. He paid several visits to the archives of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, collected all the market had to provide in terms of literature on water issues, and gradually compiled a huge database of material for Al-Ahram on this most precious of resources. Since then he has traveled the world far and wide, covering water topics for Egyptian readers.
Home to the longest river in the world, the Nile, few would think of Egypt as a water impoverished country. However, the average per capita share of water is already below the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per individual annually. According to 1996 statistics, the average per capita annual share of water in Egypt was 936 cubic meters, and this is expected to decrease to as low as 582 cubic meters by the year 2025. Even so, Nasr El-Din emphasizes that “the problem in Egypt isn’t one of water scarcity. It’s one of providing the people with the necessary infrastructure to give them access to that water.”
Challenges of Water Coverage
The Nile waters are shared by nine riparian countries, a source of on- and off-again tensions between neighbors. Nasr El-Din believes that journalists have played an important role in metamorphosing a potential conflict situation into one of peace. For example, one focus of the Nile Basin Initiative has been to create more awareness among journalists of the importance of their role in covering water issues. Journalists in the region now exchange visits to each other’s countries to cover relevant water issues. “Traditional conflicts are being solved by media relations,” Nasr El-Din told me. “We are now in a phase of retrieving lost trust among riparian countries, and journalists play a very important role in influencing public opinion back home.”
But is the picture of water coverage in Egypt’s media as rosy as this water enthusiast tends to paint it? Nasr El-Din’s colleague, Hatem Sidqy, who directs Al-Ahram’s science and environment department, believes that a primary challenge in water coverage in Egypt is that the country’s national newspapers focus primarily on the government’s achievements in the water sector, whereas opposition newspapers focus only on the problems. “We need more balanced coverage of water and sanitation issues. Our articles should refer to at least three sources of information: the man on the street who is affected by the problem, a government officer for the official point of view, and an expert scientist, to understand the issues behind the problem,” Sidqy said. “Opposition newspapers never get the opinion of the government officials in their stories, making their coverage extreme and unbalanced.”
Sidqy explained that at times journalists encounter difficulties in getting accurate information on water issues. “It’s difficult to get an official statement if water samples analyzed in water treatment plants or in the National Research Center show traces of viruses or parasites, for example,” Sidqy explained. On the other hand, he is aware that publishing such information could result in raising “unnecessary public fears,” since it is such a rare occurrence and usually happens only in trace amounts, according to Sidqy.
Nasr El-Din and Sidqy agree, nevertheless, that journalists are playing an important role in responding to readers’ qualms and complaints about water and sanitation issues that directly affect their daily lives. The newspaper receives many letters from readers either imploring journalists to cover a particular issue, or providing feedback on coverage.
A glance through a week’s front-page coverage of water issues in two Egyptian national newspapers, Al-Ahram and Al- Akhbar, and one opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, indicates that water issues are one of journalists’ top priorities in terms of news coverage. With few exceptions, each day of the week of December 25-31, 2004 (the week I chose to look at the coverage) the three newspapers covered a water issue on their front pages.
In addition to reporting on the devastating tsunami that hit Asian countries on December 26th, with detailed scientific explanations of the phenomenon and its public health impacts, each newspaper also covered a variety of local water issues. All three reported on the torrential rains that hit northern Egypt that week, while Al-Ahram covered such topics as the rupture of a main water pipe in one of Cairo’s upper-class neighborhoods, millions of pounds in damage to the Suez Canal due to environmental factors, and renovations in the Aswan High Dam’s electricity facilities. Al-Akhbar confined its water coverage primarily to tsunami and weather coverage, but reported on its December 31st front page about providing the public with half a million new water meters in order to control drinking water consumption in the country.
The opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, was diverse in its coverage of water issues on its front page for that week. It included stories about cleaning up an oil spill from a Kuwaiti tanker in the Suez Canal, Egyptian villages asking the government to provide for more water and sanitation services, construction debris dumped by government into a major irrigation canal, and a story that purportedly claims that Egypt might buy water from Turkey in the future.
A Foreign Journalist’s Experience
Dutch writer and journalist Francesca De Chatel has been covering water issues in the Middle East for the past few years as she prepares a book to be published in the summer of 2005. De Chatel has a negative impression based on her experiences in trying to gain access to information on water issues in Egypt. “Basically it was a nightmare,” she said. “I could actually write a small novella just about getting permits and comic events at the International Press Office in Cairo. It was also interesting that the mistrust started as soon as I said I was a journalist. Looking back, I realize that I should have said I was an academic researching a PhD. I did this in Jordan and the response was immediately more open.”
In her first visit to the country, after she received the necessary press permits, she was shocked to find that most Egyptian officials she interviewed were “not very forthcoming as they unanimously denied that there was any problem with water in Egypt.” One year later, in her second visit to Egypt, she experienced fewer problems with the necessary paperwork (this time she did it before her arrival in the country) and reporting was more fruitfu—relatively speaking. De Chatel was allowed escorted access to some of Egypt’s water projects, and “while officials still denied there was any problem with water scarcity and pollution, the lower-placed officials were more open,” she said.
De Chatel expressed frustration at the fact she wasn’t provided the chance to interview people working on the Toshka project, an ambitious attempt to irrigate Egypt’s Western Desert, without a press officer being there “making sure I heard and saw the right things,” she said in exasperation.
An Egyptian Journalist’s Experience
My experience in covering water issues in Egypt is quite contrary to De Chatel’s. After I attended several local and international workshops and conferences about water issues, I decided it was time for me to do this kind of reporting in my own country. I approached the Egyptian Water Partnership, which has been involved in local water projects for the past two years, and they readily provided me with information about some water problems in Menofiya Province in the Nile Delta and asked a local official from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation to escort me on a daylong trip in the province.
I am most grateful to Gamal Girgis, director of the Menofiya Province’s Irrigation Maintenance Program. It is because of his sincerity and concern for the water problems affecting those who live in his region that I was able to write my first award-winning article. Girgis patiently showed and explained to me the region’s water problems. I took pictures and spoke freely with farmers and villagers and asked them as many questions as I could come up with. After spending a heart-rending day witnessing the various sources of pollution to this province’s irrigation canals, Girgis took me to a beautiful village where the residents had taken on the responsibility of solving their water problems. I later spoke with the director of the province’s environmental department to get background information for the article and was invited to again visit the region during the winter when water levels decrease in the irrigation canals and dead fish float to the surface due to the high levels of pollution. This invitation reinforced my sense of the government officials’ desire to show journalists the extent of the water problems they were confronting in this region.
In May 2004 my story, “The Nile and its People: What Goes Around Comes Around,” was published as an environment story in IslamOnline.net’s health and science section. The story portrayed a situation in which industrial effluent and raw sewage from homes and industries along the Nile are dumped with alarming frequency into irrigation and drainage canals and pollute the water and crops. Only two of the region’s 47 villages even have a sanitation system in place, and individual septic tanks leak pollution into the region’s groundwater. Beyond showing the misery and disease these practices bring with them, the story reported on the remarkable community-wide efforts in the village of Kafr Wahb that have transformed its garbage- strewn streets and polluted waters into a livable, healthy environment.
This story began with these words:
“As Egypt succumbs to summer and the temperatures slowly rise to a searing 40 degrees Celsius, four young boys skinny-dip in a canal while their fathers and older brothers labor in the nearby fields. With a carefree spirit that only boys their age can feel, they playfully splash each other with the refreshingly cool water.
“Less than 100 meters upstream, however, a crime is being committed that will have a direct impact on these boys for the rest of their lives. A truck carrying raw sewage collected for a minor fee from the local villagers is dumping its contents directly into the irrigation canal.
“The River Nile has been Egypt’s ‘vein of life’ since time immemorial. Now facing a variety of threats ranging from bilharziasis to the dumping of raw sewage, industrial and agricultural effluents, the longest river in the world has slowly been turned into a death sentence for Egypt’s millions.”
Heightened international awareness of the importance of finding fast and lasting solutions for the world’s water and sanitation problems has led to the organization of a series of international conferences and workshops about how to address these problems. In turn, this has led government officials in developing countries to realize the importance of involving citizens and communities in solving pending water and sanitation problems. More and more, too, government officials in the water and sanitation sectors in Egypt are recognizing the important role journalists can play in motivating such efforts.
Nadia El-Awady is IslamOnline.net’s health and science section editor. She recently won first prize in the media awards given by the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All (WASH) campaign for her story about pollution, sanitation and water issues along the Nile. Her story is at www.islamonline.net/English/Science/2004/05/article09.shtml.