Sanitation has seen tremendous changes and developments in Egypt throughout history
Egypt is not only considered as the cradle of human civilisation, it also has one of the earliest records of sanitation and sewage treatment systems. The ancient Egyptian civilisation sported a societal consciousness towards proper sanitation and hygiene along with its rich culture and traditions. Sanitation has immensely evolved throughout Egypt’s history. Here we have a look at the sanitation landscape of this land.
Sanitation in Ancient Egypt
Proper sanitation is an important factor in any city in order to address the problems of health. These issues were also important in the ancient world. The ancient Egyptians practiced sanitation, but in the widest sense of the word as modern technologies were not available to them. The degree of sanitation available to certain individuals varied according to their social status.
Where did ancient Egyptians relieve themselves? If they had the means, bathrooms were built right in their homes. There is evidence that in the New Kingdom, the gentry had small bathrooms in their homes. In the larger homes, next to the master bedroom, there was a bathroom that consisted of a shallow stone tub that the person stood in and had water poured over him. There is no evidence that the common people had bathrooms in their homes.
In ancient Egypt, it was the responsibility of each household to dispose off their garbage at the communal dump - the irrigation canals. As a result, these dump canals were breeding grounds for vermin and disease. Some homes in the cities may have had trays of earth for drainage and disposal of waste. For the most part, however, ancient Egyptians simply dumped their waste in canals or open fields.
In Ancient Egypt, the Egyptians’ sanitation was very good. However, they did have some problems, which were challenging to solve as they had very different technology, compared to us today. No one in Ancient Egypt understood the meaning of sanitation or how important it was. They didn’t know that they had to wash their hands after killing animals, going bathroom, before dealing with food, and many other things involving bacteria, dirt and germs. The cause of many deaths was unknown to doctors because they didn’t know of the bacteria and germs that could be fatal to the human body.
Before bathrooms inside houses were built, they had public facilities.. In Ancient Egypt, they made a vast improvement in the advancement in technology, which was the building of bathrooms in houses. Some were big and some were small, this would depend on how high up you were in the hierarchy. If you were ranked higher up, you would have more availability to sanitation. In the bathrooms, there usually was a shallow stone tub, a person would stand in the stone tub and have a bucket of water poured over him. This was to wash the dirt off them.
In ancient Egypt, each household had the responsibility, which was to dispose their own garbage, at the communal dump, which was the irrigation canals. This would cause the dump canals to be breeding grounds for vermin and disease. In some homes, they would have trays of earth for drainage and to dispose off waste. However, Ancient Egyptians simply dumped their waste in canals or in open fields. As water is an important part of any sanitation process, the Ancient Egyptians used the water and force of the Nile River to flush out the irrigation systems.
Groups of women would gather water for individual homes from the river or canal, while the men worked in groups doing the laundry. This was unhygienic because the canals and rivers were also used for bathing purposes.
The sanitation methods of the ancient Egyptians may seem crude when compared to the modern conveniences available in the 21st century. They did have what appears to be a workable, viable sanitation system.
Modern Day Toilets In Egypt
Flushing System in Egyptian toilets
Flushing toilets were a luxury at first and they did not become common until the late 19th century. Also popular in the 19th century were earth closets. An earth closet was a box of granulated clay over a pan. When you pulled lever clay covered the contents of the pan. In rural areas flushing lavatories did not replace earth closets until the early 20th century.
Egyptian toilets tend to be pretty minimal. Unless you’re in a place catering to western tourists, it’s all squat toilets instead of raised commode seats, and water instead of paper. Done right, this can make for a very clean toilet. Of course, in Egypt, many things are not done right.
Although you will find both ‘squat’ and ‘sit down’ toilets in operation in Egypt, it is the western style ‘sit down’ toilet that is prevalent.
However, in most cases, toilets in Egypt have been adapted and installed with one of the following:
• A metal tube in the bowel which takes aim at the user’s rectum. A tap to the side of the seat releases a stream of water of varying ferocity from the tube.
• A small showerhead on a rope hanging to one side of the loo (as shown in the image). The user can take this to aim at the desired area and compress a trigger to release a jet stream of water
Both of these modifications are intended to be used in conjunction with the left hand (hence Egyptians always eat and shake with the right) for the purpose of cleaning oneself after a visit. As such they are not built to take paper, which will cause immediate blocking. All paper is to be placed into the bins provided.
Public toilets in Egypt will usually be managed by an attendant who should keep them clean and hand you paper when you enter. A small ‘backsheesh’ is required for these services.
Essential items to bring with you for each toilet visit include the following:
Paper – Attendants (if there is one) will usually hand you just two or three squares of paper and hand sanitizer. Small change for tipping the attendant 0.5 – 1 Egyptian pound.
At large attractions such as The Pyramids, The Sphinx, Cairo Museum you will find the toilets are excellent. Usually finished with marble or stone, they are kept immaculately clean. There is usually a cost such as one to five Egyptian pounds which you pay as you enter and you’ll be given around 5 – 10 squares of toilet paper by the attendant.
Access To Sanitation
In 2015, 98 percent of the population had access to “at least basic” water and 93 percent had access to “at least basic” sanitation, in 2015. Nevertheless, there were still, in 2015, 1.8 million people without access to “at least basic” water and 6.4 million without access to “at least basic” sanitation.
The government of Egypt continued to give higher priority to water service coverage. As a result, water service coverage in 2004 was 96 percent (21 million m 3 /day produced). Subsequent large investments were made in water production plants that did not just take national water coverage to 100 percent, but added a total of 11.4 m 3 /day to the amount produced in 2005, a 59 percent increase. As a result, significant improvements occurred in water quality and service consistency especially in rural areas and in informal areas around major cities.
USAID : Improving Egypt’s sanitation since 1970s
When USAID first arrived in Egypt in the late 1970s, poor water quality, pollution, and over-extended sanitation facilities had become a serious public health hazard – particularly in urban areas where diseases such as eye infections, diarrhea, fever, and rheumatism linked to daily contact with sewage were rampant. Over the next 35 years, USAID invested more than $3.5 billion to help bring potable water and sanitation services to over 25 million Egyptians, directly improving their health and environmental conditions.
USAID initially targeted construction and rehabilitation of wastewater systems in Cairo, Alexandria, and the three Suez Canal Cities. In Cairo, USAID funded a $727 million project from 1984-2006 to improve wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal on the West Bank of Cairo. A high level of saline and contaminated groundwater, due to leaking sewers and the regional influence of irrigation practices on the water table, threatened the structural integrity of several buildings and historic momunents in this area. After lowering the groundwater table to safe levels, USAID installed new and improved sewerage services that benefit hundreds of thousands of citizens in some of the poorest and most densely populated areas of central Cairo – and allowed commerce to grow.
USAID funded the installation of an entire piped sewage collection network in Alexandria that eliminated untreated sewage from Alexandria’s streets and Mediterranean Sea beaches. As a result, infant mortality rates and waterborne diseases dropped by 80 percent. Built in the late 1980s, the construction and rehabilitation of seven pump stations and the two major wastewater treatment plants in Alexandria anticipated projected population growth until 2010 – these plants continue to function, but increased population has put a strain on these facilities.
In the early 1990s, USAID focused on smaller cities in the Delta, South Sinai, and Upper Egypt. Construction of over 30 water treatment and wastewater facilities in Fayoum, Beni Suef, and Minya governorates were constructed to benefit more than three million people. However, given the downward trend in fertility rates at the time, the systems did not anticipate such rapid population growth – there are now nearly 11 million people living in those three governorates.
USAID shifted focus in the late 1990s from water construction activities to institutional and policy reforms, with cost recovery efforts as the centerpiece. In 2004, USAID helped the Government of Egypt establish the Holding Company for Water and Wastewater (HCWW), a national umbrella organization to standardize and govern local water utilitity companies, as well as the Egyptian Water Regulatory Authority. USAID also launched a program to strengthen the policy, legal, and regulatory framework for water distribution and access. By 2011, eleven of HCWW’s 24 subsidiaries have been able to achieve cost recovery for operations and maintenance and the others have made great strides toward sustainability and self-sufficiency – as well as improving operating efficiencies, billing, and collection systems. Recently, in a major breakthrough supported by USAID, Egypt’s Cabinet approved a tariff structure for the water sector that will allow HCWW to achieve operations and maintenance cost recovery in less than five years, and full cost recovery and sustainability in ten.2000s
With reforms in place, USAID is focusing again on increasing access to clean water and sanitation services in underserved rural areas. These residents suffer from unreliable and sometimes low quality potable water service and lack of wastewater connections and treatment. Water pollution in canals and drains still represents the greatest threat to public health in these villages, as wastewater is discharged without treatment to agricultural drains and canals and carries the risk of waterborne disease. Further, population growth has led to an expansion of settlements over the heavily polluted, unsanitary waterways, putting villagers further at risk.
USAID efforts will improve access to services for 650,000 residents in these areas – services that are essential to the health of the residents and the economy of Upper Egypt. Not only do better water and wastewater services and facilities contribute to improvements in tourism, trade, and investment, but they also create thousands of job opportunities for day laborers to construct facilities. For instance, in the Baheeg community in Assiut Governorate, USAID worked directly with the local municipal water and wastewater holding company to construct a $2.6 million slow sand filter treatment plant with the capacity to supply 10,000 households (50,000 persons) with potable water. An additional $150,000 was used to fund the installation of a distribution pipeline to tie the Baheeg community to the plant using local unskilled labor and provided 1,700 person-days of local employment.
Egyptian NGOs Improving Sanitation
An Egyptian NGO that uses a community-based model to improve access to clean water and sanitation won a World Habitat Award during the United Nations-sponsored World Habitat Day 2017.
Through its local housing movement program, the Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development (BLACD) NGO has provided new in-house connections to running water and latrines for 5,900 families in Minia Governorate, one of Egypt’s poorest regions.
BLACD trains people in the Nile Valley district to build houses and water systems using accessible materials suited for the natural environment. The houses incorporate ventilation systems and sanitation disposal to prevent pollution of water supplies and agricultural land. One village BLACD works with is using solar power to heat water.
In-house water and sanitation has had the greatest effect on women who no longer have to make daily trips to distant water sources or have to fear for their safety while they use the toilet. To finance the projects, BLACD uses a revolving fund from which loans are made and repaid. Loan recipients pay eight percent annual interest, and the fund has a 98 percent repayment rate. BLACD gets money from several international foundations and uses its reputation to secure loans from banks unwilling to lend to the poor.
The program began in 1998, in a few villages, but has since expanded to 18 communities and into a partnership with 16 grassroots organizations. The BLACD model is being replicated in two other Egyptian regions and the organization is advising community start-ups in Tanzania, South Africa and the Philippines.
The organization also provides legal assistance on questions of land tenure. “Better City, Better Life” was the theme for World Habitat Day. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement calling for improvements to the living conditions of the urban poor.
With the demographic transition to urban life, the infrastructure needs of cities are seeing greater emphasis as more people now live in cities than rural areas.
Egypt’s Sanitation Hero
Local ownership and environmentally sustainable technology are keys to the success of Sameh Seif Ghaly’s Together Association
Sameh Seif Ghaly, an Egyptian social entrepreneur who is the co-founder of the Together Association for Development and Environment visited Synergos’ New York City office to discuss his foundation’s work in the deployment of liquid waste and used-water-treatment technology.
Poor water sanitation is a critical environmental issue in communities in rural Egypt, where about half the rural population, or 47 million people, do not have access to improved sewage systems. Most villages in Upper Egypt contain untreated sewage water that flows directly into holes in the ground, leaching into ground water used for drinking and agriculture. As a result, many residents suffer from water-borne diseases.
To solve this problem, the Together Association has built 15 sanitation systems for villages in Upper Egypt, serving 32,700 residents in total.
The system is a good model for rural Egyptian communities because it improves public health, sustains the environment, and boosts community participation. Each system costs about $1,600 a month including supplies, or between $30 and $40 per capita. All of the houses in the community are connected to the lifting station and operating fees are collected from each community after the project’s completion. In fact, the low fees - just a few dollars a month - are part of what makes the system so attractive to users.
Each treatment plant is equipped with an anaerobic bacteria treatment chamber, an aerated weir, an air injection tank, and a gravel bed that is planted with local cane treating organic matter. The organic matter has naturally-generated anaerobic bacteria which feeds filtered water into a gravity-fed sequence of three shallow ponds for solar treatment. Both biogas and solid by-products generated from waste treatment are used to make organic fertilizer.
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