Death in the Nile

Death in the Nile
Feature: A recent phosphate spill in the Nile sparked panic in Egypt. The government insists the water is safe to drink - but ecological experts disagree.
4 min read
23 April, 2015
Oil spills are a common, and lethal, problem in the Nile [AFP]
Ahmed Khaled no longer trusts the water. Since 500 tonnes of phosphate were spilled in the River Nile when a boat capsized in Egypt's southern Qena governorate, his life has changed.

The Nile is the primary source of drinking water for most Egyptians, and Khaled has banned his three children from drinking tap water after the latest incident. 

Poisoned water

Although money is tight for the Khaled family, the resident of Qena, on the Nile's east bank, insists that his wife brings back bottled water during her next shopping trip.

Ahmed's neighbour, Mahmoud Ramadan, refuses to give in to the state of panic that has engulfed the city.

He insists that incidents such as these have happened many times before, and will likely happen again.

But others are more concerned.

Phosphate_in_the_nile became Egypt's top trending hashtag on Wednesday.

Twitter users described the incident as a "catastrophe", and warned Egyptians about the dangers of consuming even minimal amounts of phosphate.

"The leak of 500 tonnes of phosphate into the Nile River has a major impact on the ecological balance," said Mohammad Mahmoud, an adviser at Egypt's national toxicology centre.

Mahmoud warned that failing to purify water from phosphate correctly could lead to severe or chronic poisoning for children and kidney patients.

He said it was likely to have a devastating impact on marine organisms in the river too, such as algae, parasites and fish - ultimately killing off much river life.

Yet Hossam Maghazi, minister of water resources and irrigation, disagrees.

He said that his workers took water samples at the site of the spill and results showed that the level of phosphate in the water was within permissible limits.

"There are no changes in the quality of water, and the situation is currently being monitored in coordination with the environment and irrigation ministries in Qena," he said.
     There are no changes in the quality of water, and the situation is being monitored.
- Hossam Maghazi, minister of water resources

Yet authorities only responded 48 hours after media reported the incident - and this is just the latest in a long list of spills in the Nile waters.

History of incidents

Al-Araby al-Jadeed has uncovered years of environmental neglect in Egypt.

In October 2012, a five-kilometre-wide oil spill was spotted in the river in Egypt's south, close to the town of al-Basila.

The incident forced authorities to shut down water supplies to all towns in the governorate of Aswan.

In December 2012, petroleum waste from a factory in Nag Hammadi leaked into the Nile, creating a 50-metre-wide slick a kilometre long.

In March 2014, a tourist cruise ship in Aswan leaked and caused a 500-metre oil spill which spread along the Nile to the southern town of Edfu.

But the most serious incident was to take place in January 2015, when a massive diesel leak in the Nile forced water to be cut off to towns in Luxor for several days.

In the same month, a lorry carrying oil crashed in Etay al-Baroud, causing yet another oil spill in the Nile.

Little, it appears, has been learned by authorities.

Just last month, a Liberian cargo ship severely damaged a major crude oil pipeline as it anchored at the port of the General Petroleum Company.

The environment committee in the Red Sea governorate estimated that it would cost $197,000 to fix the damage.

Helmi al-Zanfali, at the water research department in the national research centre, asked authorities to be vigilent about such incidents and not to show leniency to polluters.

There are laws against the accidental or deliberate spilling of oil into Egyptian waters.

But Ahmed Yousri, a member of the centre for oil pollution control, believes that the frequency of spills suggests that the government doesn't always follow its own rules.

"The solution is to eliminate all sources of neglect that lead to pollution, and force boat owners to abide by the law," he said.

Yousri warned that if proper action were not taken, the next oil spill could poison drinking water and lead to a major humanitarian disaster for Egypt.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.