CAIRO/QENA: The end of May will see the official completion of the Naga Hammadi Barrage, situated roughly half way between Luxor and Assiut, the latest in a long line of structures aimed at taming the Nile and putting the great river’s power to work for the benefit of the nation.The key purpose of the new barrage, which was constructed with the technical and financial assistance of the German government, is the regulation of the river’s water levels, facilitating agriculture year-round along the fertile banks.The project also boasts a hydropower facility with four turbines, supplying electricity to the national grid. And it has linked in with other projects providing new irrigation, drainage and wastewater systems for the rural inhabitants of the area, increasing the area of cultivable land.But most importantly in the long-run, the barrage has provided a model for the consultation and compensation of local people affected by such large-scale prestige projects, with financial and resettlement issues reportedly settled to the satisfaction of all concerned long before the first cement was poured. In light of the tendency for large-scale construction projects in Egypt to meet with opposition from the grassroots, such lessons in community relations could prove invaluable for the nation’s development, not to mention its human rights record.
Qena’s new barrageThe Naga Hammadi story starts in 1930, when the original barrage was built just two kilometers upstream of the present site. It provided a head of water that was used to feed two long irrigation canals, one on either side of the river, running all the way to the next barrage at Assiut, some 200 km downstream.The old barrage worked well enough, irrigating around 286,000 hectares of arable land, but seven decades of use have weakened its structure, and the road that runs across its length is no longer safe for the growing volume of heavy vehicles. By the 1990s, it was clear that a new barrage was required, and so the Egyptian government worked with its German partners to design a replacement. Technical cooperation was provided by GTZ, the German government agency dedicated to overseas development projects, while its financial assistance arm KfW Entwicklungsbank secured the funding.According to German government figures, the overall cost of the project amounts to ?350 million, of which ?130 million was provided by the Egyptian government.Work started on the construction of the new barrage in 2002, and at its height it became the largest building site in Egypt, employing around 3,000 laborers. In all, around 7 million cubic meters of soil were moved, making way for 40,000 tons of steel and 380,000 cubic meters of concrete.In the words of the Minister of International Cooperation, Dr Fayza Aboul Naga: “This is another high dam project; it’s really something as great and important as the High Dam of Aswan. Unlike its predecessor, the new barrage incorporates four 64 megawatt turbines, generating sufficient electricity to support an estimated 200,000 families. With demand for electricity in Egypt growing by about 7 percent each year, the addition of this renewable source of hydropower is a most welcome.
Agricultural benefitsBut for the local population, it is the improvements in the agricultural field that matter most. The accumulation of water behind the new barrage has taken on the job of supplying the irrigation canals that run to the north. As Reinhard Schmidt, Senior Project Manager for the barrage, told Daily News Egypt, “The Naga Hammadi Barrage safeguards a total irrigation area of roughly 800,000 feddans, which involves round about 300,000 farmers. With their families, that means at least two million people benefit from the project.
During the project’s planning, it was discovered that the two main canals, and the labyrinth of smaller channels that run through the fields, had become clogged with silt, vegetation and rubbish. Insufficient drainage meant that crops were frequently waterlogged, while outdated sewage disposal systems meant that sewage was being dumped in nearby waterways.
By way of a solution, project designers harmonized their plans with other German-funded projects to run in parallel. These additional projects cleaned and rebuilt the existing waterways and drainage channels, constructing more where needed, while establishing an entirely new sewage system to keep farms and villages safe and clean.
Community involvementSo much for the technical achievements, but what sets the Naga Hammadi Barrage project apart from many previous schemes is the way in which the local community was consulted and involved.The consultation process began early on, with a series of town hall meetings informing residents of the proposed project. Initial resistance was met from farmers and fishermen working the banks around the old barrage, who feared a loss of income when the water level there was lowered. After some discussion, however, and the revelation of benefits in the form of re-vamped irrigation systems, sewage treatment plants and the prospect of work on the construction site itself, they relented and began to work in support of the proposal.Further down the line, local groups were organised at village level to help maintain the new waterways, and farmers have taken ownership for the irrigation of their own fields. A total of 18 villages have so far been connected to the new sewage treatment system; as with everything else, the end users are involved in their continued smooth running.
The resettlement issueConvincing people to lend their support to schemes with such obvious benefits is clearly not the work of miracle-makers. But, as with so many projects in which the government has a hand, it was necessary first to move a great many residents in order to clear the proposed construction site, and their cooperation was essential.It is not unknown in Egypt for such people to be given their marching orders with the briefest of notice. Subsequently, their promised new housing turns out to be either sub-standard or even non-existent, as in the case of the residents from Kafr El-Elew in Helwan, whose homes were demolished one morning in September of 2007 to make way for the expansion of a water plant. They are still awaiting the provision of new housing.At the suggestion of the German partners in the Naga Hammadi Barrage project, however, the issue of resettlement was laid to rest during the planning stage. Those required to move were given the option of a new home at an agreed site or a financial compensation package. A key condition of the project was that all residents were to be properly re-housed before the bulldozers moved in.Project managers say a total of LE 18.9 million was paid out in compensation, and all those requiring new houses appear to have been happily resettled. As Schmidt says, the new homes are “better than their old ones.
International standardsAccording to Professor Salah El-Haggar, who lectures on environment and energy at the American University in Cairo, the success of the Naga Hammadi Barrage is down to the project’s adherence to international standards on the conduct of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA’s), the key element of which is the public hearing prior to project commencement.”The Naga Hammadi Barrage is one of the models for the implementation of EIA’s, and especially for the socio-economic component, El-Haggar told Daily News Egypt. “And the socio-economic assessments and public hearings are the most important tools for public assessment. “The Naga Hammadi Barrage was an international project, and so they had to comply with international regulations. They spent a year-and-a-half just on the socio-economic component, assessing compensation, etc., he said.He points to other projects completed by international companies, including Shell and British Gas that have followed the same procedures on EIA, with similar success.
The Damietta caseThe importance of consultation prior to the commencement of construction is highlighted by the current controversy over the building of the Agrium fertilizer plant
in Damietta on the eastern north coast. The project has been temporarily halted while residents, politicians and lawyers argue about the choice of site, which is just s6 km from the sea-side tourist destination of Ras El Bar.In his role as Vice President of the Association for the Protection of the Environment, El-Haggar has been advising Damietta residents of their rights. He says the problem in Damietta stems from the failure of Agrium, the majority Canadian-owned company behind the project, to follow international standards on the conduct of EIA’s. Instead, he says, they opted to comply only with Egyptian regulations, which are much less stringent.Whether they were entirely within the law in opting out of international procedures is as yet unclear, it seems likely that the government, in its eagerness to attract foreign investment, was willing to turn a blind eye and keep the red tape to a minimum.”A public hearing was conducted on paper, and attended by some people, but it did not include environmental experts, local decision makers or stakeholders. It only included some members of the general public, El-Haggar told Daily News Egypt.”The problem with Egyptian regulations is they take this kind of study very lightly, just as a means to get a permit. Egyptian law never requires them to do an environmental impact assessment properly, he said.”The public hearing is part of the environmental impact assessment in much of the rest of the world, but is not part of the environmental impact assessment in Egypt.
New regulationsEl-Haggar says that until Egyptian law is updated, such an approach is still by no means the norm, particularly where Egyptian companies are concerned.”I am personally proposing to the Ministry of the Environment that the regulations in Egypt be brought into line with international practice, he said.For the German partners at KfW, conducting a full EIA, complete with public hearings and timely compensation, is standard practice. “Our position is that it is state-of-the-art; that no project may be realized without such mitigation measures if they are required, said Schmidt.The residents of the river banks around Naga Hammadi are no doubt pleased to have been consulted. But as Schmidt points out, there has so far been no formal feedback from the residents on how they feel in their new homes, living in the shadow of the Nile’s latest monolith. According to KfW, a survey of outcomes is normally conducted between one and three years after a project’s completion, and the results will no doubt be informative.