The government plans to declare Egypt slum-free by the end of this year. There are 357 areas identified as slums. They cover one per cent of Egypt’s inhabited land and are home to a little over a million people, according to Khaled Seddik, executive manager of the Informal Settlements Development Fund (ISDF).
Following a presidential directive four years ago, the ISDF began conducting separate demographic and economic studies on each of these areas to determine the number of residents, and their age and economic profiles, said Seddik.
The studies revealed the number of families in urgent need of safe housing, leading to 241,000 residential units being built in large new complexes which include Asmarat I, II, and III, Maan (Together), Ahaleena (Our Families), Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt City), Amal (Hope), as well as in smaller compounds.
Slum areas are classified into four categories according to the level of danger they pose to inhabitants. The life-threatening category included the Dweika area, where residents live on the edge of Muqattam mountain, and settlements built in the path of floods. Unfit settlements included houses built from construction debris which lack utilities and do not afford privacy to their inhabitants. Areas designated as posing a health risk included Haggana, where people lived under high-pressure electric cables, and the Tebbin district which is heavily polluted owing to the proximity of cement factories. The fourth category, unsafe possession, includes dwellings built on state-owned lands.
Egypt has spent LE32 billion in the past four years to provide alternative accommodation for shanty dwellers, said Seddik.
“Some 60,000 families live in shanty areas in Cairo, though not all of them had to be relocated. In Tebbin, for example, the problem of pollution was addressed by connecting factories with drainage networks and putting in place a system for managing solid and chemical waste and air pollutants.”
The government spent LE700 million on the High Dam district in Cairo’s Nasr City, replacing high-pressure aerial electric cables with subterranean ones. Even so, said Seddik, the area requires the relocation of 43,000 families to new housing units. Recent studies have established a link between living close to high voltage cables and certain kinds of cancers.
In line with United Nations recommendations, slum dwellers are relocated within the borders of their cities and where residents have had to relocate some distance from their places of work the government “ensured as much as possible that transportation means were provided,” said Seddik.
In Asmarat four factories were opened to provide jobs, many for women within the framework of Egypt’s ongoing plans to empower women economically and socially. The government also allocated ID numbers and birth certificates to shanty dwellers who lacked official papers with a formal address so they could acquire ration cards and enrol in social protection programmes such as Karama and Takaful.
In Sinai many dwellings had been constructed on flood pathways. The government built new houses, the design of which takes into account the different social and cultural habits of the peninsula’s residents. Similarly, in areas where fishermen live on the coast or the Nile, the government built houses metres away from their previous residences and set up small ports and storage depots for fishing equipment.
Eradicating slums does not end at relocation, it must also include programmes to economically empower the inhabitants. Studies were conducted to determine how slum dwellers, including the elderly and people with special needs, might best benefit from social protection programmes like soft loans for female breadwinners, and the provision of schools, sports facilities, youth centres and healthcare units nearby. Programmes were introduced to enhance residents’ social networking and entrepreneurship skills, and to offer vocational training.
Mohamed Abu Samra, a former expert with UN-Habitat, lauded the government’s efforts to improve the lives of people living in informal settlements through economic empowerment and access to the state’s social protection network. He believes, however, that in its endeavours to eliminate slums the government hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the cultural and social dimensions of the residents’ lives.
“In poor areas the world over there is social capital, the bond and solidarity developed over time between families living in one neighbourhood, whether they are related or not. Egypt’s plans to eliminate shantytowns never really embraced the need to relocate communities together,” he said.
Abu Samra also cites the example of the Max district in Alexandria where “the fishermen’s houses could have been restored”. Abu Samra concedes that building new houses for them was cost efficient, but argues restoring the existing dwellings would have preserved the mood of the area.
“While there is no denying the efforts the government has exerted to deal with the economic side of the slum equation, and its attempts to ensure people are relocated as close to their former areas of residence as possible, a better balance could perhaps have been struck between the economic dimension on one hand, and the social and cultural on the other,” concluded Abu Samra.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly