The Design Observer Group

Posted 07.12.12

Karen Piper

Revolution of the Thirsty

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]

"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.” 

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]

Tahrir Square, Egyptian Revolution
January 25, 2011, in Tahrir Square, Cairo. [Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy]

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.

As in many far-flung exurbs, life in Allegria is necessarily self-contained. Women are encouraged to walk to the upscale shopping and restaurants in the private city of Westown (also owned by SODIC) or take the free shuttle to Designopolis (ditto) to buy home furnishings. On weekends, families can visit one of the nearby amusement parks; DreamPark — designed by the company that created both the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Universal Studios in Los Angeles — provides relief from the desert heat with water-themed entertainments, including a dolphin show, jungle cruise and log-chute rides. When the children are old enough, they can enroll in the prestigious British International School, which recently moved to Allegria from downtown Cairo.

Top: Promotion for Westown Cairo, a private development adjacent to Allegria. [Image by SODIC] Bottom: The Polygon, Westown Cairo. [Image by Wilkinson Eyre Architects for SODIC]

Egypt’s boom in luxury suburbs began in the 1990s with the first wave of privatization of government agencies and public land. Vast swaths of desert were sold at bargain prices to friends and relatives of President Mubarak, who also received guarantees of infrastructure like roads, electricity and water lines. [11] These insider deals led to outrageous claims of water rights, like the assurance of unlimited fossil groundwater to a Saudi prince who wanted to grow food in the Sahara. International companies vied for contracts to build water treatment facilities. To be sure, life in the Saharan suburbia was not always as idyllic as advertised; developers of gated communities typically promised reverse osmosis filtration, but many found it cheaper to hook up to municipal water lines — and notoriously unreliable state-run water treatment plants — than to build dedicated facilities. [12] Still, residents paying up to $350 monthly in maintenance and utility fees expected clean water to flow freely when they turned on the tap, and more often than not it did. A recent study of two Cairo suburbs found that 69 percent of residents in Sixth of October City and 42 percent in New Cairo had tap water available at all times. [13]

All the while, as water was flowing and taxpayer money shifting to the exurban oases, millions of residents of old Cairo struggled with little access to sanitary facilities. The ostentatious water wealth that made possible the "greener side of life" was becoming a symbol of government corruption. The Revolution of the Thirsty was gathering strength.

Rooftop sorting of garbage and recyclable materials in Manshiyet Nasir, Cairo. [Photo by Joseph Hill]

Old Cairo
Cairo is an extraordinarily congested metropolis, with twice the density of Manhattan, mainly because of its growing informal districts. Unlike some of the tin-and-plywood squatter settlements in some African cities, informal Cairo is a visually coherent environment of four- and five-story red-brick buildings, many with reinforcing bars jutting from the roof, awaiting the next floor. The planned and unplanned areas of the city are both crowded with markets and cafés; but in informal areas the under-the-table economy is dominant, and infrastructure must be bartered for and self-built because it is usually not provided by municipal authorities. In some neighborhoods, community-built roads are so narrow they can’t accommodate emergency traffic, only tuk-tuk taxis. Plumbing services range from a trench in the road to a hole in the ground, both emptied by sewage trucks that sometimes discharge their waste into the Nile canals from which people draw their drinking water when the tap runs dry. [14]

In the informal area of Manshiyat Naser — known as “Garbage City” because its economy is based on garbage collection — an estimated one million people live in just four and a half square miles, making it one of the most densely populated districts in Africa. [15] Here less than 15 percent of clean water needs are met by the municipality; most residents depend upon “hundreds of small private wells which draw from contaminated shallow aquifers” fed by the Nile. [16] Analyzing the area’s water supply, an NGO found that 75 percent of the samples “did not meet the minimum acceptable standards for drinking water in Egypt.” Yet because districts like Manshiyat Naser are extra-legal, residents can’t demand better infrastructure. They collect water in jerrycans, dig holes for toilets, connect to electricity illegally. [17] One resident complained: “Can you tell me why those people over there [in the formal areas] get better streets, better water, and better everything than us? Are they worth more?” [18] And another: “If a pipe bursts in [an upscale neighborhood] it’s fixed the same day. When pipes burst here, we go a week without water. Officials consider it a blessing — an opportunity to sell our water share to one of their cronies.” [19]

Like many Manshiyat Naser residents, Umm Amr works as a zabbaleen, or trash collector, sorting during the day the trash that her husband brings home at night; the trash is then packaged and sold for recycling, providing the family’s main source of income. As described in a poignant article by journalist Julia Gerlach, Umm, who is in her thirties, lives in a tiny room on the ground floor of an old house where she and her daughter sleep on the floor. Her husband sleeps on a bench; her two sons have the best accommodations — the one bed in the house. All the families in her three-story building share one bathroom, and Umm gets water from a neighbor across the street. Some days she simply goes without. “We wanted to build water pipes,” she says, “but they said we shouldn’t because the house is too old and the walls are rotten. The water would [cause] the house to collapse.” [20]

Manshiyet Nasir, “Garbage City,” Cairo. [Photo by Geson Rydén]

In 2008, Umm Amr’s problems became more pressing when rockslides killed at least 199 people and injured 55 others in Manshiyat Naser, due to untreated sewage soaking into the cliffs above her house. Afterward the national government designated certain areas as “unsafe” and required residents to relocate to a housing project 20 miles west of Cairo. [21] Once there, the lucky ones got jobs as housekeepers or landscapers at places like Allegria, but others had no employment or income in the suburbs and found that there was no public transportation back to the city. As a result some residents defied the relocation order, provoking a swift and ruthless official response; in an extreme case, a bulldozer was driven into a house in Manshiyat Naser with the family still inside. [22]

The story of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution is in many ways the story of Manshiyat Naser writ large. By the summer of 2010, in neighborhoods across Cairo, frustration with the lack of civic infrastructure, the scarce water and poor sanitation, had already begun to boil over. But revolutions do not happen unless people are capable of organizing; and by this point millions of Cairenes in extra-legal communities had amassed decades of experience in self-organization. Urban planner Kareem Ibrahim has described the situation: “Basically, there is no urban planning aside from what people, primarily lower socioeconomic classes, have informally taken upon themselves to address. ... It’s as if people have accepted that they’re not really citizens of a country that has responsibilities towards them.” [23] During the “Friday of Anger" protests on January 28, 2011, Manshiyat Naser residents set the neighborhood authority office and local police stations on fire; both groups had been responsible for the mass evictions. Families then occupied the empty government buildings until they were evicted by riot police. [24] Mini-revolutions like this occurred around the country but were rarely televised or even tweeted.

Yet even as revolutionary fervor was intensifying, and right up to the final days of the Mubarak regime, international investors and the World Bank were lauding the success of Egypt’s privatization program. As a Forbes advertorial sponsored by major banks and developers had declared: “Despite the global economic crisis in 2009, Egypt managed to sustain a 4.7% growth in GDP — an enviable rate for most countries — largely due to strong growth fundamentals [and] effective market reforms.” The market reforms — that is, the privatization programs — had indeed raised the country’s GDP, but only by creating an enormous real estate and water speculation bubble for those with the right connections. In 2010, the World Bank praised Egypt as “among the world’s ten most active reformers,” citing “impressive poverty reduction” and “rapid economic growth.” The Bank promised to continue supporting “Egypt’s reforms in the water supply and sanitation sector,” including its policy of cost recovery and privatization. [25] Then, in January 2011, the nation rose up, and many wondered how the World Bank could have gotten it so wrong. [26]

Top: A water tower is among the first buildings in a suburban Cairo development in 2006. [Photo by Lars Ploughmann] Bottom: Suburban construction in late 2011. [Photo by Geson Rydén]

Post-Revolution Water
After the early success of the revolution in the winter of 2011, in the heady days after Mubarak's resignation, former government officials and land developers were brought up before the interim authorities to answer for their allegedly corrupt privatization deals. Magdy Rasekh, the founder and former chair of SODIC — and the father-in-law of Hosni Mubarak’s elder son — fled the country to avoid arrest. He was tried in absentia and convicted this spring of illegally seizing public lands, and sentenced to five years hard labor and a $330 million fine, along with Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime housing minister. Another developer of a gated community was sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to The National, “Thousands of corruption allegations have surfaced and some of the country’s best-known businessmen have gone on trial.” Mubarak himself was accused of receiving direct kickbacks from developers as well as investments in the new suburban developments, and his assets — by some estimates as much as $70 billion — were frozen as Egypt tried to track down the sources of his wealth.

Today, as corruption charges progress through the courts, market analysts worldwide are watching closely. The looming question is whether or not the land and water requisitioned to create projects like Allegria will be returned to the government and re-nationalized. Most foreign financial analysts remain certain that this will not happen. According to Dubai analyst Ankur Khetawat, “We don’t think the government will take all the land back. They will prefer to settle because it’s all about money at the end of the day.” [27] The consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, headquartered in California, has predicted that private water companies, which made $1.35 billion in Egypt in 2010, would earn double that figure by 2015; as the firm's report concluded: “The water scarcity in Egypt is one of the most critical in the region ... This has created a lot of opportunities for development.” [28]

Meanwhile, the World Bank, along with the International Monetary Fund, has maintained a largely business-as-usual attitude toward the interim government, offering 4.5 billion dollars in loans over two years to aid in “recovery.” According to the World Bank, “About two billion dollars in loans would be linked to progress in government reforms,” including privatization. [29] In response, several dozen civil society groups in Egypt released a statement claiming that “IMF and World Bank policies had helped to facilitate the oppressive regimes in the region,” and demanding instead a “people-led process of development." [30]

New campus of the American University in Cairo, in New Cairo. [Photo by Lorenz Khazaleh]

The British geographer James Duncan has described the colonial city as "a political tract written in space and carved in stone. The landscape was part of the practice of power.” [31] Today the green and gated suburbs of Cairo have become a political tract for the neoliberalism that undergirds the growing power of a global elite (never mind the corruption involved in their development). They are products of the corporatized and privatized paradigm that has dominated Egypt for many years; there in the desert the market logic is made manifest in extravagant and thirsty communities of air-conditioned villas and velvety lawns — in the promise that money can buy all the water in the world.

More than a year after the revolution, downtown Cairo’s water is still flowing to the suburbs, and along with it the life of the capital. At the new campus of the American University in Cairo, in the suburb of New Cairo, there are 27 fountains and "water features"; meanwhile, at the old campus in Tahrir Square, the library was recently set on fire, revolutionary graffiti covers the walls, and week-long skirmishes sometimes break out between rioters and police. [32] All the while Allegria's profits are climbing, seemingly unassailable, after taking a brief dive in response to the fall of the Mubarak government. On the first anniversary of the revolution, Allegria announced: “To commemorate 25th January, we will offer 50% green fees.” That month SODIC signed new real estate development contracts worth $36 million, and share prices doubled within six weeks.