Before he submerges into the sewers, Mustafa El-Sayed, 55, takes off his shoes so that they won’t disintegrate in the filth down below, choosing instead to enter barefooted.
El-Sayed is constantly preoccupied by the prospect of damaging his shoes, as he would have to buy a new pair, which, at 150 Egyptian pounds (less than $10), would cut out a sizable chunk of his income. Yet, he does not fear the damage that he subjects himself to when he sinks into this filth, without a protective suit, though he is often submerged from the tips of his toes to his neck.
His workmates tie him with a rope and wait to pull him back up after he has completed his mission: sanitizing the sewers.
El-Sayed is one among tens of thousands who occupy this profession, diving into Egypt’s extensive and inefficient sanitation system to save the government the cost of renting out large sanitation machines.
“Even insects would run away from the smell,” El-Sayed tells Raseef22.
Without the specialized suits to protect them from the microbes in the water, they are suspended from worn out slings, working nine hours a day, eight of which they spend submerged in the water, for the paltry sum of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($55) a month. On a particular day of the month, dubbed “sanitation day”, workers will dive into about 22 such sewers.
These workers face major risks to their healths, at times proving fatal, though they are not a necessary aspect of their work, and can be avoided if they were provided with proper working conditions.
A Victim a Day
Wahba Gamal, 58, another sewage diver, affirms that the compensation they receive for their work is extremely meagre, and the work conditions are unbearable.
However, these are not the worst aspects of the job, according to Ismail Galal, 57. Rather, it is the very real prospect of death that they face, due to lack of equipment and preparations. According to Galal, there are some sewers that have not been opened for years, and as such are filled with toxic fumes. Thus, a worker who enters one such sewer could meet his death within minutes.
As such, it is necessary to conduct certain tests before entering, which for the most part never happens.
Egypt's sanitation workers risk their lives every day, wading through potentially toxic sewage.
With no protective suits or safety precautions, Egypt's sewage workers are estimated to die by the thousands.
Galal notes that there are certain primitive precautions that can be taken by the workers themselves before diving, such as searching for insects to make sure that the fumes have not killed them. However, ultimately, such measures are insufficient.
Moreover, the safety ropes used to suspend the workers are worn and old, meaning that the workers cannot pull the diver up if he loses consciousness, as his body would be too heavy for the rope’s bearing capacity.
The Egyptian press recently reported that the sanitation networks in the low-income Roud el-Farag district of Cairo led to the death of a number of divers who fell into extremely deep sewers.
There are no official statistics on the number of workers who have lost their lives on the job, though some estimate that they are in the thousands, according to a supervisor of one of the sanitation networks, speaking on condition of anonymity. He affirms that such incidents are predominantly prevalent in the rural governorates and low-income neighborhoods, particularly the cases of asphyxiation due to toxic fumes.
An Unending Crisis
The supervisor holds that these sewers will continue to swallow up the workers because the state has failed to undertake any procedures to safeguard their lives or change their working conditions.
He notes that the workers must be subjected to regular medical check-ups, to ensure that they are free of any contagious illnesses or infections. He further notes that their income needs to be worthwhile, as most of them are forced to work overtime to make up for their meagre pay.
“We do not demand all of this; the extent of our dreams is to be provided with protection procedures that ensure that the workers can escape from the sewers alive, essentially,” he tells Raseef22.
A Rare Currency
El-Sayed sits at the headquarters of the sanitation authority in the Roud el-Farag district where he works, waiting for the other workers to return from their fieldwork. He stands in front of a worker who has his trouser-leg rolled up to mid-calf, with a piece of cloth tied around his head. In his hands are long metal spikes, which he uses in the sanitation process.
“When I first started working here, there were 100 workers in the area I was hired to work in. Nowadays, there are fewer than half of this number, and yet they are demanded to take on the same workload that was done by 100 workers,” he says.
Moreover, the number of houses has increased since he began the job 30 years ago.
“Sewage workers have become something of a rare currency,” says Mohamed Galal, who is in charge of receiving complaints in the Egyptian municipality.
In the past, the divers’ work was classed underneath the since-dissolved Ministry of Water and Wastewater Utilities. However, today, their work falls under the jurisdiction of the state-owned Holding Company for Water & Wastewater, which was established in 2004. The company has 25 subsidiaries with representation in 27 governorates, and a total of 126,000 workers, including the sewage divers.
There are estimated to be tens of thousands of sewer divers nationwide, though the number continues to shrink, as it is difficult to find replacements for those who have reached retirement age, or those who lose their lives on the job, since the job is not particularly appealing to young people.
Nonetheless, Galal believes that the profession serves as a source of livelihood for thousands of families, and has no desire to see it replaced by machines, even if that would spare the workers’ lives and health.
“Why do you want to replace us with machines; all we need are some security precautions in order to safeguard our lives inside the sewers,” he tells Raseef22.
Sons Do Not Inherit the Profession
When El-Sayed returns home to his children at home, he is faced with yet another dilemma. He says his children are ashamed of their father’s profession, and they do not tell their friends or teachers of the nature of his work. They have even asked him to find different work in any other field, such as cleaning streets or garbage collection.
El-Sayed deals with this by escaping to a nearby coffee shop. It frightens him to think of Egypt’s deteriorating economic conditions, and he does not want to give up his monthly income, modest as it may be, amid the ever-rising inflation.
“It’s not like anyone can find work in order for me to quit my job at this age, when none of [my sons] have even found a job yet. I don’t want to beg in my final years, and I’m going to remain in this profession until I hit retirement,” he concludes.