Ghost towns in Egypt: fish farmers leave their homes after climate and pollution impacts

This investigation has found that the sewage released into the manzala lake does not meet the environmental standards established by Egyptian Environmental Law No. 9 of 2009 and its Executive Regulations. 
This investigation has found that the sewage released into the manzala lake does not meet the environmental standards established by Egyptian Environmental Law No. 9 of 2009 and its Executive Regulations. 

Brothers Ali and Hassanin Fayala will never forget September 9, 2021 in Egypt’s northeastern region of Shata (236km from Cairo). They awoke as usual and proceeded to their fish farm. When they arrived to feed their fish, they were floating motionless and swollen.

This had happened to the Fayala family before, particularly in the previous five years. The deaths were caused in part by climate change —particularly an extraordinary spike in temperature— but also by pollution from sewage stations.

After September’s incident, the family had to take a loan from the bank to purchase ‘seeds’, fish at a basic developmental stage. Over 15 months, they fed them two containers of food per day; each costing over 800 pounds (US$51). 

The Fayala family hoped production would compensate for their losses and allow them to pay back their bank debts and the rent they owed to the General Authority for Fish Resources Development of the Ministry of Agriculture. But the fish died with the family’s hopes.

The Fayala family is not the only one in this situation. Sewage from villages on the coast of Lake Manzala affects around 1,300 fish farms in Al-Khayyat, Ras Al-Bar, Al-Burj and Damietta, Salah Abu Gomaa, former head of the Damietta General Authority for Fish Resources Development told Climate Tracker.

For some people, this left them with no option but to leave. The nearby village of Port Said —which also depends on the health of Lake Manzala— saw a dramatic decrease in population after fishing jobs became scarce. The village went from 100.000 people in 2010 to around 45.000 in 2021.

Impacts were from both human intervention and increasing temperatures. For example, due to the Ministry of Environment’s lax regulation, sewage tends to infiltrate the fish farms, killing them and increasing indebtedness.

This investigation has found that the sewage released into the manzala lake does not meet the environmental standards established by Egyptian Environmental Law No. 9 of 2009 and its Executive Regulations. 

The crisis is exacerbated by high levels of pollution, above international standards. Climate Tracker collected marine organisms from fish farms and soil and water samples from various areas and subjected them to laboratory examination, which confirmed that the fish were unfit for human consumption, threatening fish farmers with material loss and residents with disease.

Polluted waters

236km from Cairo, the Egyptian capital, Damietta Governorate is located in the country’s Northeast with a population of more than one and a half million people, according to the Egyptian Mobilisation and Statistics Authority.

Although a large portion of the local population depends on Lake Mazala, factories and drainages have heavily polluted its waters for decades.

The fish farms rented by the Fayala family and their neighbours follow the Diba Triangle, the northern part of the Lake Manzala borders. The triangle is completely within Damietta Governorate; its western border is the 15km Damietta-Ezbet Al-Burj road, the base of the triangle, and its northern border is the old Damietta-Port Said coastal road on the Mediterranean coast.

According to the General Authority for Fish Resources Development, only marine fish are cultivated in the Diba Triangle: seabass, waqar, hanchan, shrimp and mullet.

The authority also highlights in their website that the Diba Triangle area of Damietta suffers from pollution caused by untreated sewage from the inefficient Elkhayatta station, as well as household waste in the Tabbal and Al-Ratmah areas and parts of Ezbet Al-Burj, in addition to pollution caused by agricultural drainage laden with pesticides from the Sheikh Dergham area.

Salah Abu Gomaa, former head of the Damietta General Authority for Fish Resources Development, adds that there are other sources of pollution, such as industrial wastewater from the port of Damietta and from companies in the Damietta industrial zone. Pollution enters the al-Bat canal and then Al-Ratmah, then drainage mixed with marine water enters the irrigation process for fish farms.

fish farmers

Evidence of pollution was verified by a complaint against the sewage plant submitted in December 2017 by a fish farm tenant in Ezbet Al-Burj, a copy of which was obtained by Climate Tracker. 

At the time, the head of Damietta’s Environment and Water Bodies Police requested that a specialist be assigned to the Environmental Affairs Department to compile an inspection report on the station’s effluent. According to the report, all treatment phases in the Ezbet Al-Burj plant have been fully halted. This means wastewater enters the plant and proceeds from one phase to the next until it reaches the outflow (Lake Manzala), without ever having been treated.

This is a violation of the Environment Law and its Executive Regulations, which compel establishments with permission to discharge polluting materials to treat them first. The drainage shall be halted administratively.

The facility’s licence could get revoked if treatment is not completed within a month, or if analysis proves that the continuation of the drainage would cause serious damage to the aquatic environment.

Climate Tracker obtained a copy of a report issued by the Preventive Medicine Laboratory in Damietta Governorate in 2018. It reveals that the analysis samples conducted by the governorate’s Environmental Health Department team of the sewage and water treatment plant in Ezbet Al-Burj in Damietta do not comply with Egyptian environmental law and executive regulations. 

This was due to the high amount of toxic chemicals: biological oxygen absorbed and chemical oxygen consumed, with oils and greases, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide all above the limits allowed by the Ministry of Environment to be discharged into water bodies.

 It is not permitted to drain effluent into the marine environment unless it is at least 500m from the shoreline. It is also not permitted to drain into fishing regions, bathing areas or natural reserves, in order to preserve an area’s economic or scenic value. Egypt’s fourth environmental law, enacted in 1994, is known as the Egyptian Environmental Law No. 4. 

fish farmers

Salah Abu Gomaa does not deny the Fisheries Authority’s role in previous years in terms of purification and refining operations to remove pollution from the waterways – the Al-Ratmah, Al-Sobara and Al-Bat canals – but confirms that, despite all these efforts, pollution has still not stopped, as sewage stations have continued to dump untreated water into the water channels.

Human factors have combined with natural factors such as high temperatures to double the environmental impact. Abu Gomaa says that Damietta has cases of mass fish death every year. “The death process is colossal. Fish that farmers have laboured over for more than 20 months easily die.”

According to a recent study on the consequences of climate change on Lake Manzala, increase in water temperatures may cause changes in the lake’s ecosystem and fish productivity. 

Furthermore, changes in the salinity of the lake’s water may have significant environmental consequences for the lake and fisheries, and the lake may become unsuitable for spawning many types of fish in the future.

According to a World Bank report, temperatures in Egypt rose by approximately 0.1° C a decade from 1901 to 2013. It predicts a 3% annual increase in average temperature in the upcoming years, which would have a severe impact on marine creatures. 

Fish may be particularly vulnerable to temperature variations caused by climate change, and therefore severe and growing mortality is projected when temperatures rise at an unprecedented rate.

Sewage fish

Hossam Wafdy, leader of the fishermen in Ezbet Al-Burj in Damietta, claims that even if sewage pollution does not kill fish, it has a significant impact on the production process and fish size. 

He believes that the length of a single production cycle on Damietta’s fish farms is the most serious issue. The area is only suitable for the cultivation of high-cost marine fish, which take 20 to 30 months to grow. During this period, fish farmers incur significant expenses.

According to Abu Gomaa, the cost of farming fish is divided into the costs of seed and fodder, petroleum materials used by the farmer in the machine used to raise water, farm labour, and finally rent, which has increased fourfold in recent years. 

“After all of these costs, the farmer loses both his fish and his money owing to a lack of sewage treatment and extreme hot temperatures. If not, sewage pollution causes a decrease in the size of the fish,” Gomaa says.

The fish Shata breeders raise have decreased in weight from 500g to 150-200g. The effects of pollution mean that two fish per kg has become four or five fish per kg, a big loss for the fish farmers.

In his early years on the farm, Ali Fayala and his father used to get four tons of fish an acre; now they get 50-80kg, at around three fish per kg.  Ali and younger brother Hassanin, along with four other brothers, inherited the 44-acre farm from their father. They know no other profession.

“I was six years old when my older brother started working on the farm. My father used to forbid me from going to learn it with him, but I used to memorise the route to the farm and go to help my father and brother because I enjoy watching the fish grow in front of my eyes every day,” Hassanin recalled.

 Today, though, he is dissatisfied with the state of the farm. “I will never forgive myself for failing to preserve my father’s legacy,” he laments.

According to Egyptian Mobilisation and Statistics Authority fish production statistics,  Damietta fish farm production decreased to 256,667 tons in 2019, compared to 264,599 tons in 2018, even though the number of farms increased from 42,679 to 62,701, including both private and government farms.

Wastewater infects fish with viral, bacterial and fungal diseases and causes malignant tumours, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Dr Mahmoud Khairy, a Professor of Fish Farming at Al-Azhar University, states that fish contamination has varying degrees of severity. It harms fish by killing them, slowing their growth or exposing them to numerous infections, and as a result farmers lose a lot of money and production.

As for the impact on humans, it exposes them to a variety of diseases. Some pollutants (heavy metals) do not die when fish are cooked, producing a variety of ailments in the human body. As a result, the World Health Organisation has specified limits for heavy metals found in fish, beyond which they are unsafe for human consumption.

The investigator tested fish, water and soil samples at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries. These samples were collected in the area surrounding the sewage stations through which farms are irrigated, the water in which the fish live on the Al-Fayala farm, and samples of other farm soil and fish.

Findings reveal that the percentage of harmful heavy metals in water, soil and fish exceed the permissible limits for human consumption, according to WHO and EU guidelines.

Sample Analysis Results

Khaled Al-Maslihi, Professor of Marine Sciences and Head of Laboratory at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, Suez Canal Branch, conducted the analysis and confirmed that Damietta’s sewage drains exceed environmental regulations. 

He recognises the risk of eating and trading these fish, since analysis proves they live in a poisonous environment. The heavy metals found in high concentrations in this water and these fish – iron, cadmium, nickel, phosphate, manganese – will afflict fish, their consumers and fish farm workers with a variety of ailments.

Exports restricted 

Dr Mohamed Mabrouk, another Professor of Fish Farming at Al-Azhar University, explains that some countries refuse to import fish from Egypt due to pollution and dangerous heavy metal concentrations in fish tissues and muscles, and have placed Egypt on a blacklist. 

The Fishing and Marine Biology Law No. 124 of 1983 criminalises use of the Nile for fish farming, even if the fish are raised in freshwater. “How can a country trust another if its law requires fish farm owners to use sewage water to irrigate their fish farms?” he asked.

Egypt buys twice as much as it exports to other countries. According to an examination of data published by the Official Mobilisation and Statistics Agency between 2014 and 2019, the amount of exports increased marginally, hitting 29,453 tonnes in 2014 and 35,584 tonnes in 2019. 

Imports, on the other hand, more than doubled within the same time period. They were 244,280 tonnes in 2014, and 55,507 tonnes in 2019.

2 Chart: Infographic: Egypt’s fish exports and imports

The Egyptian Veterinary Quarantine No. 667 of 2021 issued an administrative decision on November 27, 2021, prohibiting Egypt from exporting fish to EU countries until health certificates accompanying the exported fish are issued, in order to implement the required recommendations of the European Commission. 

This decision was made after the EU issued observations regarding the inability of fish in Egypt to meet EU criteria. Even Plenipotentiary Minister Nasser Hamed, Director of the Commercial Representation Authority’s EU Department, admits these comments could lead to the issuance of a ruling prohibiting the import of fish from Egypt.

According to Maged Al-Badrawi, Head of the Fish Division at the Chambers of Commerce in Damietta Governorate, the grounds for stopping exports to Europe could be due to contamination of fish caused by drainage, as European countries strictly adhere to limits. 

“Only a few species, such as seabream, seabass and toubar, which are cultivated in the Shata region, are sold to European countries. The Arab countries import the lowest-quality species from Egypt, such as tilapia and mullet,” Al-Badrawi said.

We have to leave

Al Fayala’s issues do not appear close to being resolved. The rent on their fish farm has increased five-fold. The Prime Minister decided in 2018 to terminate the leases of 1,300 fish farms in the area, affecting more than 300,000 people.

Fish farm owners had little choice but to finish the work on their farms. These were their only source of income, but they barely got through the first shock before being shocked by an increase in the rent per acre from 500 pounds to 3,000 pounds. 

Farmers in the Diba Triangle now owe the General Authority for Fish Resources Development more than 130 million pounds.

“We have a three-year debt to the fisheries, which is equivalent to 132,000 pounds every year. I’m not sure how we’ll be able to pay this amount, and our fish are dying on a daily basis as a result of pollution,” Hassanin Fayala says.

Salah Abu Gomaa criticises the decision to raise the rent as unreasonable and unfair to fish farmers in Damietta, claiming that “the matter was imposed by force and without any investigation”.

 Khaled Ashour, the lawyer for the affected farm owners, agrees, stating that more than 95% of Damietta farm owners owe the General Authority large sums that they are unable to pay. He argues that due to pollution, as well as other issues such as high diesel and power prices, the rent does not correspond to income and material return.

The lawyer further says that these farms were constructed under Law No.124 of 1983, which gives citizens the right to build fish farms on the shores of Lake Manzala in exchange for a usufruct rent. 

“These lands were dry and not suitable for free fishing, so the owners of the farms reconstructed them tens of years ago.” He adds that while it is normal to raise rent, to do so fivefold at once is wrong “because these people are basically suffering more”.

Many tenants have decided to cease working and give up their farm. The General Authority, however, insists that they pay their debt before handing over the farms, or face imprisonment.

One of these tenants is Mohamed Naim. He gave up his father’s fish farm in the Sahel region of Shata in August last year, after settling debts that totalled 250,000 pounds (about $15,000). 

To do so, his mother and sister sold their ‘gold’ to ensure that no one in the family would be imprisoned. The water there has a high salinity of 70 parts per thousand, unsuitable for fish farming, and Naim was unable to complete his father’s project after the rent per acre rose fourfold.

Naim documented the family’s evacuation of the farm by filming and taking photos, fearful that the authorities would later seek payment for other debts he owed.

Diaa El-Din Daoud, a Parliamentary Representative, calls the increase in rent ludicrous, based as it is on location, closeness to the Mediterranean and pollution. He sees it as both illogical and unfair. For example, Mohammed Naim’s polluted farm had its rent increased from 300 pounds to 2,500 pounds, a decision that made the poor poorer and the rich richer.

Maged Al-Badrawi, Head of the Fish Division at the Chambers of Commerce in Damietta Governorate, told the investigator that the fish farms in Shata are the cleanest in the country because pollution is limited to three or four sewage stations, fewer than in other governorates.

 He rejects pollution as a cause of fish death, saying instead that the cause is farmers’ ignorance – he claims that they lack the needed experience, citing the example of a greedy fish breeder growing 5 tons of fish in a basin that can only hold 1 ton, leading to the fish dying.

His response will not satisfy Hassanin Fayala’s hunger or save his fish from a dreadful end. While he owes more than half a million pounds to the General Authority, his brother Ali stands in the centre of their fish farm, doling out fish medicine in an attempt to rescue them. 

All his attempts fail, particularly on a sweltering summer day which is too much for fish that are already suffocating. Their bodies float up to the surface one by one.

Check out Part 2 of this investigative story.

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.