Fathi Abdel Aziz Sukkar (73) and his son spent five years away from their family and community, hoping to save a small portion of the price of the land that would insure the family’s future.
He went to Libya for hard labour that did not suit his age, leaving behind eight children and a wife, and his eldest son went to Saudi Arabia without finishing his schooling, to help his father support the family.
Fathi learned from his wife during one of their monthly phone calls that there was land for sale at a reasonable price in their hamlet, Abu Ghaleb, in the Giza governorate in northern Egypt. She asked him to consider returning and trying to buy it, even in instalments, and then working on it; she could not bear to continue raising eight children on her own.
Fathi did so, returning to Egypt permanently, and persuaded his son to do the same.
Fathi considered the abundant harvest he gained from this land in the first two years of its purchase to be compensation for the terrible days of migrant labour, but this dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
In 2010, the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company decided to build a power station in the village of Abu Ghaleb with a capacity of 2,250 megawatts, with the help of loans from the National Bank and international development banks, including $840 million from the World Bank.
According to the testimonies of fifteen farmers who met with the two investigators for this report, the new station, later known as the North Giza Compound Station, was the cause of the destruction of agricultural crops due to fumes, emissions and intense night lighting from the station adjacent to Fathi's and his neighbours' land.
Fathi, his son and his neighbours all saw their land dry up as a result of the government company withdrawing groundwater. The company compensated them with 10,000 Egyptian pounds to dig their own wells and find other alternatives to irrigate their lands.
However, they were left with the same troubles they have today. Due to the station's location in the centre of their farms and the release of its fumes onto their crops, their main source of income, Fathi and his neighbours lose nearly a third of their crop annually.
According to documents issued by the World Bank for the North Giza complex plant, an environmental and social impact assessment was conducted before the project was implemented, and it was reviewed and approved by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. However, the Bank also confirms that in May 2012 it received a complaint from four farmers living near the power station, saying the construction of the power station could have a negative impact on groundwater and agricultural production. The ownership company therefore installed meters to monitor groundwater levels.
Despite nine years of making official complaints, the crops of Fathi and his neighbours continue to suffer from the effects of dust and light.
Fathi produces citrus fruits such as tangerines and lemons, which he harvests each November, but his lengthy wait is met with sorrow and grief as the fruits fall off one by one when the plant's smoke falls on them.
He calculates that he loses 120,000 Egyptian pounds annually, or $7,619 per feddan (equal to 1.037 acres), as a result of the burning fruits.
The complaint is a collective affair
All 30,000 villagers are in the same situation. They have suffered a poor harvest as a result of emissions and exhaust from the power station adjacent to their lands. The vegetables on their farms have turned yellow and threaten to rot, and the fruit has fallen from the trees, increasing their debts and worries.
A 2014 research document titled ‘Abu Ghaleb Compensation’ by the Egyptian Centre for Civil and Legislative Reform (Civil Society Foundation) confirms that the residents of the hamlet have experienced significant losses as a result of the station's construction near their agricultural areas.
The study also described the low crop production, whether fields or fruit trees; output is now below 30% of the average, particularly for grapes (27%) and custard apples (27%).
According to the study, a number of farmers have been jailed as a result of their inability to repay agricultural loans and advances.
Abu Ghaleb's economic significance – volume of production and citrus fruits
Dr Atef Mohamed Fathi, Assistant Professor at the National Research Centre’s Air Pollution Department, received his doctorate in 2012 for his research on emissions from the Shubra El-Kheima and Helwan power plants. He says the plants' use of natural gas reduces the volume of carbon emissions but does not eliminate them.
He explains that the gases emitted from power station chimneys are usually “oxides of sulphur – nitrogen oxides”, which burn the plant and the leaf of the plant, or the fruit itself, and that these gases cause 30% of the agricultural loss. The chimneys also emit dust, hydrocarbon chemicals and heavy metals, all of which harm crops and soil.
According to Dr Atef Mohamed, the height of the chimney is a major factor in the damage to crops and agricultural lands adjacent to the stations: the lower the chimney, the more direct the damage to the areas adjacent to the station; whereas the higher the chimney, the larger the damaged area. This is an additional issue that the people of Bani Ghalib have raised with the investigators: the station's failure to comply with the prescribed chimney height.
Engineer Mohamed Zaher, head of the North Giza Electricity Station, is suspicious of the farmers' complaints. He describes them as out of date, since the station's development began in 2010, and says there is currently no damage to their fields or agricultural produce.
In a phone call with the investigators, he added that the North Giza power station's chimneys do not emit any type of exhaust, and that the station includes devices that monitor everything in the station. He noted that the station primarily operates on natural gas and does not emit any exhaust, as would be the case if it operated on diesel, as diesel is one of the causes of pollution.
Long history of complaints
The suffering of Ayman Muhammad and his brothers has not been limited to the loss of the annual crop. The land they inherited from their father (3.25 acres) was the reason for Ayman's constant search for parties who would hear his complaints.
Ayman began his quest to save his land in 2012, sending letters to the World Bank and compiling documents and objections against the power project. The most recent was a complaint filed in August 2016 by Ayman, his brothers and his neighbours.
Based on the complaint, a committee from the Agricultural Society in the village of Abu Ghaleb went down to inspect the affected lands. In its report, which it submitted to the Qanater facility, it says the inspection found brown and yellow spots of unknown source on the fruit and on the vegetative leaves, as well as on the trees next to the power station. It also noted damage and fallen fruit.
Complaint and report ⇦
The Cairo-based company that runs the station rejected the farmers' complaints and stating to Minute No. 30 of 2017, which was edited by Ayman and his neighbours, by stating that the station had been built with the latest technology to reduce emissions and the most advanced systems to monitor them, in order to preserve the environment.
The station's chimneys are also linked to the Environmental Affairs Agency in order to monitor that all emissions conform to Egyptian environmental protection rules. Furthermore, emissions are monitored on a regular basis by the Environmental Affairs Department of a Cairo-based corporation and the central laboratories.
Dr Maher Aziz, a consultant for energy, environment and climate change who was previously head of the Environmental Studies department at the Electricity Holding Company and responsible for preparing the environmental report for the establishment of the North Giza power station, also states that the station is environmentally friendly and does not emit any polluting emissions, and describes the farmers’ complaints as malicious.
The land is honour
Muhammad Al-Masry Muhammad, the owner of 11 acres adjacent to the station, says the area damaged due to the station surpasses 100 acres. He estimates his own loss as a third of the crop, worth about 220,000 Egyptian pounds a year.
"Before building the station, an acre produced 40 tons of tangerines or mangoes, but now it does not exceed 18 tons," he explains. "Before the construction of the station in our area, we tried many times to communicate with officials and have it built in an area far from our property and our homes, but our request was rejected."
This is despite the village's vitality and relevance to the Greater Cairo region, due to its production of one-third of the citrus fruits needed there.
Al-Masry and the landowners refuse to sell up and leave the area; they say their land is an irreplaceable honour, and wonder where they would move to.
According to Dr Magdy Allam, consultant to the World Climate Program and Secretary General of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts, power generation results in a large proportion of oil and natural gas being burned, resulting in environmental pollutants, and because natural gas is Egypt's main source of energy, the land surrounding the stations suffers the most damage.
He adds that power plants create acid rain, caused by the mixing of the chemical gases they emit with water vapour in the air. This produces nitric acid, which causes the leaves of trees and plants to turn yellow. This is what the farmer calls the “burning” of the crops and the spoilage of the fruit, and they point out that the proximity of their land to the power station makes their crops more vulnerable. Acid rain has a variety of consequences for plants and soil, including altering the layer that covers the planted leaves and preventing plants from performing adequate photosynthesis, as well as causing soil nutrients to degrade.
Dr Mustafa Murad, head of the Ministry of Environment's Central Air Quality Department, states that a large proportion of the power stations are monitored via the national network for monitoring industrial emissions, emphasising that regulatory reports cannot be published in the press or media because they contain "very confidential" data.
"The natural gas power stations function in compliance with environmental requirements, thus no transgression has issued from them," he says, pointing out that abuses surface if any of the power stations use a fuel other than natural gas, such as mazut. Noting that there is a big oversupply of power stations, the Ministry has begun to shut down a number of ageing stations that generate environmental difficulties.
Fathi, Ayman and Al-Masry are simply requesting that chimney filters be installed to prevent further damage to their farms. Fathi sighs and says, "We make our living by using our strength; we do not wish or intend to injure ourselves or them." Ayman fights every day to communicate concerns to officials and find a solution, while Al-Masry is bracing for crop losses in the upcoming harvest season, which begins in November.