Angered Damietta citizens reject Cabinet decision to suspend construction in polluting factory

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Ola Hamdy , Monday 14 Nov 2011

The Cabinet decision to suspend construction in environmentally dangerous manufacturing plants in Damietta is not enough for protesters who have heard the same promises from the government before

Damietta sit-in is still ongoing (Photo: Mohamed Mostafa)

Protesters are still blocking the city’s main roads, while also laying siege to the city’s port where the old MOPKO (the Egyptian fertiliser production company) plant and its two extensions, still under construction, are located.

After confrontations between activists and security forces that left one dead and a dozen injured, the government announced on Sunday afternoon suspension of construction in the two new plants until authorities examine them for environmental recommendations, but protesters lack trust in the government’s word based on their three-year long struggle with authorities on the issue.

“This is a coastal city, the fishermen have been bearing losses all that while because the chemical waste of the [MOPCO] plant was dumped in the sea. Now they even want to contaminate our drinking water as well, and that would also harm crops,” Ahmed Eissa, a Damietta citizen, told Ahram Online.

Conflicts between Damietta citizens and the authorities over the environmentally hazardous factory plants have been ongoing since 2008, when the Canadian company Agrium began constructing a fertiliser plant near the Damietta seaport after signing a deal with the government in 2006. Despite suggestions that it would be shut down and the company will be compensated as a result, the factory has continued to operate over the past few years.

Later, the expansion of the two new extension plants of MOPCO – in which Agrium owns shares – has reinstated the essence of the struggle, with locals wary of any government-prepared environmental reports about the plants, even after the revolution. Accordingly, protesters are demanding the closure of the first plant.

Protesters denounced pollution from the plant located near a number of villages such as El-Sananiya, Ezbat El-Borg and Kafr El-Battikh. Not only do these plants cause chemical contamination, but they also allegedly use great amounts of Nile water while operating, as the nearby villages suffer severe water shortages.

Hantar Kamal, a villager, spoke of how the children suffer from hives and other infections due to the chemical contamination. "My children suffered from diseases due to the pollution, while pregnant women experienced miscarriages for the same reason," he said. An activist, Hassan Shehab, said: "The plant pumps our water and also contaminates our potable water by emitting poisoning substances into the Nile."

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised to ensure the environmental standards of the plant in question. He said an "emergency committee" composed of the ministers of the environment, oil, health, as well as experts and civil society figures will handle the situation. His promise, however, has failed to defuse the crisis.

Even after the government’s decision on Sunday, people did not go home. Protesters continue to block the roads and surround the seaport gates, but numbers at the port decreased due to bad weather. Protesters in several villages blocked the roads.

In addition to the lack of trust in a government which had previously made the decision to move the factory and had then failed to implement this, another complication arose, when police forces cracked down on the seaport protest early on Sunday morning, killing at least one protester and injuring dozens.

“People were actually starting to consider opening the roads again since it was bringing life in the city to a halt, but after the police attacked the protest most of them insisted on continuing with the blockades after that escalation,” said Mohamed Mansour, Al-Jazeera Talk reporter in Damietta.

Mansour also said that the governor’s response angered protesters, after he said in a phone-call to a satellite television programme on Sunday evening that he had personally requested the Cabinet suspend construction. Protesters considered that he was giving himself undeserved credit, as he has previously denied the environmental report that was issued for the first MOPCO plant, which included 13 recommendations to the plant for environmental safety.

Several political parties in Damietta held a meeting on Sunday to discuss the situation. Representatives of moderate Islamic party Wasat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the Nasserist Karama party and the socialist Popular Alliance party attended the meeting. Hatem El-Bayaa, parliamentary candidate of the Popular Alliance, told Ahram Online that at the conclusion of the meeting, attendees condemned the killing of protesters by police forces, but also condemned blocking roads. However, the meeting was held before the Cabinet decision came out.

“I will be trying to convince the people that the government is serious about its decision this time, so that the situation calms down,” Essam Sultan, head of Wasat party, told Ahram Online on Monday.

Approaching the elections, the political scene in Damietta in relation to the recent upheaval is under question. According to Al-Jazeera Talk Damietta correspondent Mohamed Mansour, none of the political parties in Damietta issued any statements pertaining to the events. Mansour also said that Freedom and Justice and Wasat parties held mass rallies in Damietta to promote their electoral candidates, as if nothing is happening. “Some people attacked the Freedom and Justice party rally, telling the candidates that it is not the time for election propaganda when the city is facing such a crisis. The only political force that issued a statement on Damietta so far is the April 6 Youth Movement,” Mansour adds.

Damietta resident Ahmed Eissa also told Ahram Online that the spokesman of the Salafist party Nour tried to talk to the protesters at the seaport during the sit-in but they refused to listen to him and forced him to leave.

Damietta protesters are demanding the two MOPCO plants, along with two other plants owned by other companies that are built near populated areas, be relocated to a new industrial area well away from the port and the neighbourhoods, and the prohibition of any factories of the sort near those areas. Protesters are also demanding punishment for the police's use of force against protesters on Sunday. With the reluctance on the part of the government to carry out firm measures in order to end the long-standing dispute with Damietta’s citizens, and well as reluctance on part of political forces in Damietta to apply significant pressure on authorities, the prospects for the situation remain obscure.

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