1:32pm , Tuesday 19th January 2021

Sugar Factory Pollutes Egypt’s Nile River Spreads Death

8 February 2010

The Imam of the mosque says that on “Laylat Al Qadr” – the Night of Destiny: a sacred night for Muslims that falls on one of the last 10 nights of the holy month of Ramadan – Allah will lighten the load of those in distress. On that night, Hassan Ahmad Haddad, 70, really wished that something would happen on to dissipate his oppressive nightmare.He changed none of his daily rituals: He woke up his four children and together they headed to the nearby mosque for dawn prayers. They read the Quran until sunrise then, leaning on each other for support, they walked a short distance to the medical center. The father waited while his children had underwent their kidney dialysis; just a daily routine.The sense of helplessness deepened in Hassan as he watched his children writhe in pain from years of dialysis. The hours passed very slowly. His tension grew as a ferocious pain seized Ali, 38, his eldest and within minutes, Ali was dead in his arms. The father returned home to his wife with three children, and an officially stamped death certificate, pronouncing “Renal Failure” as the cause of death.Hassan leans on the crutches of his youngest son Ahmed and gazes towards the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company (ESIIC) in Hawamdiya, located on the western bank of the Nile and about 20 kilometers south of Cairo. The workers at one of its six factories in the area wash large metal containers with sulfuric acid which seeps, along with other industrial waste, into huge pipes and eventually drain into the Nile, at three different locations. The old man is almost certain that industrial waste from these factories, oozing into the river for more than a century, is the cause of his sons’ kidney failure and that of hundreds of this city’s residents. The facility is known locally as “The Factory of Poison and Honey”.According to Dr. Ali Abu Sdeira, Head of the Central Department of Regional Branches of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), there are 102 industrial facilities, perched on the Nile from Aswan to the Mediterranean Sea, an area more than a thousand miles long.  As many as one third of these facilities are in violation of Egyptian environmental standards. The EEAA represents the executive arm of the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA).Dr. Sdeira declined, however, to reveal the types of these facilities, their locations or the amount of pollution they emit, noting that he would be subject to questioning if he disclosed this information.
However, another ministry source confirmed that the ESIIC and the Tourah Cement Factory were among the most serious violators. These two state-owned installations are the only ones that dispose of industrial waste directly into the river, he said.An analysis of samples taken near the drain of the Tourah Cement Factory revealed that the levels of toxic chemicals are only slightly higher than those set by Egyptian environment regulations. So the attention of the writers of this investigation turned to the ESIIC.The Haddads live in Hawamdiya, a crowded city on the Nile that is home to 150,000 people. The incidence of renal failure in Hawamdiya is five times that of Oseem, a neighboring city that is home to 220,000 people and is therefore the larger city of the 6th of October Governorate.According to Dr. Abdulaziz Gouda, the director of Oseem Central Hospital, 15 cases have been treated at the hospital’s renal clinic in the past two years. In contrast, the Hawamdiya Public Hospital receives renal patients around the clock: more than 75 cases of renal failure in the same period.  The actual incidence rate may be even higher, but officials at ESIIC’s medical center in Hawamdiya, refuse to provide any statistics on their own patients.Hassan Haddad moved from Embabah district in the Giza Governorate to Hawamdiya 20 years ago.  His children fell victim to kidney disease one by one, and he himself was not spared. Haddad never had to see a doctor in the 40 years he spent as a car mechanic at the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI).  The old man is now on the verge of renal failure as Creatinine and Paulina Urea levels rise in his blood.Haddad wanted to have the drinking water tested, but his neighbours advised him to save his money. After all, he sold two stories of his house, which is practically all he owns, to cover the cost of medical treatment for his children.His children are all over 20 years old, but none of them have any hope of employment or starting a family.When Ali was still alive, Issam, who is 29 years old, used to ferry his three siblings Ali, Asmaa and Ahmed to and from the clinic on two wheelchairs his father bought. After the three are done with their dialysis, Issam returns to the clinic for his own dialysis. His energy is completely drained afterwards. He relies on the good will of others to take him home.  Asmaa, 32, died two weeks after this report was first published in Nov, 2009.A visit to the ESIIC medical center or the Central Hospital reveals the extent of the health disaster at hand. Renal clinics draw the most crowds. People start to line up for examinations hours before opening time.  Hagar, a woman in her twenties, can no longer stand, so she lays down on the floor, covering herself with the national newspaper. Two members of her family suffer from renal failure.  One of them developed kidney cancer. She thinks polluted drinking water is the cause.Yasser, 9, is already pale from the many dialysis sessions over the years. He lays his head down on his mother’s lap and awaits his turn. She stares silently at her little angel, removing strands of hair from his sweaty forehead, and comments in her simple village accent “It’s spreading through the town, infecting young and old.”“Erectile dysfunction, osteoporosis and a weakened immune system, leading to viral hepatitis, and kidney cancer” are all diseases related to renal Failure says Dr. Mustafa Abdul Gawwad, Director of the Central Hospital at Hawamdiya and he does not rule out drinking water as a primary suspect.Haddad’s wife, in her sixties, sits on her prayer mat hiding a wedding picture of her now dead first born son. She can’t even hope for a grandson to console her in her loss. Her two other sons are impotent.  “There is nothing harder on a mother than knowing that her son is impotent” she weeps and then adds “My son didn’t die a natural death, he was murdered by a drink of water.”Haddad covers the water faucet with a folded piece of gauze which his wife changes daily; a weak attempt to intercept contaminants.  The gauze turns black after 24 hours and a bronze halo forms at the periphery. A physician who has worked at the ESIIC medical centre for over five years identified the halo as heavy metal sediments.The physician- who wants to remain anonymous – thinks that the close proximity of the sugar factory to the water treatment plant is a likely cause of the spread of renal illness. Chemical compounds emitted from the facility reach the water treatment plant at very high concentrations and cannot be purified.  Moreover, alum and chlorine that are used in the water purification process have been proven to be hazardous and their use has been discontinued in many countries.Half a nautical mile south of the Sugar Company, a submerged pipe spews a red putrid liquid into the Nile.  Two men guard nearby on a decommissioned boat belonging to the company.  One of them made a call on his walkie-talkie and within minutes, security guards arrived on a speed boat to chase us away.The Sugar Company uses another trick to hide a second pipe. The main drainage pipe is displayed clearly and attracts attention away from the other hidden pipe which carries industrial waste.  The latter pipe line was pointed to us by a member of the Water Surface Police; it drains several meters inside the river, at a depth of two meters.Dr. Hatim Talima, assistant professor of chemistry at the American University in Cairo (AUC) supervised the analysis of samples taken from the Nile near the wastewater pipelines, and from locations further away.Dr. Mohamed Abbas, Chief Analyst at the Micro Analytical Center in Cairo University looked grim. In all of his 20 years in this field, he has never come across industrial waste samples that were this bad. He couldn’t believe that this is being pumped directly into the Nile.Analysis results revealed dangerous levels of acids, Iron, Phenol and Cyanide.  Phenol levels are 23,000 times more that those allowed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and by Egyptian Environmental law (Law 48 of 1982). Cyanide, known popularly as rat poison, was found in concentrations of one milligram per liter.  Legally it should be zero.  The results of central laboratories at the Ministry of Health also reveal high readings of Ammonia and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD).  Simply put, this water is “deadly,” according to Dr. Abbas.Under Law 48 of 1982, which sets the limits on pollutants in industrial waste, the results would indicate a health and environmental disaster.Pollutants from Industrial waste do not only contaminate drinking water but fish as well. Fish is a staple food at old man Hassan’s table. “You can’t live on the Nile bank, and not eat fish” he says.Salem Mansoor, a fisherman, claims that the fish around the ESIIC is different. Many who have eaten it complain of the taste and of abdominal pain afterwards. But this does not stop Mansoor from fishing in that region.Dr. Amro Adel, an ichthyologist at Cairo University, conducted some laboratory tests on fish samples from the area surrounding the ESIIC. High levels of Iron, Cyanide, Phenol and other heavy metals were detected in the liver, gills and skin of the fish.However it is the very high concentration of these chemicals in muscles, the edible part of the fish, that is the biggest cause for worry.  According to Dr. Mona Saad Zaki, Head of the Hydrobiology Department at the National Research Center “the presence of these elements at these levels, through regular consumption of contaminated fish for 3-5 years can cause tumors in the kidney and the liver, severe anemia, fetal deformity and mental retardation in children.”Analysis of the drinking water at Haddad’s house, located next to the Water Treatment Plant revealed Phenol levels 10 fold that set by the Ministry of Health, and nickel levels 1.5 times those allowed under Law number 458 in 2007.An official at the Water Treatment Plant, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Al Masry al-Youm that the plant is not equipped with filters for Phenol and other heavy elements or oils, and that its water purification is only limited to chlorine and alum.Dr. Magdi Allam, Head of the Arab Union for Youth and Environment, demanded that ESIIC install a Phenol treatment unit and pay damages to those affected. He further urged the President of the local council at Hawamdiya to use the results of Al-Masry Al-Youm investigative report to sue the ESIIC.According to Dr. Allam, “the high levels of BOD in the Nile is a result of carcinogenic chemicals resulting from the reaction between organic waste products from the sugar industry, and chlorine from the water treatment plant.”  Citing a recent World Bank report which puts Egypt’s losses resulting from diseases related to water pollution at US 3.5 billion.Dr. Allam defined the practices of the ESIIC as a threat to national security.  Dr. Allam maintains that the Ministry of Health is responsible for issuing and renewing the facility’s permits – after regularly testing its waste samples.Article 3 of law number 48 of 1982 which deals with the protection of the Nile River; obliges the Ministry of Health to conduct routine laboratory testing on samples of liquid waste from the facilities allowed to dump into the Nile. Now it has become imperative for the Ministry of Health to respond to these findings, especially in light of the ministry’s own unpublished study on the geographical distribution of renal failure cases across Egypt.After obtaining an official permit from the Ministry of Health to facilitate this investigative report, Dr. Hisham Al-Sheha, director general of hospitals declined to give an interview, and refused to comment both on the Ministry’s role and the unpublished study.Dr. Mawaheb Abdel Rahman, Chief Executive Officer of the EEAA at the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA) did not deny that the ESIIC was a serious environmental violator and added that several reports on the company have been filed over the last few years. The latest, dated July and carrying the number 5479, accuses the company’s management of illegal dumping and unsafe disposal of hazardous residues into the Nile.Dr. Ali Abu Sdeira, Head of the Central Department of Regional Branches of the EEAA shared with these two reporters the results of lab tests that were conducted at the ministry and which showed that wastewater from the ESIIC also contains Cadmium.Dr. Abu Sdeira, a chemical engineer reflected that both Cyanide and Cadmium are highly poisonous chemicals produced as a result of “Electroplating processes.” A field visit to the company confirmed the presence of a paint workshop in the Machinery and Equipment Factory owned by the ESIIC. That would explain the presence of toxic materials in high concentrations in wastewaters and fish in this region of the Nile.
To balance the picture, it was only fair to hear the ESIIC’s side of the story. Hassan Kamel Hassan, the company’s Chairman and Managing Director denied that his company was dumping illegal materials into the Nile. What was being disposed of was coolant liquids, he asserted.  He pointed out that the Ministry of Health conducts regular testing of the water, and has found nothing illegal.Article 89 of the Environmental Law amended in 2009, metes out fines of no more than LE 200,00 (the equivalent of US $36,000) to offenders who dump illegal substances into the Nile. Repeat offenders are liable for a fine and imprisonment.The Chairman stressed that he never received any legal notification of the violation reports filed by the MSEA. When confronted with the lab results, he stated that he had no idea what the source of the contaminant chemicals was. He pointed out that he spends most of his time at the company offices at Hawamdiya, and that he himself drinks tap water. He was quick to add, however, “I drink from the water that comes from the water treatment plant that belongs to the company; we of course have our own water treatment plant.  I never tried the water from the treatment plant that serves the city residents.”This investigation took four months to complete. During that time, Hassan Haddad never stopped asking for updates. “Have you given up?” we ask him.  “No, but I want to know who is responsible for what happened to my children” he replies.He dreams of a kidney transplant for one of his kids, and fears that he might watch them die one by one.  He wants one of them to be healthy so that he could help the others, because he has nothing to go on but his salary, and the prayers of a scarred mother whose tears have not dried.


This Investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and supervised by Amr Kahki.


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