“Revolution of the Thirsty”. Egypt and the Privatization of Water

Karen Piper

“Welcome to the Greener Side of Life” beckoned the billboard on Cairo’s Ring Road, which showed a man in a jaunty hat teeing off on a verdant golf course flowing into the horizon. I was stuck in traffic, breathing that mix of Saharan dust and pollution also known as “air,” so I could see the appeal. Somewhere outside the city, in a gated community called Allegria – Italian for “cheerfulness” – a greener life awaited.

“Over 80% of Allegria’s land is dedicated to green and public spaces,” boasts the developer’s brochure, “meaning you’ll never lose the peace and tranquility which goes hand in hand with outdoor living.”

Top: Promotional image for Allegria, a gated community in Sheikh Zayed City, a suburb of Cairo, Egypt. [Image by SODIC]

Bottom: Neighborhood in Cairo. [Photo by Brandon Atkinson]

It was a scorching hot summer, several months before the Egyptian revolution. Beneath the expressway sprawled the informal settlements where an estimated 60 percent of metropolitan Cairo’s 18 million residents live. [1] Some were using billboard poles to keep the brick structures from collapsing. Many did not have running water, and those who did found the taps drying up as water was diverted to the lavishly landscaped suburban developments with names like Allegria, Dreamland, Beverly Hills, Swan Lake, Utopia – a diversion that was straining the capacity of state-run water distribution networks and waste treatment plants. [2]

When Tahrir Square erupted in the winter of 2011, the international news media proclaimed a “social media revolution” spurred by pro-democracy Egyptians seeking to overthrow the repressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak. [3] To a large extent unreported was the fact that the country was also in a water crisis, having dropped below the globally recognized “water poverty” line of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, down to 700 cubic meters per person. [4] It is no exaggeration to say that the January 25 Revolution was not just a revolution of the disenfranchised; it was also what some have called a “Revolution of the Thirsty.” [5] In a land almost without rain, the Nile River supplies 97 percent of renewable water resources, and these days an increasing share of that water is being directed to the posh suburban compounds – where many of Egypt’s political elite lives – to support that “greener side of life.” Meanwhile, in the years before the revolution, the state water utilities had dramatically hiked rates for residents in downtown Cairo, where some 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. [6]

Later that year, back home in the Midwest, as images of the uprising filled my television screen, I was surprised that commentators seemed unaware of the water crisis, and of the global geopolitical pressures that had made the crisis all but certain. The American media focused mainly on internal corruption and oppression. They did not report on the role of the international superpowers in influencing the Mubarak regime to privatize the country’s public land and water; they did not report, for instance, that since the 1990s the World Bank has argued that privatization enhances “efficiency” and has mandated the policy as a condition for making loans; and that in 2004 this mandate led the Egyptian government to privatize its water utilities, transforming them into corporations which were required to operate at a profit, and which thus began to practice “full cost recovery,” passing along the cost of new infrastructure through rate increases. [7]

Within months of privatization, the price of water doubled in some areas of the capital, and citizens started to protest. At one demonstration in northern Cairo, in 2005, “angry residents chased bill collectors down the streets.” [8] Those who could not afford the new rates had little choice but to go to the city’s outskirts to collect water from the dirty Nile River canals. [9] In 2007, protestors in the Nile Delta blocked the main coastal road after the regional water company diverted water from farming and fishing towns to affluent resort communities. “The authorities sent riot police to put down these ‘disturbances,’” wrote Philip Marfleet, a professor at the University of East London, even as “water flowed uninterrupted to the gated communities, and to country clubs and upmarket resorts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.” [10] In the next few years such demonstrations only grew in intensity. As activist Abdel Mawla Ismail has noted, “Thirst protests or intifadas, as some people have called them, started to represent a new path for a social movement.” From this path the revolution that consumed the nation in 2011 seems inevitable. People can live in poverty for a long time; they cannot live without water.

Cairo (center) and the Nile River Valley. [Satellite image by NASA]

Golf City

To understand the growing inequity of water access in Egypt, let’s return again to the “Greener Side of Life.” Established in 2007, Allegria is one of dozens of gated suburbs that have sprouted in the Sahara in the past decade. Created by the Sixth of October Development and Investment Company (SODIC) – the name recalls a victorious battle in the Yom Kippur War – Allegria is a cosmopolitan community organized around golf and swimming. It boasts a “happier and healthier lifestyle” and proudly advertises a Greg Norman Signature golf course with 18 holes and “views of the Great Pyramids of Giza.” Prospective buyers can choose among 30 villa plans, all designed by a renowned international architect. Each villa or apartment complex has its own private pool and gardens. Four corporations manage upkeep of the landscape alone.

Golf is not a new sport in Egypt – it was introduced in 1882, when the British colonial rulers built the Gezira Sporting Club – but it has gained wide popularity only in the last decade as developers began to promote the “golf holiday” to foreign tourists. Since then it has swept the Saharan suburbs, becoming a status symbol signifying the ability to conduct business anywhere in the world as long as there’s a good fairway. In Egypt, learning to golf is now seen as a necessary step toward joining the global elite. Allegria capitalizes on the mystique, offering workshops and posting daily golf quizzes on its Facebook page. It hosts endless golf tournaments and themed parties, like “Allegria Basil Ladies Day,” where, for around $150, women receive a welcoming basil drink, an “Italian Basil Menu” lunch, and a round of golf enhanced with “basil-scented face towels.” At the annual BMW tournament, new cars are displayed around the fairways and available for test drives.

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