Geziret Ed-Dahab Island, Cairo, Egypt: Inhabitants face expulsion to give way to private development projects
Since 2001, the inhabitants of the Geziret Ed-Dahab Island in Cairo, Egypt have been pressured by the government to leave their homes in order to give way to new development projects that the government says will serve the “public good”. The inhabitants of the island however, want to remain on the land their families have lived on for hundreds of years.
Located alongside the Nile River, the Geziret Ed-Dahab Island, or Gold Island in English, has a population of approximately 20,000 people and is land utilized for agricultural purposes. Despite the island’s population, the only means that exists to travel to and from the island is by felucca, a small sailboat that is typically used on the Nile River and Mediterranean Sea. Adequate water and sanitation services are not available on the island, nor are schools or health centres.
The lack of public services and facilities on the island is due to two contradicting issues that the island’s inhabitants have faced since 2001. The first is the government’s plan to sell the land to developers for touristic purposes and the second is the government’s declaration of the island as a natural reserve. If a piece of land is a natural reserve, the government should not be seeking private investors to develop it. It is quite evident that the Geziret Ed-Dahab Island has been given natural reserve status to pressure the island’s inhabitants to leave.
Officially, the land of the Geziret Ed-Dahab Island is government owned and under Egyptian law, people can be dispossessed from the state-owned land they reside on if it is not benefitting the public at large. Therefore, because the land is inhabited by the residents of Geziret Ed-Dahab Island and this is the main purpose it serves, the government believes it is more beneficial to sell the land for private development and use it to build tourist attractions.
However, delays in the government assuming possession of the land and the need to pressure residents to leave the island has resulted in its declaration of the island as a natural reserve. Natural reserve status implies that people cannot live on the island, buildings and houses cannot be constructed or repaired, and the government has no obligation to provide water supply and sanitation services. This status has been a government tactic to pressure the people to leave the island by making everyday life more complicated.
Families have naturally grown and the expansion of households has become a necessity. Since the island holds natural reserve status, it is illegal to bring construction materials onto the land. Therefore, families either experience overcrowding within their households or they choose to smuggle materials onto the island. This implies increased costs due to the small amounts of construction material they can bring over or the confiscation of these materials by city officials and the imprisonment of men.
Children also receive inadequate education because there is no school on the island. The amount of time it takes parents to accompany their children to and from schools on the mainland each day has resulted in many children not attending school and instead remaining at home on the island. Lack of access to a clean water supply and proper sanitation services, in addition to the unavailability of immediate medical care, has led to many preventable deaths, particularly for children who are most vulnerable.
The Right to the City
The situation the inhabitants of Geziret Ed-Dahab Island are facing has denied them their right to the city. First off, the Cairo government has placed private interests before those of its citizens by planning to sell the island’s land to private developers. The majority of the families living on the Geziret Ed-Dahab Island have been there for more than a hundred years and yet the government still denies their right to remain on the land they have inhabited for so long. Where will 20,000 people go once they are displaced from the island if adequate re-settlement and compensation terms are not provided? The government justifies the eviction of these families by stating that the island is government owned land and that it is not being used for “public benefit”. However, if this land is owned by the municipality and is within city limits, then the government also has the duty to provide basic public services such as clean water and sanitation to citizens on the island, duties they have entirely ignored.
Urban governments must value their citizen’s needs and desires and rather than apply different tactics to pressure people off the land, in this case, the Cairo government should listen to its citizen’s demands and give them the opportunity to remain on the land they have lived on for years instead of giving priority to capital accumulation and private interests. There needs to be dialogue between the people and the government on how to best use this land, the way urban space is shaped must be and perhaps they can come to terms on a plan that will benefit both sides.
Opening the Debate
Cities change over time, they grow and expand, and land uses change. The Geziret-Ed-Dahab Island is a very large piece of land that is not that densely populated and with Cairo’s growing population and expansion of the city, it may also not be logical that this land is not serving other purposes that would benefit the public and all of Cairo’s citizens. A possible solution is to allow the inhabitants of the island to remain on part of the land and have the rest of this spaced used as a public urban park, green space that could be useful to the city of Cairo. However, the government’s willingness to open this space publicly is also an issue of contention.
In analysing the case of Geziret Ed-Dahab Island, different perspectives must be considered in order to achieve a solution that will uphold the right to the city both for the inhabitants of the island as well as for the public at large. It is a case that must be debated and discussed so that citizen’s rights are respected and their right to the city valued.
Actions being taken: The Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights (ECHR) is training the people on Geziret Ed-Dahab Island to defend their own rights and has also begun programs to bring education and medication to the island. The Habitat International Coalition (HIC) is drafting an Urgent Action Appeal on this case to send to the Egyptian Authorities, the World Bank, the UNDP and UN-Habitat.