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Polluted playground
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 02 - 2006

Once known as "the great lake" but later downgraded to "the Fayoum swamp", Lake Qaroun has had its ups and downs. Amira El-Noshokaty reports on the lake's current environmental status
Lake Qaroun's increasing salinity has recently been making headlines. Its salt content tops the list of hazards that led a local resident -- quoted in a study published in 2003 -- to dub it "the Fayoum swamp".
Lake Qaroun, which is one of oldest, if not the oldest, lakes in Egypt, was known to ancient Egyptians as lake moeris, (the great lake). The third largest lake in Egypt, it is located in Fayoum on the fringe of the Western Desert about 90km south of Cairo. The Fayoum Governorate lies in a depression that contains two other lakes besides Qaroun, both of which are at Wadi Al-Rayan. Qaroun covers 250 square km (55,000 acres) and is the winter location of rare breeding birds including Kittlitz's Plover.
Although designated a protected area back in 1989, the lake has hardly been protected from various polluting elements. According to a recent study, Development Of Lake Qaroun, published in 2003 as a joint venture by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), Environmental Sector Programme (ESP), the Fayoum Governorate, the Egyptian Company for Salts and Minerals (EMISAL), and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA); the salinity of the lake has been increasing for several decades. This has presented a serious threat to bio- diversity and populations of fish and birds.
It has also threatened the governorate's socio-economic system. The lake's main sources of water are from agriculture drainage and domestic wastewater. This disposal of saline drainage water into the lake has a detrimental effect on water quality. The salinity of Lake Qaroun has increased considerably since measurements were first taken in 1906, when it was about 12 per cent, rising to 26.6 per cent in 1958 and 35.1 per cent in 1998. (The cut-off point for salinity is 50 grammes per litre, above which marine life cannot be sustained).
Salinity is not the only peril from agricultural run-off. Tests show an increase in levels of pesticide residuals, and the quantity of domestic waste dumped in the lake has driven up levels of nitrates to about 46mg/l. There are also traces of heavy metals. The high salinity, low oxygen content, low amounts of phosphates and increase in nitrates serve to lower the nourishment of phytoplankton organisms, and accordingly there is less food for mullet and other fish. The level of zooplanktons is also affected by the high salinity, leading to a decrease in the dissolved oxygen essential for fish and thus to a further decrease in numbers.
On a parallel note, when Mediterranean fish were imported to compensate for falling populations of freshwater fish, which are adapting poorly to the salinity, the unwelcome red polysiphonia algae tagged along, only to die in summer when the water decreases in some parts of the lake. The dead algae release a gas that reduces the level of oxygen in the water necessary for fish survival, as well as emitting a noxious smell in the southern part of the lake.
"I cannot deny that the lake is polluted," Hossam Kamel, director of the natural protectorate of Lake Qaroun, told Al-Ahram Weekly. However, he suggested that there were several misconceptions. "There are numerous polluting elements: pesticides, the increase of [sediment at] the bottom of the lake, the soft sand from the northern coast and sewage. Most of the Fayoum Governorate is not covered by sewage network, so I cannot file a complaint on a certain village for causing pollution when there is no sewage system." According to the Human Development report, Country Report Egypt 2004, the Fayoum Governorate ranked number 22 (the lowest) of all the Egyptian governorates. With a population that reached 2.3 million in 2002, the number of residents deprived of safe water reached 456,100 people, while those with no sewerage amounted to 414,900 people.
Yet in spite of all that lies beneath the surface, hope is afloat. Kamel says that the latest salinity test conducted in 2004 gave a reading of 32 grammes per litre, well within the normal limit. He underscores the role of the national salt company EMISAL, whose intervention on the lake has helped reduce salinity over the years. EMISAL constructed an extraction plant at the lake in 1984 to begin harvesting the lake's 408,400 tonnes of salt, and while the first phase of the project to extract sodium sulphate reduced the general salinity by about 70 per cent, however, due to financial restraints, the extraction of sodium chloride and production of magnesium oxides was delayed until recently.
Controls on pesticides are also being put in place. Large areas of agricultural land are now being farmed organically, and a joint effort by the Italian and Egyptian governments and the protected area (EEAA) aims to shift all agriculture to organic as part of a more comprehensive scope of development. "The new Fayoum governor, Magdi El-Qobeisi, is very concerned about Lake Qaroun and its problems," Kamel says. "As a result of one of his first meetings with us, a plan was made to install filters to prevent clay from running into the lake." The clay is carried through the irrigation water and remains in the bottom of the lake.
A paper produced by the General Authority for Fish Resources and Development of the Nile Valley by its Fayoum department says the fish catch dropped from almost 2,000 tonnes in 1987 to 1,397 tonnes in 2002. However, Kamel denied that the water quality, as well as salinity, had a detrimental effect on the amount of fish in the lake. He suggested that the official records were inaccurate.
"The lake covers 55,000 acres. If each acre produced 1kg of fish, then you would have 55,000kg of fish daily, but that's not the case. Usually there is an average of six people working on each fishing boat, and they report the size of their catch to the fishermen's organisation which is in charge of distributing the fish. Due to the increase in living costs -- unlike their daily income -- some fishermen report only half of their actual catch so they can sell it themselves."
On the banks of the ancient lake, several fishing boats painted in vivid colours lie offshore. It is too windy to go fishing. Dawoud Said has been a fisherman for almost 20 years. "Fishing does not earn a good income like it used to 10 years ago, when our daily catch could reach 50kg. Today it is down to 5kg," Said told the Weekly. He blamed the increase of living costs and the decrease in the breeding stock that the government transports from Alexandria. However he continues to work as a fisherman. "It's the only job I know," he says. The quality and quantity of agriculture land varies in the villages bordering Lake Qaroun, so most locals continue to make fishing their main source of income with more than two-thirds engaging in it. Owing to the nature of the neighbouring land, most of which is unfit for agriculture despite the efforts of the government, many peasants have turned to fishing. And a lot of them are no angels. Some fishermen use illegal fishing nets with large holes that trap the breeding stock, which they use in return as bird food and sell it. On another level, the ban on bird hunting has had a dramatic effect on the villagers, since they have lost the revenue they made from guiding tourists on bird-hunting trips, which used to be a good source of income. On a parallel note, a study entitled Water and Salt Equilibrium in Lake Qaroun, published in 2003 by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, noted the drastic decrease in the fish harvest and related it directly to the increase in salinity. This, in addition to illegal fishing, had in turn led to the extinction of some Nile fish, including qarmout. Moreover, the study went on to say that the lake's increasing water volume -- an annual 10 centimetres -- caused an increase in underground water levels on the land on the southern border of the lake, ruining more than 50,000 acres of agricultural land. That increase in water volume has had a negative effect on the annual income of the peasants, which has fallen by almost 70 per cent in the last 10 years ( The Economic Effect of Environmental Pollution in Lake Qaroun, Economic Agriculture Section, Faculty of Agriculture, Fayoum). Economic effects have also been felt in the tourist spots overlooking the lake.
The lake has not always been salty. According to R Neil Hewison, author of Fayoum: History and Guide (American University in Cairo Press, 2001), the Fayoum basin was first excavated by wind action in the early Pleistocene era, and the erosion of a side-gully near the Nile led to the breaking of Nile flood water through what is now known as the Lahun gap. This took place 70,000 years ago in the early Paleolithic period. The depression filled up to form a lake connected to the Nile. However, climatic variations caused a shift in the Nile's course, and a general recession was set during the Old Kingdom when the lake's decreasing water level cut off communication with the Nile, turning the area into swamps. The lake was resurrected in the 12th Dynasty by Amenemhat I (1994-1964 BC), who widened and deepened the channel connecting the lake to the Nile -- this canal is now known as Bahr Youssef. In addition, he built an embankment to ensure that once the water reached Fayoum it did not flow back and threaten Lower Egypt with excessively high and potentially catastrophic floods; but the water trapped by the embankment could, in the low season of the Nile, act as a reservoir from which water could be drawn back to the Nile Valley. Thus agriculture boomed until the Roman decline, when many canals including Bahr Youssef became badly silted up. Consequently desertification and reduction of inflowing water caused an increase in water salinity.
It was not until Mohamed Ali's era and the introduction of modern irrigation systems that new improvements were made. The Bahr Hassan Wassef was dug parallel to Bahr Youssef, barrages were built between 1870 and 1920, and these were followed by a series of systems to regulate the flow of the Nile, including the first Aswan dam in 1908. New irrigation methods were implemented. Between 1900 and 1950 the saline drainage water flowing into Lake Qaroun was in equilibrium with the annual quantity of water evaporating from the lake. Since the 1952 Revolution and with the increase in land reclamation the annual irrigation intake of the lake increased, while following the construction of the Aswan High Dam the equilibrium has not kept pace with the resulting salinity.

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