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"Geo"data journalism. Mapping stories on water issues in the Nile Basin.

Lake in Peril: Communities Struggle to Survive as Egypt’s Lake Burullus Shrinks

Water Is Life and Vital For the Survival of All Creatures on the Earth. Photo by Emmy Muchunguzi

Monday May 15th, 2017

Fredrick Mugira
May 15, 2017

In the middle of Lake Burullus, it is sometimes deafeningly quiet. There are no rustles of the trees in a forest and no highway traffic noise.

But this tranquility could soon be a thing of the past. Reason? The lake, located in the Egypt’s Nile Delta, is steadily reducing in size due to increasing land reclamation around it, according to a new study.

The threats were documented during the assessment study by researchers at Ain Shams University of Hydraulic and Irrigation.

Prof. Dr. Aly El Bahrawy, of Ain Shams University’s Hydraulic and Irrigation Department in the faculty of Engineering led the study that involved three professors and satellite images and GIS experts.

In their recent study, which assessed the economic services of this natural resource in Egypt’s Kafr El Sheikh Governorate, the researchers found that the lake surface is estimated to have decrease by 62.5% from its original area. They in particular note that: “The area was 1092 km² in 1810 and decreased to 410 km² in 2003 due to illegal activities.”

Such illegal activities, according to the study, include:
• Drying of parts of the lake for different purposes;
• Removal of large quantities of sand from dunes;
• Land reclamations of shallow parts for agriculture and fish farms activities;
• Unwise urban development;
• Construction of an international highway which cuts through the sandbar.

Burullus Lake
Burullus Lake is located within the districts of Baltim, El-Hamoul, El-Riad, Sidi Salem and Metobes in Egypt’s Kafr El Sheikh Governorate, one of the largest Governorates in the Nile Delta.

Shaped roughly like a rectangle, Lake Burullus is about 60-70 km in length, with an average width of 11km and surface area of 350km.

It is separated from the sea by a strip of land covered with sandbars and sand dunes of different width and height. The barrier tapers from about 4 km width in the West to about 1km in the east, near the lake outlet at El-Burg.

Lake Burullus was declared a protectorate by prime ministerial decree 1444 /1998 and in 1998; it was approved as a Ramsar site in Egypt.

Other Challenges Facing the Lake Ecosystem
The assessment study recorded deterioration in the Lake Burullus water over the past years.

This was blamed on the huge amount of daily bypassing of untreated or partially treated sewage water from the villages and towns around the lake; industrial dumping and uncontrolled agricultural waste water through drainage channels.

Lake Burullus also faces the great threat from fish farming and Illegal fishing practices. According to the assessment study, profitability of the fish farming encourages people to dry parts of the lake, transforming such areas into fish farms.

It also cites a threat of fishermen who catch high-value fish fries at the lake inlet in Bougaz and sell them to the fish farms, negatively impacting the fish stocks in the lake.

The researchers also note that fish farms are affecting the lake’s water quality as they discharge their polluted water with high ammonia content into the lake, causing increase of the area covered by vegetation near the fish farms and raising the elevation of the lake bottom. Other documented illegal practices include fishing during the three banned breeding months which affecting the fish stock in the lake; using illegal sailboats and fishing without licenses.

Also noted as a threat to the lake’s ecosystem are the increase of reeds and uneconomic plants around the lake.

According to the study, this is: “Reducing the actual area of the lake usable for various useful activities, decreasing the current circulation and the fish stock in the lake, and thus affecting the population’s income.”

All forms of bird hunting were declared illegal after Burullus was made a protectorate. But the study found out that bird hunting has remained one of the common activities around the lake, threatening the future of various species of birds there. The research attributes this to poverty, tradition, lack of environmental and legal awareness, and insufficient law enforcement.

Writing in the final report, the researchers also note the Climate Change has led to temperature increase and sea level rise which increases the inflow of saltwater. An increase of sedimentation is also foreseen from upstream. In addition, the study stresses that unwise human activities are causing, “erosion that reduces the possible protection by the sand dunes, decreasing the protection against sea level rise and salt intrusion.”

Current Status of the Existing Ecosystem Services
Agriculture and livestock: Writing in their final report, the researchers indicate that, “The only profitable crops, guava, berseem and dates are intensively cultivated on the eastern side of the inlet, near Baltim.”

Other crops grown near this lake include rice, cotton, tomatoes, grapes, clover, cabbage, cauliflower, watermelons, broad beans, wheat, rice, and maize.

According to the study, the average yield of rice and cotton is about 60 percent and 40 percent of the national average, respectively.

Villagers around the lake also keep herds of buffalos, cows, sheep, goats and camels inside the Protected Area, the study found out.

Fisheries and fish farms: The study notes that fishing is considered the main activity in the protected areas, providing the principal life-support system for the local communities, fishermen, fish merchants, fish brokers, ships and fishing tools manufacture.

Unfortunately, “the annual fish catch in the lake has decreased from 99,409 tons in 2005 to 35,909 tons in 2013,” according to the study.

Fishers interviewed in this study, attributed the disappearance of high value fish caught in this lake to the decrease of lake fertility.

Economic plants: Plants around and within the lake are classified into six major categories: fodder (grazing), fuel, medicinal use, human food, timber and reed harvesting. The study discovered that various plants are used making mats, baskets, ropes, chairs, ornamental uses, beach bed, sand binder, soap manufacture and oil and dye extraction.

Although Lake Burullus seems to be undergoing immense change due to human activities, several species of local and migratory birds still exist in the lake’s ecosystem.

But what is worrying is that, even though all forms of bird hunting are illegal after the declaration of Burullus as a protectorate, illegal bird hunting still goes on unabated according to the study. The most hunted birds are coturnix quails in autumn and water birds in winter.

Salt marshes: The researchers note that salt marshes extend along the lowlands of the lake marine bar, with an area about 40 percent of the total area of the bar; 6 percent found in the eastern part, and 34 percent in the western part due to the relative low level of its surface. And tidal action is considered among the principal factors responsible for the formation and development of salt marshes.

Gender and Equity Status
The assessment study found that the activities performed by the population at Burullus Lake vary according to the availability of the ecosystem services. These activities include fishing and fish farms, fish trading, ship building and repair, reed cutting, agriculture, bird hunting and tourism activity.

However, there are discrepancies in the contribution of women and men in each activity. Mainly the muscular or risky tasks are only performed by men and boys – only in their spare time—like fishing, bird hunting and ship building and maintenance. On the other hand, the home-oriented tasks, or the ones requiring limited mobility, like reed cutting and processing are done by women in the villages.

Interestingly, the study discovered that fish trading and agriculture are carried out by the whole family but women have limited access to the revenue generated. And also women are also not engaged at all in any committees or organizations seeking for community development, according to the study.

The study further notes that fishers suffer from environmental problems represented by the deterioration of the lake affecting the fish quantity and quality. The nature of their job affects the health condition and they have to quit at early age.

Most of their sons give up fishing due to the poor benefits acquired in this industry. Women complained of unemployment of their children despite high expenditure on their education and unstable income.

The fact that fishers gain their income on a daily basis, the study notes, leaves them with no health insurance and pension, which threatens the whole family. And in these communities, “women don’t have any income and rely on their husbands to make their living.”

Suggested Solutions
Looking forward, the study looks for support to fishers from the Egyptian Government, stakeholders and fishery committee as fast actions to take their rights.

The researchers also call for boosting of cooperation between stakeholders related to management of Burullus Lake and involve the NGOs in enhancing the ecosystem services.

In the face of pending ecological disaster, the researchers recommend that: “The restoration plan is needed urgently for the lake ecosystems for improving water quality and ensuring a regular monitoring program of the lake by involving all stockholders in lake management plan.”

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