U.S. Sewer Project in Egypt Mired in Mismanagement

Times Staff Writer

Plagued by inefficiency, mismanagement and long delays, a showpiece U.S. aid project to provide Egypt’s second-largest city with a desperately needed sewage system has been caught up in a major political scandal that raises doubts about whether the project will ever be completed as planned.

The scandal, which was one of the reasons for a recent Cabinet shuffle that cost Prime Minister Kamal Hassan Ali his job, centers on the pollution of the beaches of Alexandria, Egypt’s favorite resort city, 190 miles northwest of Cairo on the Mediterranean coast.

Although those waters have long been polluted due to the city’s practice of dumping raw sewage into the sea, the problem did not get national attention until this summer, when it became apparent that an emergency project to clean up the beaches had only made things much worse.

As a result, most of Alexandria’s usual summer crowd stayed home this year or went to the more distant but cleaner shores of Cyprus. While precise figures are not available, travel agents and hotels estimate that no more than 500,000 tourists came to Alexandria this summer, compared to nearly 2 million last year.


Those who did come, according to doctors and hospitals, suffered alarming increases in eye infections, skin rashes and intestinal complaints. A 7-month-old boy was unconscious for two days and nearly died after swallowing a mouthful of sea water.

“When I first arrived, two years ago, I used to go swimming every week, but now you couldn’t pay me to go near that water,” said a foreign resident of Alex, as the city is popularly known. “It’s very sad, but people don’t want to come here anymore.”

Not surprisingly, Egypt’s lively opposition press has been having a field day with the scandal, often making jokes at the expense of those involved. But for the 3 million residents of Alexandria, it is no laughing matter. More than 60% of the city has either inadequate sewage collection facilities or none at all.

In poor areas, sewage backs up into the streets, creating stagnant pools in alleys where barefoot children play. The sewage that is collected flows either north, untreated, into the sea a few feet from the shoreline, or south into Lake Maryut, which has been transformed into a giant cesspool.


“The sewers of Alexandria are more than 80 years old,” said an official who is involved in the U.S.-funded program to renovate them. “They were built for a population one-third the size it is now. They are on the verge of collapse, and Alexandria may be on the verge of an epidemic.”

A $1-billion project to replace Alexandria’s antiquated sewers began seven years ago, when a Boston firm, CDM Inc., drew up a master plan for a new system that would meet the city’s needs through the year 2030. The plan was later reviewed and brought up to date by two other firms, CH2M Hill of Denver and Metcalf & Eddy of Wakefield, Mass., which later got the contract to do the work.

The project is divided into three phases, and the first phase, to be carried out under a $198.7-million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, called for the renovation of two old, unused sewage treatment plants and the construction of sewers in poor areas of Alexandria that had none.

Phase 1 was to have been completed this year, but, although the construction of some projects has begun, the major work is nowhere near finished, and the expected completion date is now 1989.


Realizing that something must be done before that to save Egypt’s favorite beaches, Alexandria’s General Organization for Sanitary Drainage, working through the Ministry of Petroleum, commissioned a local firm, Petrojet, to install two pipes 780 yards long to carry the sewage farther out to sea.

That project, completed several months ago at a cost of $3 million, was the object of much public and private hoopla about how the Egyptians, working on their own, could solve their problems a lot faster and less expensively than the Americans. Ali, then the prime minister, awarded medals to the project’s designers.

But then the summer crowd arrived from Cairo and discovered that the pipes, instead of taking the sewage out to sea, merely took it out to where ocean currents moved it eastward and onto the shore. Most of it was deposted at Montaza, an exclusive beach used by government ministers and other members of the Egyptian elite. At this point, the political sludge hit the fan.

Although neither the Agency for International Development nor the two American companies working on the larger plan were involved in the emergency project, opposition newspapers blamed the United States, charging that it had wasted years and millions of dollars on useless studies.


“America Gives Dollars With One Hand and Takes Them Away With the Other,” read a headline in Al Wafd, the newspaper of Egypt’s main opposition party. The article under the headline went on to describe the sewage affair as a case of swindling by an “American Mafia” bent on “draining Egypt of its resources.”

In Parliament, deputies demanded an investigation into the reasons for the long delays and high costs of the AID project.

Agency officials will not comment publicly, but American engineers involved in the project say the criticism is misdirected. They blame the delays and high costs on red tape and bureaucratic squabbling in the Egyptian government and on Egyptian contractors, who they say are incompetent, inefficient and chronically incapable of seeing a job through.

“We’ve had a lot of problems with contracts being removed from one contractor and given to another because of non-performance,” said Fred Harem of CH2M Hill, the AID project director. “We’ve had contractors who’ve wasted literally millions on jobs.”


Ron Advani of Metcalf & Eddy, the project design manager, agrees. “The lack of qualified contractors has delayed projects six to eight months,” he said. “We have two of the largest contractors in Egypt working on this, but the projects, in terms of progress, have been miserable failures. It’s not that they can’t do it. It’s that they haven’t committed the necessary manpower to the project. There’s a lack of commitment on the Egyptian side.”

Ismail Sabri Abdullah, a former minister of planning and a leading critic of the way AID money is spent in Egypt, conceded that some Egyptian contractors are “inefficient and corrupt” but insisted that the Americans “should not blame us if they chose the wrong Egyptian partners.”

However, according to Harem and Advani, the problem goes far beyond the Egyptian contractors, who they say are the best of what is available.

“The real problem,” Harem said, “is the lack of support by the government and its ministries.” He said the ministries, beset by political rivalries, do not seem able to communicate or cooperate with one another. “Everywhere we turn we run into roadblocks,” he added.


As an example, both men cite the difficulty they have had in finding a place to dump the sludge from the two treatment plants once they are in operation. “We’ve been after a site for three years now,” Harem said, adding that nearly two dozen sites have been proposed but rejected by one government ministry or another.

Countless other delays have been encountered in trying to get permits to lay pipe under the streets and clearance to get equipment out of customs. “A thing that takes two days in the States takes two months here,” Advani said.

Underlying the debate over who is to blame for the delays are frustrations and resentments that, like the sewage flowing under Alexandria’s streets, sometimes swell to the surface.

The Americans express frustration because the massive AID project was meant to be the showpiece of a decade of lavish U.S. assistance--America’s “pyramid,” its answer to the Soviet-built Aswan Dam. Instead, the Egyptian press has pictured it as a gigantic pork-barrel project, and the Americans have not been able to get their side of the story before the public.


“We invited Egyptian reporters to interview us several times, but no one came,” Harem said. “They were not interested. Finally, to get our side in the paper, we had to take out an ad. It cost us 19,000 pounds ($15,000).”

Egyptians bridle at what Abdullah calls “an American attitude of arrogance” that sometimes “treats us like second-class citizens.” The people who built the pyramids, he implies, resent the suggestion that they need technical tutoring to build a sewer--and their resentment may have been intensified by their humiliation over the Petrojet fiasco.

Amid all the controversy, it is no longer clear where the AID project goes from here, for the sewage scandal has revived an older and sharper debate over how to dispose of Alexandria’s sewage once it is collected.

As envisaged, the AID project would treat the sewage and carry it far out to sea by way of a 6.2-mile underwater pipe, the longest of its kind in the world. But the pollution of Alexandria’s beaches has given new support to an old plan put forward by a group of Alexandria University professors who favor disposing of the sewage on land and using the treated water for reclamation of Egypt’s desert lands.


Desert Seen as Alternative

Proponents of this idea note that Egypt, which is 96% desert, needs all the water it can get to support a population that is growing faster than agricultural production. Alexandria’s treated sewage water, they say, could make fertile land out of thousands of acres of barren desert.

Opponents argue that the scheme is impractical because eight times as much pipe would be needed as for the other scheme and that a much more complex kind of treatment would be required. This, they argue, would make the project twice as costly as sea disposal, and that raises questions about who would pay for it.

For these reasons, Ali’s government opted for sea disposal. But a parliamentary committee formed to investigate the matter has sided with a majority of the members of Alexandria’s local governing council and recommended land disposal. It plans to revive the issue when Parliament convenes in November.


President Hosni Mubarak, trying to avoid stepping into the political sludge himself, has turned the matter over to his new prime minister, Ali Lutfi, and said the decision is his to make. Lutfi has not said which disposal method he favors, but Milad Hanna, chairman of the Housing and Water Committee in Parliament, said he doubts that there “is a politician left in Egypt who would dare to support sea disposal now.”

In the meantime, mired in the middle of this debate are the people of Alexandria, whose frustrations are accumulating as fast as their sewage. When Ali visited Alexandria shortly before his resignation, the residents of one slum quarter observed the occasion by stringing up a large banner bearing the appeal: “Won’t Somebody Please Help Us?”