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Lack of modern sanitation systems threatens groundwater, health

Twenty percent of global infant mortality is accounted for by diarrhoea, a problem in Egypt due to contaminated water.
(Sarah Kamshoshy/IRIN)

Nearly all Egyptians - 98 percent of the population - have access to piped water but only some have proper sanitation facilities. Not much attention has been paid to the effective and safe disposal of sewage, especially in rural areas, say specialists.

In rural areas - deserts and agricultural areas alike - only 58 percent of inhabitants have access to any kind of sanitation, said Rania El-Essawi, water, environment and sanitation officer at the Cairo office of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Most rural sanitation is primitive, and does not involve a proper sewage system.

Toilets generally have either one or two pits, with some kind of elementary filtration mechanism. They may or may not be regularly emptied, and they are not necessarily in households. Latrines may be at local community centres, including local mosques. Waste is either reused or removed by an evacuation truck.

A recent report by Water Aid ranks Egypt the 16th worst place in the world sanitation table.

International Year of Sanitation 2008

Official website

In September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals that challenged the global community to reduce poverty and increase the health and well-being of all peoples. In September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg reaffirmed these goals and added access to basic sanitation as a centerpiece of the poverty eradication commitments. The target to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2105 was defined in the Johannesburg Plan of Action (JPOI).

The twelfth session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CDS-12), held in New York in April 2004, reviewed the state of implementation of the goals and targets in the thematic areas of water, sanitation and human settlements. CSD-12 identified constraints to, and continuing challenges for, the implementation of these goals, including the JPOI target on access to basic sanitation. On the basis of that review, CSD-13 in April 2005 recommended policy actions to be implemented by member States in addressing these challenges. The international community will review progress towards the implementation of these recommendations during CSD-16 in May 2008.

Despite significant efforts by governments, progress on sanitation targets has been slow and uneven. Recognising the impact of sanitation on public health, poverty reduction, economic and social development, and the environment, the General Assembly decided to declare 2008 the International Year of Sanitation (GA resolution 61/192 of 20 December 2006). The General Assembly encouraged member States as well as the United Nations system, to take advantage of the International Year to increase awareness of the importance of sanitation to promote action at all levels, taking into account the recommendations of CSD-13.

Millennium Development Goal

The UN water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal implies that Egypt must provide sanitation to 77 percent of its 80 million people by 2015, El-Essawi said. Currently at 70 percent, Egypt appears to be on track, she added.

Yet numbers alone do not tell the full story. The type of sanitation, its potential for contaminating groundwater, its impact on human health, attitudes, education and behavioural change are important factors.

“Sanitation is not [measured] by square metre or by population… There are people with no access and there are people with partial access,” said Mahib Abdelghaffar, a professor of civil engineering at Cairo University.

Agricultural areas

For people in many rural areas, sanitation is simply a hole in the ground, sometimes covered by a ceramic “squat” platform.

In the Nile delta area, which makes up only 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land mass but is home to over a third of the population, people mainly use holes in the ground since they lack sewage systems, El-Essawi said.

“In many households it’s just a hole in the ground… there is no evacuation [the waste is removed for a fee], there is no filtration. They have no way to get rid of massive amounts of liquid waste,” El-Essawi said.

In agricultural areas, latrines - if they exist at all - sometimes overflow or are emptied before the faecal matter has turned into fertilizer. This often leads to groundwater contamination, potentially causing a health hazard to the local population.

“The problem is all near the delta… The houses in delta villages should all be connected to a proper sewage network,” said Abdelghaffar, adding that in some communities, stepping stones help people avoid stepping in sewage as they cross roads.

Desert areas

There is less risk of groundwater contamination in desert areas, where groundwater is deep below the surface and the sand is very porous, so liquid is absorbed and the groundwater remains clean.

A problem in rural areas generally is that toilets and latrines are not kept clean and maintained, and are sometimes built in the wrong place.

Photo: Sarah Kamshoshy/IRIN
Rural areas in the Nile Valley severely lack proper sewage systems and are contaminating Egypt's groundwater as a result


Proper disposal of waste would help protect people from diseases arising from water contamination, such as typhoid, diarrhoea, polio, bilharzia and hepatitis C.

“These [diseases] are life-threatening and fatal. One fifth of child mortality deaths are attributed to diarrhoea which is a big threat in Egypt, together with bilharzia,” El-Essawi said. “People need to know how to properly use water so they don’t contaminate it.”

Intermediate solutions

UNICEF promotes intermediate sanitation technology, such as ensuring that latrines are properly built, and attempting to provide basic sanitation services to families until they can access a more advanced sewage system, El-Essawi said.

“You want to provide services such that people can benefit from them,” she said. “Everybody has a right to services that do not affect their health.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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