Water Hyacinth causes losses of 3 cubic meters of freshwater in Egypt 

Water Hyacinth causes losses of 3 cubic meters of freshwater in Egypt 

  • Al-Manzala Lake is one of the four biggest freshwater lakes in Egypt
  • Its straits supply Al-Manzala Lake with fish and regulate navigation in Suez Canal
  • It has an important role in maintaining the balance of water between the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal
  • Growth of the water hyacinth has put the lake at risk- it has shrunk at a rate of 5.22 square kilometers per year
  • Sea level rise and pollution also threaten this freshwater lake

By Susan Marmar

Al-Manzala Lake is one of the four biggest freshwater lakes in Egypt, bordered by the Suez Canal from the east, the Nile River on the west border-Damietta branch, and the Mediterranean Sea from the north. It overlooks four Egyptian governorates: Sharqia, Dakahlia, Damietta and Port Said. 

The lake has an important role in maintaining the balance of water between the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal. But in recent years, the growth of the water hyacinth plant has put the lake at risk – as Al-Manzala Lake has shrunk at a rate of 5.22 square kilometers per year. Sea level rise and pollution also threaten this freshwater lake, which harbors many types of fish important to the local economy, and supports navigation in the Suez Canal.

This story by Susan Marmar explores efforts to save this important lake.

lake manzala 1
Lake Manzala and bordering geographical features

Shrinking of Al-Manzala Lake 

First, we met with the researcher Ahmed Rakha, the Advisor of CEO of the Environmental Affairs Agency in Cairo, who told us, “Al-Manzala Lake is connected to the Mediterranean Sea through three openings that allow the exchange of water and its living organisms on and forth, between the lake and the sea. These openings or straits are called bogazes, which are named Al-Jameel and New Al-Jameel respectively. The aim of these bogazes is to allow balancing of the flow of water from the lake to the sea, especially during tides.

But with the increasing rate of sedimentation at the entrance of these bogazes, the supply of water stops due to pollutants, which block the openings, as in the case of water hyacinth plants, which is widely spread on the surface of the lake and in the bogazes,” Rakha said.

“A large area of the lake suffered losses in their waters in the past years, and these losses are still carried on, as it shrinks at a rate of 5.22 square kilometers per year. One of the biggest shrinkages that ever happened was noticed at the western and southwest part of the lake.”

Ahmed Rakha, Advisor of the CEO of Environmental Affairs Agency in Cairo
المراكب تصطف على الشاطئ استعداد لرحلة صيد
The shores of Lake Manzala lined with fishing boats and water hyacinth. Islands can also be seen in the lake.

“In 1900, the lake area was about 1,902 square kilometers. By 1981, it had been reduced to 909.85 square kilometers because of the large number of islands that intercalate the lake causing the surface water to decrease into 700 square kilometers only. The lake receives around 7,500 million cubic meters of mixed untreated agricultural, industrial and sewage wastewaters annually.

In addition to the wastewaters coming from the upper cypress and Bahr al-Baqar drain, the amount of water decreased until it reached 4,000 million cubic meters, as the area of ​​the lake reached 100 square kilometers, with average water depth of only 1.15 meters and around 1,000 islands still.”

On the other hand, an anonymous source, who refused to reveal his identity, told us that the reason for Lake Manzala’s shrinking was due to the digging of Al-Salam Canal in the 1980s. Lake Manzala used to flow downstream into Ismailia, but was largely reduced because of Al-Salam Canal.

Treatment of Bahr Al-Bakar drainage water 

In a statement issued by the Egyptian General Authority for Fisheries in 2019, the government confirmed the establishment of a water treatment plant for the Bahr al-Baqar drain, to reduce pollution in the lake and assist in the reclamation of 400,000 feddans of desert lands.

The station aims to divert the drainage of Bahr al-Baqar from pouring into Lake Manzala, in order to save the lake from pollution, develop fisheries and protect the environment.

The Arab Contractors Company executing Bahr Al-Baqar Bank desalination plant, in cooperation with Orascom Construction, confirmed their construction of the giant Bahr Al-Baqar sewage treatment plant at a cost of one billion dollars.

On social media, the Arab contractors stated that the station is the largest in the world, with a capacity of 5 million cubic meters per day.

The treated water is transferred to North Sinai to be used in reclaiming 330,000 feddans in the areas of Sahel Al-Tina, South Qantara, Rabaa, Bir Al-Abed, Al-Sir and Al-Qawareer. This is added to 70,000 feddans which are currently being cultivated in the two areas of Sahel Al-Tina and Eastern-Qantara, bringing the total cultivated lands to 400,000 acres. This water will transform the desert lands to productive lands around which the “Itqan” settlement project is being built, a modern residential complex based on industry and agriculture. 

The Authority also stated that the project successfully managed to purify Bahr Al-Baqar drainage water which was polluting Manzala Lake’s water, to provide treated and unpolluted water to the lake instead. 

Orascom Construction and the Arab Contractors Company submitted an official application for the Bahr al-Baqar water treatment plant project to register in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest desalination plant in the world, operating with a capacity of 64.8 cubic meters per second.

The project that was executed as a joint co-operation between Orascom and Arab contractors is being supervised by the Engineering Authority of Armed Forces.

Water Hyacinth sucks out 3 cubic meters of water in Egypt

According to the Nile Basin Initiative Strategic Water Resources Analysis report, the average annual flow of river Nile at the entrance of Aswan’s High Dam is estimated to be 73 milliard cubic meter. However, under naturalized  conditions of no man‐made abstraction, the annual yield of the basin  would be approximately 94 milliard cubic meters. 

A large amount of water is lost through evaporation and abstractions. This includes 16 BCM in abstractions upstream of the High Aswan Dam and 5 BCM in evaporation from man‐made reservoirs other than the High Aswan Dam. The annual estimated overall losses due to evaporation from the High Aswan Dam is around 13 milliard cubic meter, with average losses due to evaporation from all dams around 18 milliard cubic meters annually.

The cause of water evaporation at high rates in Manzala Lake is owed to the water hyacinth, an invasive plant which is abundant at the water surface of the lake and inside the bogazes or the openings that join the lake with the sea, leading to unbalanced water levels between the lake and the sea.

“The water hyacinth’s original home is at the rivers of South America, and the reason it became abundant in Egypt, especially at Manzala Lake, had two different stories: The first story claims that it was brought to Egypt during the ruling of Khedive Tawfiq, who was known for his fascination with beautiful new horticultural plants, while the second story claims it was brought through the natural river movements coming from the banks of Sudan,” said Yasser Shbana, professor of Agriculture at Mansoura University. 

Water hyacinth has the capacity of spreading very quickly, as two plants of the water hyacinth are capable of covering an acre of water during one growing season of four months. 

Yasser Shbana, Professor of Agriculture at Mansoura University.

Also read; The Continual Wrath of Water Hyacinth in Lake Tana

The plant reproduces through extensions and is climate sensitive. It spreads during summer covering water surfaces, and shrinks during winter to smaller areas. Either way, it blocks the openings through which water flows between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Manzala.

The transpiration process is the evaporation of water from the plant’s epidermis. One cubic meter covered with water hyacinth speeds up water evaporation 3 to 8 times more than that of the same volume of exposed water surface free of water hyacinth. This was found to waste about 3 billion cubic meters of water across all of Egypt, according to a 2005 study by Dr. Yasser Shabana.

Dr. Yasser explained: “Water hyacinth consumes 3 billion cubic meters of water throughout one year, wasting a lot of water due to the transpiration process, i.e. plant respiration, where water evaporates through the stomata (pores) of the leaves. It also affects the quality and quantity of fish, as its thick leaves cover the lake preventing sunlight and oxygen which is needed by fish and thus leading to extermination of fish, especially the fry. It also enhances the spreading of mosquitoes that transmit malaria and lure snakes into the lake.”

ورد النيل يغطي أجزاء كبيرة من بحيرة المنزلة 2 1
Water hyacinth and litter covering most parts of Lake Manzala

“The only benefit of the water hyacinth is the absorption of heavy toxic elements in water such as lead, arsenic and mercury,” Yasser said.

Eliminating water hyacinth is an important environmental demand. Yasser said, “Since 1990, it has been forbidden to spray any chemical pesticide on the water, and the only way to get rid of the water hyacinth was through dredgers mechanically, but soon after, the water hyacinth reappears, even double spreads. I suggested a green solution to eliminate roses through manipulation of biological control methods, for instance through using a specific fungus that destroys water hyacinth plants without affecting other aquatic plants. The idea was published as my Ph.D in 1992. I was awarded because of my research in 2019 from the Former Minister of Irrigation, Dr. Mohamed Abdel Atti.”

“I isolated a fungus that naturally infected one of the water hyacinth plants; then the fungus was stimulated to increase spores production to higher potentials. Later, the modified fungus was sprayed for about 7 weeks; we observed that the water hyacinth sickened then demolished. The same fungus was tested for safety on fish, water, and other plants. It was found that it is safe to be applied to eliminate the roses, which harbors malaria eggs and causes diseases by acting as a carrier to schistosomiasis snails, causing bilharzia besides sheltering snakes.”

Regarding the uses and recycling of the water hyacinth, Yasser answered;

“It would be difficult, as it contains several toxins extracted from the water. Also, around 97% of its weight is water, causing higher rates of transportation fees.”

Newcomer fishes to Manzala Lake after disinfection

Recently the executive bodies carried out several purification efforts in Lake Manzala, resulting in the removal of encroachments, reeds, and water hyacinths. This also led to the introduction of new types of fish species into the lake.

Magdy Zaher, Executive Director of Manzala Lake, declared that “the first phase of purification in Lake Manzala included about 150 thousand feddans.

All reeds and harmful components were removed. But the water became stagnant, because Lake Manzala contains high islands that prevent the flow of water. So assignments were made by the Presidency of the Republic to the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces to drench the islands so that the water moves for the first time in the lake’s history, allowing newcomers of fishes to enter the lake, such as sea bass, sea bream and crab.

أحد الصيادين يبيع ما قام بصيده ليلة أمس
A fisherman selling what he caught the previous night

“The lake was limited to tilapia fish and white shells before disinfection, but after the opening of the spurs and disinfection, new fishes entered, which will improve the development of the national economy.”

Magdy Zaher, Executive Director of Manzala Lake

Zaher continued: “A safe belt has been established on the lake with a length of 8 kilometers on the international coastal road up to the June 30th axis, with a width of 120 meters and a depth of 3 meters, to improve the fishing movement and adjust the water balance, especially during tides.”

Ahmed Rakha, Advisor of the Environmental Affairs Agency CEO in Cairo, added: “Vegetation and sediments removal, then transporting them outside the lake, are parts of the purification process, which aims to increase the water bodies by filling the actual areas of the lakes, then opening these bodies after removing bridges and yards.

While dredging the bogazes and the points where freshwaters meet with the Mediterranean salt water as the last stage of the maintenance of the lakes, we ensure that salty water won’t flow into the freshwater of the lakes, allowing only the other way round (from fresh to salt) as is the case now. The main objective of the maintenance work is to accommodate any potential rises in the Mediterranean water level as a result of climatic changes.”

Ashtum Al-Gamil nature reserve

محمية أشتوم باب الدخول
Entrance of the Ashtoum Nature Reserve

Lake Manzala is home to the Ashtoum El-Gamil Nature Reserve, a 203-square kilometer area that belongs to Port Said Governorate. 

“[The reserve] falls into the classification of wetland reserves, due to its environmental characteristics that cannot be found in any other reserves, coupled with the fact that it includes two Boghazes: El-Gamil and Ashtoum El-Gamil, which connect the Mediterranean Sea with Lake Manzala and renew water circulation through it, thus increasing the fish stock and preventing the accumulation of heavy elements,” said the nature reserve director, Hussein Rashad.

Ashtoum Al-Gamil and the Tennis Island were announced to be protectorates by Prime Minister Decree No. 459 of 1988, with an area of ​​40 square kilometers. It is considered the seventh declared reserve in Egypt, and its area was increased in 1998 to ​​180 square kilometers, and finally in 2019 to ​​203 square kilometers, he said.

Hussein added: “The reserve is located on the third line of migration of migratory birds coming from West Asia and Eastern Europe. The estimated numbers of migratory visiting birds are about 250,000 birds, representing 250 different species. The phenomenon of bird migration happens because of the freezing of lakes in Asia and Europe, as they migrate in search of food and reproduction in Africa.”

الطيور المهاجرة في محمية أشتوم الجميل
Migratory Birds in the Ashtoum Reserve

In the end of our tour, Hussein concluded: “The water moves from the Mediterranean Sea to Lake Manzala through Bogazes, while the water moves from the Suez Canal directly to Lake Manzala through the Raswa connection channel, where it maintains the navigation movement in the Suez Canal and feeds the lake as the Suez Canal supplies the lake with water during tidal waves, where the water level rises, causing water to move into Lake Manzala. This occurs twice a day, i.e. every 12 hours which helps in the navigation movement in the Egyptian Suez Canal.”

Lake Manzala is a source of livelihood for thousands of fishermen in Dakahlia

The sea provides the lake with salt water, carrying the best types of fish that make the lake a wealth of fish, enriching the regional economy. Some of the fish that live in saltwater include sea bass, bream, lotus, shrimp, crab, sahili, Moses, sage and sardines.

Fishermen living in the governorates overlooking the lake are living on the bounties of Manzala Lake.

One of the fishermen, who refused to give his name, told us: “The lake contains types of fish, including Hassani, green fish, indigo and tilapia. I start my fishing trip at dawn until 10 in the morning usually, where I fish by spinning and I sell my catch in the Matariya fish market.”

He continued: “There are several methods of fishing, such as; spinning, electric fishing, which is considered a crime, and other methods such as traction fishing and roll fishing. The obstacles that we face in fishing are the high prices of gasoline and electric fishing, which eliminates the fry fish. I earn between 50 and 70 pounds per day, and fish prices range from 5 to 20 pounds. For Tobar fish the price ranges from 35 pounds to 40 pounds.”

Mounir El-Sayed Ali El-Bahrawy, a fisherman in El-Matareya, Dakahlia Governorate, says, “I take my fishing trip from three in the afternoon until five in the morning the next day. I fish by spinning and I catch different types of fish, including the small and large shamrocks.”

The fish industry was affected by the entry of all types of fish that are found in salt water into the lake, especially in Port Said.

The water changes back and forth on a daily basis. Saltwater levels merge into the lake, as there are 6 hours of tides that allow saltwater in with saltwater fish carried as well. There are also 8 hours where freshwater enters the salt water to the Mediterranean.

We moved to the spinning market in the city of Matariya, which is administered by  Dakahlia Governorate, and met with one of the craftsmen of net spinning called Abdel Rahman Al-Far, a trader of fishing tools. He said: “The threads that are used in net spinning are many, including hair thread, silk thread, cotton thread, polyester cotton thread, and the most expensive of them is silk thread.

The price per kilo is 200 pounds. I spin nets that are used in fishing, as they are placed in the pipes of fish farms, and it is a narrow silk thread that prevents fish from escaping as it prevents the entry of water. The net market is in a state of stagnation in sales in Matariya.”

This story was produced in June 2022, supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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