FUWWAH — Stepping off a small boat as it docks along the Nile, Ahmed Khaled, a 22-year-old fisherman, looks dissatisfied. For the fifth time in just three weeks, he had carefully prepared the lures and rigs of his fishing equipment and set out in his sick father's sailboat — only to come back empty-handed.

"The fish are abundant," Khaled says, waving his arm out across the Nile. "But they are all dead."

Khaled and his neighbors in Fuwwah, a small fishing town some 150 kilometers north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, first noticed when they went fishing in December: Piles of glimmering scales caught the sunlight as they washed up cold onto the banks of the narrow tributary. Many of the locals dismissed the sight of the dead fish as they have been a common sight for years.

Every January, thousands of dead silver carp are swept up onto the town's shores. And every year, in sync with the dead fish that overwhelm the riverbank, the government shirks responsibility.

The fate of Fuwwah's fish also holds the fate of thousands of jobs, and the viability of a once lively industry that in its heyday exported abroad and fed thousands of Egyptians.

The government body responsible for developing national fish resources, the General Authority for Fish Resources Development, says it has no authority over Nile resources, shifting the blame to the Ministry of Irrigation, which in turn pins the responsibility on fishermen.

The government introduced silver carp to the Nile back in the 1980s, believing the measure would help eradicate pests in the Nile — especially plankton — and prevent schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia, a parasitic disease caused by freshwater snails and worms).

Fishermen found that the silver carp population expanded faster than other fish, and that breeding them was simple and cheap. So they put them in cages and fed them with massive amounts of poultry farm waste, but this caused river pollution. They also planted tree trunks near the banks of the river, allowing them to decay and provide a favorable habitat for the fish to lay their eggs. These incubators, however, caused additional damage since the process of decay depletes the oxygen in water.

Cages go deep

The irrigation ministry tried to cut down on river pollution in 2013 by changing the law. A new amendment to the Nile Protection Act criminalized the fishery cages, and the ministry cracked down on those breaking the law.

"The Ministry of Irrigation did not consult with us on the matter, nor did they give us time to find solutions," says Khaled. He explains that in order to dodge raids, fishermen submerge the cages in deeper water — a practice that hides the fish, but also kills many of them due to the lower oxygen concentration in deeper water.

Dead fish in a water treatment plant — Nada Arafat

But this is now the only reason why the fish are dying. Located at the northern end of the Nile, Fuwwah and the larger Kafr al-Sheikh Governorate have become a sort of waste terminal for the river. "The city is highly vulnerable to pollution," says Kawthar Hefny, head of the central department for crisis management at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

The slow flow of water toward the end of the Rosetta branch — the tributary along which Kafr al-Sheikh sits — allows pollution to build and severely damages the river's ecosystem, pushing fish species like the Nile perch toward extinction.

Environment Minister Khaled Fahmy says that reducing the water level in the Nile amplifies pollution caused by agricultural and sewage waste. An investigation committee formed by the Ministry of Health agrees, citing pollution as the primary cause of fish fatalities.

Analysis of the Nile water showed high concentration of ammonia compounds that are mainly present in agricultural, human and other organic waste. Hefny says the lack of a sewage system for growing communities like the Saieyda and Dahab islands in Kafr al-Sheikh means that human waste is dumped directly into the river.

In late December and early January of every year, Egypt's water consumption declines and the irrigation ministry reduces the flow of water through the Aswan Dam for up to 40 days, a process referred to as "winter closure." The ministry's spokesman Khaled Wassif explains that winter crops require little water, which prompts the ministry to ease the load on its irrigation canals and treatment plants. It also means less river water passes through Fuwwah to dilute, and flush away, pollutants. This is when the fish die.

Deadly ammonia

Ahmed Farouk, assistant professor at Kafr al-Sheikh University's faculty of aquatic sciences and fisheries, is part of a university committee that tests the water. He says that samples show high concentrations of ammonia, and ammonium indicate that organic waste is breaking down in the river. Ammonia, a colorless gas, is particularly harmful to fish. It can degrade their respiratory organs, eventually killing them.

When Farouk visited the contaminated areas, he discovered that the effect has spread beyond silver carp. This year, the committee also found dead tilapia, the most widely consumed fish in Egypt — an indication that the problem is getting worse.

The government was late to respond. The environment agency's Hefny says the ministry will take several measures to guarantee that the water is safe, including regular collection of water samples and the oversight of factories close to the Nile to observe violations. However, fishermen, residents and NGOs have expressed doubt about how effective these measures can be. One NGO, Habi Center for Environmental Rights, has filed a report with the prosecutor general accusing the ministers of environment, housing and irrigation, among others, of negligence. The Habi Center says the government has only taken measures against fishermen, without addressing the real cause of pollution.

A history of flawed reforms has also made people skeptical. When the government amended the law to provide more protection to the Nile in 2013, they left a major loophole. A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights notes that the amendments prohibit dumping untreated industrial waste into fresh surface water and groundwater reservoirs. However, the law does not mention non-fresh surface waters, thereby offering a loophole for factories to discharge untreated industrial waste into other waterways, including irrigation canals that eventually stream into the Nile. The report also pointed to weak oversight and poor enforcement of existing measures.

Dead fish washed up along the Nile in Fuwwah — Photo: Nada Arafat

In general, the law does not limit pollution. Even the fish resources development authority has a fish farm adjacent to the water treatment facility that serves most of Kafr al-Sheikh and Beheira. Waste from that farm can be seen inside of the water plant.

At one of Fuwwah's main public hospitals, doctors often advise citizens to avoid drinking tap water. But warnings aren't enough for people like Samia, a Fuwwah resident and mother to 6-month-old twins. Samia's doctor advised her to use only bottled water for her infants, but she can't always afford it. Instead, she says she often boils tap water, a solution that is not always sufficient to deal with serious pollutants.

Water pollution doesn't just affect public health in those areas. Fish traders risk losing their livelihood. A scarcity of fish — a key source of protein for locals — has pushed up the price of poultry and meat, which are seen as substitutes. Meanwhile, even those who eat fish can face problems since organic pollutants and other toxins can be passed through the food chain.

Recently, a group of fishermen stood on the banks of the Nile, debating the rising number of dead fish. Some admit they are part of the problem, while others blame factories in Kafr al-Zayat, which they say discharge industrial waste into the river. But they all agree when one fisherman says the government doesn't care for ordinary citizens. "To them," one quipes, "we don't exist."