Public urination: A Cairo problem

Amr Kotb, Thursday 2 Oct 2014

Why is public urination so common in Cairo and what is being done about it?

Cairo's public urination problem (Photo: Amr Kotb)

On a Saturday afternoon in downtown Cairo, the centrally located Bab Al-Louq public restroom is empty. Its three urinals, three stalls, and deafening silence are in stark contrast to the bustle of downtown, a popular hub for the town’s weekenders. Across the street from the bathroom is the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, a building whose steps reek of urine, and serve as host to frequent passersby seeking to relieve themselves.

Indeed many open areas throughout downtown Cairo are subject to the bodily fluids of its citizens, and in a hot and polluted city where it rarely rains, historical Cairo suffers from strong odours that aren’t exactly fragrant and the sight of something that isn’t exactly decent.

For all the people peeing on the steps of the Chamber of Commerce, behind their car doors in the midst of traffic, or up and down the Garden City corniche, it is rare to see a concerned citizen – or even a police officer taking issue.

So if public restrooms are available, and the city’s image is being trashed, why are people peeing everywhere while no one seems to mind?

Mohamed, a manager at the Mobil Petrol Station on Abdel Salam Aref Street, says a lot of it has to do with public restrooms charging those who use their facilities.

“Someone from the upper class has no problem coming in here and paying .25 or .50 piastres to use our bathroom but someone poorer is thinking ‘why pay money when I can do it in the street for free and have free access to water at any old place to wash up?’”

“A lot more people come by asking if they can use the hose than they do the restroom,” he adds.

So if places like gas stations and state-built public facilities charge, where can people go for free? Staff and managers at restaurants and coffee shops throughout downtown such as Gad, McDonald’s, and Strand Coffee shop all allow anyone to use their facilities. Mosques also allow anyone from the public to use their restrooms.

“I can usually go to the bathroom at any mosque in the area, but I feel like a lot of people don’t realise that this is an option,” said a garbage collector downtown

“Most of the people who urinate in public are either too lazy to find a place to go, have diabetes or assume no one will let them in,” explained one security guard outside the National Bank on Sherif Street.

The guard also adds that heavy traffic congestion often leads people to urinate in the middle of the street and suggested that the governorate put Porta Johns on the medians of congested divided highways. 

Many Cairenes have become frustrated with public urination downtown.

 “I avoid bridges downtown almost entirely because of the smell; they are the underbelly of Cairo,” said 37-year-old Zamalek resident Abbas. He adds that “even signs that say 'No Public Urination' have been peed on."

“The government needs to do something about this, it’s very indecent,” said Mohamed, adding that downtown needs a large, clean and free facility where citizens feel comfortable using the restroom.

It's not just Cairenes who are fed up with public urination, many cities around the world are faced with the same problem. In 2007, the mayor of Paris launched a campaign to put an end to Parisians' preference for lampposts and road signs over public toilets.

During the 2007 Paris-hosted rugby world cup, an incident where dozens of men peed on the walls of the city's town hall despite the presence of 62 free, clean public toilets made headlines. 

In 2009, New Delhi launched a campaign that used billboards on buses and highways to embarrass its public offenders. England also has had its fair share of issues, with a 2012 report stating that up to 30 people per day were being caught in the act of public urination in the historic town of Chester.

Each of these city's campaigns all hinged upon the same issue: restrooms were available but people were not using them. As such their goals were to raise awareness and embarrass offenders. 

So what is Cairo doing about its urination problem? In 2006, then-governor Abdel Azim Wazir announced plans for the installation of 15 electronic toilet facilities with a focus on downtown.

In an interview with Ahram Online, Khaled Mostafa, spokesperson for the governorate, said that plans had not been completed because of security reasons, citing instances of robbery during the January 25 revolution. Although the government tried to pick things back up afterwards, it wasn’t long before the events following Mohamed Morsi’s ouster ended them once more.

Today Mostafa says his governorate recognises the problem with public urination and is focusing on building more basic facilities resembling the one in Bab Al-Louq throughout the downtown area. The spokesperson told of recently constructed bathrooms on Moez street as well as very soon-to-be built ones in Torgoman, a car park where street vendors were recently relocated.

But if people are passing up on Bab Al-Louq’s facility in favour of the steps of the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps the government should also be focusing on an awareness campaign.

Mostafa, however, disagrees: “We don’t need to focus on awareness, it’s more about cleaning our polluted streets,” he said, adding that “if people see that the streets are clean and well-maintained, they will be less inclined to do what they’re doing and this is a long-term project we are working on.”

Perhaps then, the city should channel its efforts to garbage collection. Regardless, it seems like it has its hands full.

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