Wageningen University and Research Centre

Sacred place in Egypt saved by treating wastewater

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While investigating a wastewater problem in an Egyptian village, Alterra researcher Joop Harmsen discovered that a monastery was in danger of collapsing. This unexpected threat to a sacred place turned out to be the most important incentive for tackling this particular wastewater problem in the short term. Normally there would be no funding for such a project.

The village of Deir Gebel El-Tair in Egypt has a monastery, Deir El-Adra (the monastery of the Virgin), which was built above the cave where Jesus, Mary and Joseph – according to tradition – found refuge for three nights while fleeing to Egypt. Every year some two million pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim, visit this sanctuary. Research carried out by Alterra showed that the cave was in danger of collapsing. Not because of its age, but because of untreated wastewater.

Researcher Joop Harmsen from Alterra was looking for a cheap and simple way of treating wastewater in the village. At present it is not treated and some of it disappears into the ground. “This situation was endangering the continued existence of the cave and the monastery,” Joop Harmsen said. “The monastery stands at the edge of a chalk plateau, looking out over the Nile. Wastewater percolates through the ground and causes instability which means the monastery might fall off the cliff in the near future. There was a comparable situation in Cairo in 2008 when part of a chalk plateau collapsed, plunging down onto the houses below, with around hundred deaths as a result.”

The present economic situation in Egypt generally means that no money is available for tackling wastewater in villages. Politicians are giving priority to the larger cities. However, the threat to the monastery appears to be an important incentive for improving the wastewater situation in Deir Gebel El-Tair after all. Both villagers and authorities would like to deal with this problem as soon as possible. Joop Harmsen: “We have been commissioned to take action together with Egyptian partners by the Water Mondiaal programme set up by the Dutch Ministries of Infrastructure and the Environment, Foreign Affairs and Economic Affairs and the Netherlands Water Partnership. Fortunately, the lie of the land around Deir Gebel El-Tair makes it possible for us to design a cheap method for treating the wastewater, which can then be used for agricultural purposes. The solid fraction in wastewater – separated from the liquid fraction inside simple septic tanks – can later be composted. Taking advantage of a height difference at the location, oxygen can be added to the water as the latter passes through a filter of stones and is then purified by microorganisms. The purification process continues in natural reed beds at the foot of the slope. This is not only good for local agriculture and the health of villagers, but it has also saved the sacred cloister.”

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