Locals help transform their shanty town

Manshiet Nasser, a shanty town perched precariously on sandstone cliffs in the desert outskirts of Cairo, the Middle East’s largest city, is in the midst of witnessing a transformation of its fortunes. (See photo slideshow)

Some 800,000 people are crammed into this ‘informal settlement’. The problems of density - 110,000 people per square kilometre - geography - steep slopes and unstable bedrock - and a lack of organised infrastructure have long combined to make Manshiet Nasser a byword for urban deprivation.

The makeshift city is the product of a long pattern of uncontrolled internal migration that began in the late 1950s, as rural populations moved to Egypt’s cities looking for work. They built homes illegally on government land, spawning settlements that grew without restraint or planning for half a century.

Manshiet Nasser is so-called because the area was first provided with basic amenities, such as sewage and water systems, during the rule of Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the 1960s. That original bequeath, however, was soon hopelessly inadequate, as the shanty town already had more than 100,000 residents by the early 1970s. Since then, residents, who mostly lacked resources, added to basic services in an ad-hoc, individualist way.

But for the past four years, moves have been underway to bring Manshiet Nasser, and areas like it, into the fold of official recognition and municipal services.

“The easy way to deal with the problem would be to demolish and start from scratch without paying attention to the people here,” Khalil Shaat, head of Cairo governorate’s new Informal Areas Upgrading Unit, said. “But that doesn’t take into account all the human, social and economic wealth. We are taking a participatory approach.”

Upgrade and legalising

In 2003, Germany’s overseas development arm (GTZ) and the Egyptian government joined forces to upgrade Manshiet Nasser’s infrastructure through a €15m grant - from KfW, a German-owned bank who are joint partners with GTZ in the project - to improve water and sewage distribution and treatment, road paving and other works.

''The easy way to deal with the problem would be to demolish and start from scratch without paying attention to the people here. But that doesn’t take into account all the human, social and economic wealth.''

While the five to six year project is being carried out, a recent initiative to formerly recognise ‘informal settlements’ has begun.

Backed by President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, a scheme was introduced to officially register the land on which informal settlements are built. Affordable fees are charged per square metre of former government land, and residents receive title deeds to their previously unregistered properties.

People previously on the margins of society now have a tradable physical asset – an important step to building sustainable local economies.

“By the end of 2007,” said Shaat, “Manshiet Nasser will be a formerly ‘informal’ area.”

Rubbish and sewage

A walk through the narrow and crowded streets of Manshiet Nasser reveals the scale of challenges facing both residents and planners aiming to improve living standards there. With few roads able to accommodate vehicles, household rubbish accumulates beyond the ability of local donkey-cart drivers to collect it.

Water is still commonly carried to houses on the heads of the women who live in them. Pools of raw sewage collect beneath the drains of homes on the upper levels of Manshiet Nasser’s vertiginous topography.

“The sewage weakens the rock. Six months ago a child was killed by rock-fall here, beside the mosque,” Ahmed Wahba, an engineer who works with one of the GTZ project’s contractors, told IRIN. “If everyone could connect to the sewer, of course they would,” he added.


Photo: Jeff Black/IRIN
Cairo Governorate officials want to see the Manshiet Nasser model developed in all the city's informal areas

Acknowledgement that funds are limited and problems are large has led GTZ and its partners to take a participatory approach to development in the area. Local people have been involved in drawing up a master-plan for the work to be done in their community.

“In that discussion, where a problem is identified, we can respond and get it done. It gives credibility to the whole process,” said Keith Brooke, regional manager for Dorsch Consult, one of GTZ’s partners in the Manshiet Nasser project.

Residents enthusiastic

Understandably, Manshiet Nasser locals are enthusiastic about plans for improved basic services. Residents told IRIN of frequent sewage flooding, and of eye and respiratory ailments that result from high levels of environmental pollution.

“Before the project, every house had a tank for sewage. Every three or four days a man with a horse and cart would take it and put it by the railway lines [about 50 metres away]. The difference now is as if we had all been to the doctor,” said one resident.

The engineers and planners who are working with local people in Manshiet Nasser to address their basic needs say that it is the beginning of a long process, but one that can be emulated elsewhere in Egypt.

“There is a very clear directive now from the government to all the governors that attention has to be given to informal areas. It’s not an everyday business, it is a problem that has to be tackled,” said Shaat.

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