A handful of factories polluted this Egyptian town with toxic chemicals

According to a case file against the plant, a copy of which was obtained by Climate Tracker, violations in maintenance work and safety began to manifest in 2011.
According to a case file against the plant, a copy of which was obtained by Climate Tracker, violations in maintenance work and safety began to manifest in 2011.

Here in Al-Qabouti, known as the fishermen’s village, Abbas Zakaria gets out of bed before daybreak in Port Said (City in Egypt, north of the Suez Canal), as he has done every day for 35 years. 

He has never failed to go fishing at dawn, returning home at noon, since he acquired the skill from his father when he was only twenty years old. For more than two decades, his nets overflowed with fish, until things changed.

After remembering the days of full nets, Abba frowns speaking of the region’s hardships. The waters of Al-Qabouti have turned a gloomy blue, and most of the fishermen have left. 

Factories and businesses in the local investment zone discharge their waste into the Qabouti Canal connected to Lake Manzala, scientific studies and legal documents show. These factories produce chemicals, oils or fabrics. In Al-Qabouti, they also produce deadly waters.

Al-Qabouti is situated between the northern bank of the Raswa Canal, which connects Manzala Lake to the Suez Canal; the western bank of the internal canal, which connects to the heart of Port Said; and the eastern bank of the navigational tongue, which divides into Lake Manzala.

The fishermen’s village once had a boat in front of every house. Now, satellite photographs show the boats of Al-Qabouti parked outside the water. They haven’t moved for years.

The polluting factories

The industrial zone near Al-Qabouti area includes dozens of factories, most of which are specialised in the manufacture of garments, chemicals, metals and building materials, among other industries. According to the testimonies of Qabouti residents and fishermen, these factories have dumped their industrial sewage directly into Al-Qabouti Lake for decades.

But the biggest complaints among fishermen were against the TCI Sanmar factory, a chemicals company with large operations in the area. Climate Tracker was able to obtain a copy of a lawsuit against the factory, filed in 2018 by the lawyer is one of the residents of Port Said, Ahmed Muhammad Amer, which provides evidence of the factory’s pollution of Lake Manzala.

Although other smaller factories are also located in the area and have been found to pollute the lake, the TCI Sanmar factory is the largest in the area and is the only one thus far to be taken to court by locals for polluting the waters and the air. 

Although the complaint was filed in 2018, the case has been ongoing since then and is still pending a resolution. However, official analysis of the lake’s waters requested for the case showed pollution caused by the factory, official documents show.

After the lawsuit, the Egyptian parliament has filed 3 briefing requests against this factory in the last three years.

TCI Sanmar is one of Egypt’s largest chemical and chlorine factories, producing chlorine used to purify drinking water. Investment in the plant totals over $1.2 billion, making it the largest Indian investment in Egypt’s chemical industry. 

The factory was built in 2002 by an Indian company called Trust, and sold to an Indian investor in 2007. Later, the main activities were transferred to an Indian-managed chemical and petrochemical factory. 

According to a case file against the plant, a copy of which was obtained by Climate Tracker, violations in maintenance work and safety began to manifest in 2011.

The Sanmar factory produces a number of polluting substances, such as caustic soda, chlorine, oxygen water, ethylene derived from ethanol, and ethanol dichloride, all discharged into the lake, according to the case papers obtained by Climate Tracker. 

According to the case file, this factory causes significant pollution in the surrounding area and exposes people and residents of the Al-Qabouti area and the Emirati neighbourhood to various types of environmental pollution, which harms citizens’ public health, in addition to repeated suffocation incidents for factory workers and the factory’s failure to meet occupational security and safety requirements.

The factory also manufactures caustic soda and discharges its waste into a communication channel between Lake Manzala and the Suez Canal, which resulted in the abolition of fisheries and the collapse of the fishing profession in the area and the emissions from the factory killed more than one worker.

Industrial discharge from companies and factories violates Article 71 of Environmental Law No. 4 of 1994, which defines specifications and standards that industrial establishments that are authorized to discharge polluting materials capable of analysis must abide by after treatment.

The case against TCI Sanmar

Ahmed Youssef, a resident of Port Said’s Emirati region adjacent to the TCI Sanmar factory, has filed many complaints against it since 2017, citing harmful emissions and discharge into Lake Manzala. 

He has also started an internet campaign to expose the firm’s environmental violations, and says local people suffer the most from the pollution. “Every day we wake up with a strong smell of raw chlorine, and there were several incidents of asphyxia among children in the area in 2017,” he says.

The fishermen in the Al-Qabouti area, however, have paid the highest price for pollution. In addition to the previous impact of fishery destruction, fishermen have documented the factory’s release of polluting materials into the waterway that connects Lake Manzala with the Suez Canal.

 In response, lawyer Ahmed Muhammad Amer filed another complaint against the factory, No. 333 of Judicial year 6, related to the factory’s hazard to citizens’ public health.

The court ruled on November 21, 2018 that it required the appointment of an environmental expert to inspect and report the extent to which industrial drainage from the facility meets the authorised limits under Egyptian environmental law.

According to Amer, the factory pollution affects not only the Al-Qabouti area and the Emirati neighbourhood, but the entire Port Said Governorate, as the resulting air pollution can harm other neighbourhoods and industrial drainage into Al-Qabouti Canal affects all fish eaters from the area.

His lawsuit against the factory is the first of its type in the region. He says the case is nearly successful and feels confident the court decision will condemn the business, based on the available evidence.

Climate Tracker contacted TCI Sanmar for comment through calls between october 2021 and December 2021. However, up to the publication of this report, the chemicals company did not send replies.

Fishermen struggle to work

Abbas Zakaria and his few remaining fellow fisherman in Al-Qabouti went to try fishing in the Ashtum Al-Jamil area (part of Lake Manzala), in the hope of finding fish that they could sell after industrial drainage eliminated their own – but the pollution preceded them, as strong waves carry it all the way there too.

“The lake was mocking us. Every day, I used to fish about 100kg. Now that there are no more fish, I must travel to another region far from Qabouti, which is also polluted but to a lesser degree,” Abbas tells us. He wonders out loud why anyone would choose this profession now, with all its difficulties, but does not wait for a response. “What a travesty.”

Every day, Abbas sees sewage flowing from factories. He hopes his children do not inherit the career that he and his brothers once adored. “I pray that my children and loved ones do not become fishermen one day.”

In a 2018 study of heavy metal contamination published in the Asian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Research, researchers Nabil Azaz and Mokhtar Bashiri collected water and sediment samples from the navigation channel and the industrial zone south of Port Said in the Al-Qabouti region. 

They concluded that the highest average concentration of heavy metals in water samples was clearly observed during the summer, and that firms in the industrial zone south of Port Said are to blame for the deteriorating circumstances.

The study shows that heavy metals detected in the aquatic environment in the Al-Qabouti area are hazardous, non-biodegradable and easily accumulated in living organisms, and that their presence has increased greatly due to industrial waste. Toxic heavy metals have an impact on the ecology, particularly bioaccumulation.

Parliamentary requests

In July 2019, Parliamentary Representative Khaled Abu Talib filed a briefing request, asking the Ministry of Environment to investigate the TCI Sanmar factory in the Port Said Industrial Zone and to take accountability for not enforcing environmental regulations properly. 

He pointed out that the chemical factory, along with five others, discharged industrial wastewater amounting to 1.5 million untreated cubic metres per day into Manzala Lake, endangering the fish.

The same request was made again on August 4, 2021, when Parliamentarian Hassan Ammar submitted a request for briefing to the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Environment over the pollution caused by the factory. 

Ammar pointed out that the factory exposes the residents of the Qabouti area to all kinds of environmental pollution, damaging their health, in addition to the frequent incidents of asphyxia among factory workers and its failure to meet occupational safety and security standards.

The lawmaker told Climate Tracker that the chemical factory affects approximately 40,000 families in the Qabouti area, the majority of whom work in the fishing profession.

According to the fifty-year-old fisherman Abbas Zakaria, the number of fish in the Al-Qabouti area has fallen dramatically, and sometimes there are none at all. Many types of fish and sea life have disappeared, including hashman, mullet, seabass, plaice and crab.

The Egyptian Mobilisation and Figures Authority’s annual bulletin of fish production statistics validates these claims: the volume of fish captured in the Al-Qabouti area has fallen dramatically.

ِAmmar request for briefing was discussed in Parliament in December 2021. The representative of the environment said during the session that there are violations From TCI Sanmar factory, and they have been monitored and dealt with by 80%, explaining that a plan has been taken to solve factory violations that began in 2020 and ends in 2023.

Pollution surrounds us

Al-Tamimi Abu Al-Magd has lived in Ashtum El-Gamil, Port Said, for sixty years, more than three-quarters of his life. He has witnessed its glory days, its decline and the attempts to change it. Born in Manzala in Dakahlia Governorate, he has been a fisherman since his youth.

Al-Tamimi travelled all around Egypt with his small boat, throwing nets into fresh and salty waters, but he found what he was seeking in the open sea of the magnificent Ashtum area, and this is where he set sail. 

His day begins at 2am when he goes out to catch fish, returning to sell them to merchants. He returns at 8am to patch and repair his nets.

But this place, the focal point of his existence, has been ruined by factory waste. “Pollution damaged the lake. The city suffers as a result of factory owners. It costs billions of dollars per year to repair garbage, but industries return and discard their waste,” he says.

The nets of the old fisherman come out loaded with about 10 kg of fish, but about 8kg are already dead. “The fish escape, because the water is like sewage. The fish that can escape to a more merciful place do so. For those who can’t, their fate will be death,” he added.

Al-Tamimi gets three pounds per kg of fish. His daily income is now only six pounds, which is equivalent to US$0.4.

Climate Tracker collected samples of water, soil and fish in the Al-Gamil and Al-Qabouti areas; the pollution rates in all samples exceeded the international permissible limits as well as the limits established by the Egyptian Environmental Law.

However, the Al-Qabouti area was more contaminated than the Al-Gamil area. Dr Khaled El-Moslehi, Professor of Marine Environment and sample analyst, explains that the latter is close to the open Mediterranean Sea, which renews the waters through the El-Gamil Bogaz.

Sample Analysis Results

According to Maha Ghanem, former Head of the Poison Centre at Alexandria Medical School, heavy metals are naturally occurring elements with a large atomic weight and a density at least five times that of water. 

They have an impact on both human health and the environment, with toxicity based upon a number of factors – dose, method of exposure, chemical species – as well as the age, gender, genetics and nutritional state of those exposed.

Arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury are the metals of most public health relevance, due to their high toxicity. These are systemic toxins that can damage many organs, even at low levels of exposure. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have both classed it as a human (known or probable) carcinogen.

Al-Tamimi, who has lost the majority of his companions to disease and pollution, is still clinging to the lake; he has no other source of income. 

The seventy-year-old fisherman’s weekly work ends on Thursday morning, when he travels to his family in a village in Manzala. He gives his wife a few pounds, barely enough for a day or two. Then he goes to meet his friends, former fishermen forced to retire due to pollution and disease.

Toxicity and disease

Malik Khader worked on Lake Manzala for almost 20 years. Despite being only 45 years old, he has been forced to retire due to renal failure. He has two dialysis sessions every week, paying enormous sums to treat the damage done by the lake’s pollution. Malik fears he will meet the fate of his uncle, also a fisherman, who suffered from renal failure and died in 2018.

Mohamed Abu El-Sadat, Malik’s neighbour, was a fisherman in El-Gamil until he was forced to retire in 2020 due to renal failure. He has two sons (12 and 15) and a daughter who is engaged, but he is unable to prepare her for her wedding due to having dialysis three times a week.

Al-Tamimi and Abbas confirm that they know at least ten fishermen who have suffered renal failure and other diseases as a result of exposure to contaminated wastewater. 

A study conducted by a research team confirms that the industrial and sanitation drainage in the lake is a direct cause of the high levels of toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which in turn may be a major cause of liver, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, musculoskeletal and skin conditions for fishermen.

One hundred fishermen working on Lake Manzala, along with one hundred working elsewhere, were given clinical examinations. The results reveal that the fishermen on Lake Manzala have far more problems with their heart, blood vessels, digestive system and urinary system, with evident hepatotoxicity compared to the other, healthy fishermen.

According to Dr Eman Abdel Moneim, Director of the Poison Centre, Faculty of Medicine, Cairo University, continuous exposure to industrial, sanitary or agricultural wastewater infects fishermen with diseases conveyed through contaminated water, such as cholera, giardiasis and typhoid. They may also contract pneumonia if the wastewater evaporates.

Al-Tamimi Abu Al-Magd completes his work in Al-Gamil, then heads to his village in Manzala to check on Malik and his other friends, who have been crippled by illness and forced to count their last days due to pollution.

Abbas Zakaria is still looking for another job. All he cares about now is finding work away from the lake, so that he doesn’t suffer the same fate as Malik and the other fishermen.

Investigation: Eman Mounir
Photography: Ali Zarai
Video: Chrouq Ghoniem

This publication was made possible through the Candid Journalism Grant 2021

Eman Mounir
Eman is an independent investigative journalist from Egypt. Keenly interested in scientific, environmental, and feminist stories, she’s received an award in New Media from the University of Bournemouth in the UK, and other award in scientific journalism from the German Goethe Institute. She’s currently nominated for the True Story Prize in Switzerland, and previously nominated for Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award. Eman studied Data Journalism with a 6-month diploma by ICFJ and ARIJ Network for Investigative Journalism. Currently, she is a fellow to ONE WORLD MEDIA foundation in United Kingdom.