Sun, September 28, 2008
World > Middle East

Cairo's poorest live life on the edge

2008-09-28 08:09:23 GMT2008-09-28 16:09:23 (Beijing Time)

An Egyptian resident leaves a house in Manshiyet Nasser shanty town in eastern Cairo, September 13, 2008. (Nasser Nuri/Reuters)

CAIRO - As Manal Mohamed goes about her day, in the back of her mind she's on alert for signs the ground might be moving, fearing a repetition of the rockfall that crushed homes and lives in Cairo's Duwaiqa district this month.

"I want to leave this area, but I cannot get an apartment anywhere else," she said, standing on a rocky outcrop in Istabl Antar, not far from Duwaiqa where boulders tumbled down on dozens of homes on September 6, killing more than 100 people.

Residents say between 100 and 600 bodies may still be under the rubble at the bottom of the cliffs.

Istabl Antar is part of a ring of dusty shanty towns around the Muqattam Hills on the southern and eastern edges of Cairo, a city of around 16 million people where an economic boom has widened a very visible rich-poor divide.

People who have poured into Cairo from the water-starved countryside eke out simple lives in these shanty towns among sand-colored rocks and winding streets.

Some districts hold about 100,000 people per square mile (41,000 per square km) and residents say they have suffered from decades of government neglect.

These sprawling neighborhoods are a stark reminder of the social challenges faced by the government of the most populous Arab country, even at a time of robust economic growth.

Egypt's population of 76 million is growing faster than the economy can support, the cost of living is soaring -- with urban prices up 23.6 percent in the year to August -- and President Hosni Mubarak's government is coming under fire for failing to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The United Nations says that the proportion of people living in absolute poverty has risen -- despite economic growth of around 7 percent a year for the past two years.

The people of Istabl Antar are among those who have missed out and their poverty has left them in physical danger. The risk of another rockfall is ever present but most people here do not have the money to leave.

Inadequate plumbing in ramshackle buildings -- some housing large families in single rooms -- leaks water into the cliff, weakening the rock and making further rockfalls likely.

"My fear is for the people below," said one of Mohamed's friends as she pointed toward a warren of houses huddled 20 meters (60 feet) below at the foot of the cliff.

"The catastrophe would be if it falls on them from here."


This month's rockfall was not the first here.

Nearly 15 years ago, a 3,000-tonne chunk of rock crushed houses and buried at least 50 people in Manshiyet Nasser in the Duwaiqa district.

The type of rock in the area -- limestone with deposits of shale -- is susceptible to erosion by water, which swells the shale and helps caves form in the limestone, according to the Geological Survey of Egypt.

Despite the precarious nature of the environment and the makeshift appearance of many of the homes, some families have lived in these shanty towns for generations.

"My father, may God preserve him, came here more than 30 years ago," Mohamed said.

The government response to the Duwaiqa disaster has been to cordon off the area with a dozen riot police and offer to rehouse survivors in new apartments nearby.

The authorities have also begun evacuating 80 families from dangerous locations in Istabl Antar.

Local media reports say there is growing discontent about the allocation of the new housing, with some residents saying that people with contacts in government have received new homes, even when they were not affected by the rockfall.

And there are also complaints from some of those who have already moved, bringing what little they could salvage to bare apartments which still have no electricity or running water.

"This apartment needs a lot of repair," said Waheed Arafa, whose sister's house was crushed by the rockfall and who has moved into a new building a short distance away. He showed Reuters a blocked toilet that did not flush.

Another man in the same building pointed to cracks in the walls and said water leaked through the ceiling. He said the government had given him the apartment after demolishing the five-storey house he owned in Duwaiqa as a safety precaution.

Others, who were not directly affected by the rockfall but who fear another landslide, feel trapped as they do not have the means to move.

"I live in a room with eight kids as you saw," said Abdullah Sayyid Abdul Rahim. "I've been here for two years in this place. I looked for other places to live but I found nothing but this room ... I don't know where to take my wife and children."


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