Pollution, unchecked irrigation and armed bandits decimate what was once one of Egypt’s most productive fishing grounds By Lamia Hassan
In the towns surrounding Lake Manzala, the air used to hang thick with the scent of saltwater and
the day’s catch. Along the lake’s shore, children hopped between the rails of hand-built dinghies
while fishermen prepped nets for the day. Local markets bustled from a lucrative trade that once
supplied the country with 30% of its total catch.
Located on the northeastern edge of the Nile Delta, Manzala has historically been host to one of
the country’s largest fishing communities, with over 300,000 people finding their days work in
Separated from the Mediterranean by a sandy ridge, the lake once spanned five governorates and
was connected to the sea via several channels.
The exchange of water between the lake and sea had been largely beneficial to the Manzala
community, with the circulating waters maintaining an environmental balance and allowing fish
to repopulate with ease.
At least that’s how it was supposed to work. Over the past two decades, the situation in Manzala
has changed drastically.
“The lake was like heaven for us. We could live, fish, swim and eat out of it. Everyone would go
back home satisfied with what he got at the end of the day,” says 37-year-old Manzala fisherman
Youssry Ibrahim. “But now we are crying out for help. We can see the lake being stolen right in
front of us.”
Recent years have seen the lake shrink to a mere 25% of its original size, and instead of being
replenished with Mediterranean water, it’s being pumped full of sewage. Local wildlife has
suffered, and as a result so have the fisherman who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.
Extreme pollution has rendered the remaining fish hazardous, eliminating vast numbers of jobs.
But the combination of factors that are turning Manzala into an environmental wasteland have
seeped into the local community as well. A population influx has fueled the area’s degradation
and simultaneously sapped it of its main revenue source, leaving inhabitants of the nearby
fishing towns with empty nets and empty wallets.
From the edge of the shallow lake it is difficult to see the below the water’s surface. Sprawling
leaves from the Ward el Nil, or Egyptian White Lotus, have spread and now cover the lake’s
surface. The plant lives in fresh water, and while it can survive amid heavy pollution, it isn’t
usually found in saltwater.
Manzala has always been brackish, with direct connections to the Mediterranean ensuring
salinity. The fact that the Ward el Nil can grow in Manzala demonstrates the extent of the
changes that have altered the fundamental characteristics of the lake — primarily a result of
The Bahr el Baqar drain transports water 170 kilometers from eastern Cairo and feeds directly
into Lake Manzala, dumping three million cubic meters of fresh water, untreated sewage,
industrial waste, organic toxins, heavy metals and bacteria into the water each day. Hydrogen
sulfide and methane bubble on the lake’s surface, sending greenhouse gases into the air.
The Bahr el Baqar drain is one of five major drains that feed into Manzala, and their combined
discharge has decreased salinity, raised sediment levels and endangered the health of the
northern delta population.
“The amount of water coming from the drains is much more than that coming through the
channels from the sea. It changed this area from brackish water to fresh water, where the types of
fish that live in the sea would not live,” says Professor Alaa El-Haweet, of Alexandria’s National
Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
The lake used to host a wide variety of high-value saltwater fish. Sea bass and mullet, for
which Manzala was known, sold well in markets throughout the country. But today it seems only
a few species of freshwater tilapia can survive. What remains of the fish population in the lake
is heavily contaminated and unsafe to eat. A 2007 United Nations Development Program report
notes the extent of the damage, stating that the “tilapia show a high frequency (85 percent) of
organ malformation and discoloration, caused by environmental and contaminant stress.”
A 2009 study published in the Research Journal of Microbiology states that: “Lake Manzala
water samples as well as the fish samples were found to have very high pathogenic bacteria
contents; some of these pathogens produce dangerous extra cellular products that are virulent.”
Also mentioned in the study’s findings were high levels of ammonia and nitrates, as well as
samples of dangerous bacteria strains such as E. coli and salmonella — found in both the lake
and its fish.
But somehow this hasn’t stopped local fisherman from attempting to harvest and sell fish, though
revenues are unsurprisingly down these days. The trade quite simply seems to be hard wired into
“We don’t send our kids to school here, we all grow up working in fishing and we take our
children and try to teach them what we’ve learned. It is the only profession we know”, says
Abdel Kareem El-Refa’i, a practicing fisherman, the head of the fishermen’s union in the town
of Matareya and a member of the Lake Manzala development committee.
The continuation of fishing in Manzala does, however, help explain the growing health problems
that have emerged in the lake’s surrounding regions. Intestinal diseases have become widespread
among the populations that rely on the lake for food and water.
“Sailing your boat on the lake today is exactly like knowing that you are going to die in
advance,” says 55-year-old fisherman Rashad El-Refaie. “The lake is dead now. And whoever
eats the lake’s fish risks getting sick because of all the different pollutants.”
Authorities claim that they are working to save Manzala. From 2002 to 2007 the United Nations
Development Program collaborated with the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)
to produce a 60-acre engineered wetland at the base of the Bahr el Baqar drain. Flow from the
drain is slowed by reeds planted in the engineered area, allowing sediment and pollutants to
settle while cleaner water pushes through to the lake. But while wetlands have proven to be
an inexpensive and efficient alternative to chemical treatments for polluted water, the project
was capable of treating only 25,000 cubic meters of water each day, 1/120 of one drain’s daily
As recently as 2007, the European Union was collaborating with the EEAA on an additional
segment of the Manzala wetlands project, the task being a particular concern as the lake has
increased pollution levels in the Mediterranean. That project hoped to boost treatment to 50,000
cubic meters per day, though still a far cry from making a discernible impact.
“The problem with the government’s efforts here […] is that it tried to get rid of the existing
pollution in the lake, but not to stop the actual source of pollution,” says El-Haweet.
And while local and international governments have made small gains towards improving the
quality of the lake, those who depend on it have yet to see the type of change they had hoped for.
“We are not asking for a lot, we are just asking for someone to put a strict plan [in place] to
clear Manzala of the people that are threatening us, remove the sewage water, and bring back the
water from the Mediterranean to get the fish back here,” says Ibrahim.
On dry land
In the 1970s, the government embarked on a series of land reclamation projects to boost
agricultural production and make room for urban expansion in lakeside towns.
Southern and western portions of the lake were dried and by the early 1990s, the lake was
just 25% of its former size. But the falling water levels also made water exchange with the
Mediterranean slow. And instead of replenishing water from the nearby sea, the drains that pour
into Manzala changed the basic composition of the lake.
“We grew up knowing the lake as 750,000 acres. Now they say it is only 100,000 acres, and I
can tell you that there are less than 10,000 acres for the fishermen to work in,” says Mohamed
El-Sehrawy, who represents Matareya in the local assembly and is a people’s assembly
candidate. El-Sehrawy himself was once a fisherman but the deteriorating conditions forced him
to abandon the trade.
El-Sehrawy’s decision to leave the fishing industry was by no means unique. With poor
conditions in Manzala, a large percentage of its fishermen could no longer support their families
and were forced to leave the lake. According to locals, some managed to illegally emigrate
across the Mediterranean to Italy and Greece, while others were caught last year fishing off
the coast of Somalia. Another popular story among the fishermen is the high number of former
Manzala residents caught fishing in Saudi Arabian waters.
And the migration of fishermen from Lake Manzala has led to overfishing in other lakes. Last month, the fish authority in Fayoum announced that fishing will be banned until the end of June to allow fish to reproduce, as the number of fish in Lake Qaroun has decreased drastically due to excessive harvesting by record numbers of fishermen. Illegal land reclamation Nasser Aboul Naga, a fisherman from Matareya, has noticed that the decline of Lake Manzala has had consequences quite separate from the environment.
“I was out fishing with other fishermen when [bandits] attacked us,” he says, recounting an
incident from early May. “They stole our fish, took our boat and even our clothes. They even hit me and broke my arm.”
As the economy surrounding the lake has suffered, so too has the reach of public services like
law enforcement, giving way to what locals claim is an increasing level of lawlessness. While
the government continues to rent dried parts of the lake to residents, some have taken to bringing
in equipment to dry shallow sections on their own, creating small islands in the middle of
Manzala. It’s a practice that has been going on for years.
“The government would rent five acres to one person, and the next day they would wake up and
find that this person stole maybe an extra 15 acres,” says El-Sehrawy.
Fishermen and local officials have lobbied to put an end to the practice, which they claim is
contributing to rising crime rates, but according to Naga their complaints have had little effect.
“The problem is not the absence of laws, but the difficulty of applying those laws,” says El-
Haweet. “Although the law prohibits drying parts of the lake, people are still doing it. When I
was younger we used to go on campaigns to stop people, and in the end we would find out that
people of influence are backing this up.”
The practice of creating illegal islands in the lake has a direct impact on how and where the
fisherman can attempt to work, but more pressing, they say, is the wave of violent crimes
perpetrated by the island inhabitants against them.
“Across the whole lake you notice islands that people are illegally living on. They make them so
close to one another with tiny passages between each and every one, but if a poor fisherman tries
to come near them, he risks being beaten up or shot, and the authorities cannot stop it,” says El-
For their part, authorities are trying to curb the violence that has become associated with the
illegal land grabs. “We are doing our best to catch people all the time, but it is really hard,” says
Akram Hatem, head of Matareya General Authority for Fish Resources Development.
But given the progress of initiatives to clean the lake and restore the fishing industry to the
Northern Delta, residents of Manzala’s surrounding towns have little faith that the future will
“Unfortunately, we neglected Manzala for a long time,” says El Haweet.
“Then, when the time came to try and save it today, we are just attempting solutions to fix the