Egypt: Living Without the State in Cairo's Slums

Cairo — For the residents of the Middle East and Africa's largest city, Cairo, 2013 ended with the often repeated government promise to finally provide basic services and development in the slums, where half of the city's residents live.

But instead of waiting for Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi's slum renewal project, announced in November, to bear fruit, many are simply coping as best they can without the state.

When basic services are lacking, it is often down to slum dwellers to use their own initiative. They dig land, construct septic tanks and water pipes, install storage barrels, and raise community funds to get private engineers to build sewage pipes and connect them to the main network.

"These communities have an inherent self-reliance in finding ways to get by," said Thomas Culhane, co-founder of Solar CITIES, an NGO that invests in solar and renewable energy in poor communities.

Few sit around waiting for the government to fulfil its promises.

"There's a lot of mistrust among slum residents regarding the government's intentions. They've been promised so many things, yet nothing's been delivered," said Khalil Shaat, technical advisor at the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).

According to official government figures, Cairo has 112 informal areas. Out of those, 24 are classified as "category I", or life-threatening. Twenty-eight are "category II", meaning unsuitable housing; 11 are "category III", meaning health-threatening; and 49 are "planned".

Ezzat Naem Guindy, the founder of the Spirit of Youth Association for Environmental Service (SOY), which works in Manshiet Nasser, one of Cairo's largest slums, says the area is a "model" in terms of self-reliance. While the government is not completely absent, poor infrastructure and the irregular provision of public services create serious problems.

IRIN took a look at how Manshiet Nasser slum residents survive, and how they compensate for the lack of state support with their own networks of services.

Water and sewage

Most informal areas in Cairo find ways to access to water and electricity, though Shaat estimates only 20 to 30 percent of homes are connected to the formal water network. Almost 60 percent are hooked up to an informal network, while around 10 percent have no water at all. No more than 5 to 10 percent of these areas have a formal sewage network, with the rest getting rid of waste water through septic tanks, many prone to leaking.

Back in the mid-1980s, the World Bank granted funding to the Cairo governorate to supply Manshiet Nasser with water, sewage and electricity. "Only half of the money had been spent because of corruption leaving many parts of the area cut off," Guindy told IRIN. Two main sewage and water pipes were built, too few for the 65,000 residents of Moqattam Village, part of Manshiet Nasser, he says.

Less than half of the residents, mainly living in the lower zone, access water regularly - though with frequent interruptions. In the upper zone, things are far worse says Guindy. Until recently, they only had water in the taps on Sundays, when recycling workshops - which operate with water-intensive machinery - are closed; that is when they fill up private water tanks for the rest of the week.

"Four months ago, we raised 300 Egyptian pounds [US$43] from each family to buy a big engine, and placed it at the top of the lower zone's pipe to pump water up," said Guindy. Water now runs three to four hours a day outside of Sundays.

Those living in other streets have installed their own private connections to the main water or sewer. "I see water coming at night time," resident Said told IRIN. "I store it in tanks to use during the day."

After pressure from the local community, the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure and Cairo's governor visited Manshiet Nasser around three months ago. A project was subsequently announced to provide new water and sewage networks, and it has been promised that the whole area will be supplied by September 2014.

Waste disposal

Slum dwellers have also had to develop their own solutions for waste. The so-called Zabaleen, or rubbish pickers, collect 9,000 tons of rubbish every day - almost two-thirds of the estimated 15,000 tons produced by the city each day. They collect and dispose of garbage, recycling 85 percent of it.

"We can sort and reuse all materials. It's a very good value system," said Guindy.

As for organic waste, most people either take their rubbish to informal landfills or pay garbage pickers to collect their rubbish door-to-door.

The Ministry of Environment has been working on a new formal scheme to contract 12 companies to clean Moqattam and three other districts of Cairo, though residents are waiting to see the results.

Education and health

Slums housing thousands of Egyptians often have just one or two governmental schools. There is only one public school in Manshiet Nasser catering for around 2,000 school pupils, with each classroom having over 70 children.

"Vocational training in areas like plumbing, electricity, mechanics or construction should be integrated into formal education to allow kids to study, graduate and move on to work life," GIZ's Shaat told IRIN.

He observed that education programmes should also tackle the high drop-out rate, as widespread poverty pushes a lot of children out of school to help their families.

Mashiet Nasser has only two public healthcare facilities, both poorly serviced. Instead, residents largely depend on private centres, which are also poorly equipped, and charity.

"Like in any slum, the government is not around here to provide services widely. We have no police stations, no firefighters either," Guindy told IRIN.

"We only have St. Simon church hospital. The nearest [state] hospital is a half an hour drive from here," said Antonis, owner of a recycling workshop in Moqattam. He complained about the government not helping in the slum. Residents have to rely on community leaders to lobby government officials to get what is needed.

Putting the civil in society

Major interventions are generally the work of civil society organizations; at least four associations and two churches are serving Manshiet Nasser.

SOY offers non-formal education programmes that build literacy and skills through vocational training at a "recycling school". So far, they have helped 250 boys get certificates from primary school. Twenty-five of them have enrolled in preparatory school, 10 of whom are now in high school.

In addition, SOY's recycling school provides hepatitis and tetanus vaccines; teachers carry out home visits to raise awareness about healthcare, hygiene and reproductive health; and doctors are invited to speak in monthly forums.

Since 1984, another NGO, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), has worked with the Zabaleen and others in the slums to improve health, income and education, with a focus on women and children. Among its various programmes, APE runs literacy and preparatory classes for girls, and teaches them vocational skills such as rug weaving and patchwork recycling.

"We have numerous health programmes including hepatitis B and C prevention, health awareness, and monthly provision of blood tests, medicines and healthy food to the poorest families," said Bakhit Mettry, who manages APE's recycling project.

Nevertheless, Mettry lamented the poor state of Moqattam's streets, saying it should be the government's responsibility to pave roads.

Slum dwellers want to believe the year ahead will be different, and that the next government will seriously engage on the ground. Until then, they will continue to fill in the gaps.

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