Cairo’s fishermen, who have seen their daily catch dwindle because of heavy plastic pollution in the Nile, are now helping to clean up the river in a government-backed project that also helps to boost their income.
The Nile has always held a special place in Egyptians' hearts, providing not just fish but more than 90 per cent of the country’s fresh water and most of its fertile soil.
But over the years, the river has suffered from increasing levels of plastic and industrial pollution.
"When I throw my cast net, it is supposed to sink to catch the fish, but when it hits a plastic bottle, the bottle makes the net float on the surface and we catch nothing but waste," said Ahmed Abdel Miguid, 40, a fisherman from Cairo.
There are no official statistics on the amount of plastic pollution in the Nile, but a Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research study found it is one of 10 rivers contributing 90 per cent of the plastic waste in the world's oceans.
The plastic waste seen floating along the country's lifeline is affecting its ecology as well. A recent study carried out by Sky News and overseen by a British scientist found out that 75 per cent of the Nile fish analysed contained microplastics.
The fishermen in Cairo say the plastic waste usually accumulates around algae in the river and along its banks, where the fish feed. Many of them get stuck in the plastic debris and die, especially the young ones.
The fishermen blame the plastic for a considerable drop in the river’s stocks of edible fish species that not only affects its ecological balance but also threatens their livelihoods.
These alarming pollution indicators and the deteriorating livelihood of the fishermen prompted VeryNile, a Cairo-based environmental initiative, to start a collaboration with fishermen to clean the river in exchange for money.
VeryNile, which is supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and some local and international institutions, was started in 2018 to clean the Nile and raise awareness about the dangers of single-use plastic to the environment.
The initiative does this through volunteer clean-ups and campaigns to convince businesses to stop using plastic bags.
These clean-ups collected more than 40 tonnes of waste in two years. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, VeryNile had to alter its approach.
"We couldn't organise any cleaning events, so we decided to start the fishermen project as we’ve always wanted to help them … It's a more sustainable solution to the fishermen and the environment than our events because they would work and clean on a daily basis, unlike our irregular events,” said Mostafa Habib, a co-founder of VeryNile.
Mr Habib said the fishermen had been of great help to VeryNile as they knew the river best and their boats could reach areas that volunteers could not.
The Reviving Cairo Fishermen project was officially launched in September last year but VeryNile began working with the fishermen five months before that, he said.
Hany Fawzy, the project manager, said more than 40 fishermen had joined so far.
The fishermen collect only recyclable plastic bottles and are paid 11 Egyptian pounds (about $0.70) for every kilogram collected.
Mr Habib said this was more than double the rate paid anywhere else in Egypt because they want to compensate the fisherman for the loss of fish due to pollution.
The above-market-rate means VeryNile has to sell the plastic back to recycling centres at higher prices compared to other suppliers, creating the challenge of convincing recycling factories to do business with them.
"We spent almost all of last year storing the waste we got and no one would buy it from us until we found factories that would collaborate with us only two months ago," Mr Habib said.
The fishermen managed to fish 13 tonnes of plastic bottles out of the river in less than a year, he said.
Mr Fawzy explained that the accumulation of plastic waste was seasonal.
“There are more plastic bottles in the river during summer because people go on more Nile trips then, and Nile tourism is more common in that season,” he said
Although they fish only one type of waste out of the river, the fishermen can already feel the difference in the purity of the water and the amount of fish.
“The water was always cloudy because of the waste, but now I drink from it as it's becoming just like the tap water," said Gomaa Ramadan, 49, a fisherman from Cairo.
"These days, the amount of fish is showing an increase because of the cleaned up river and the removed algae and waste," said fellow Cairo fisherman Saeed Mohamed, 35.
The same view was shared by VeryNile.
“After our first ever cleaning event, we were thrilled with the results,” Habib said. VeryNile said about 250 volunteers took part and collected 1.5 tonnes of rubbish in three hours.
“But three weeks later, the same place was full of trash again. So we had to clean the same areas over and over. However, after a while, people started to understand what we were doing and they stopped dumping their trash in the cleaned areas,” Mr Habib said.
“This change will happen through awareness campaigns,” said engineer Yosra Abdelaziz, a member of the technical support office of the Ministry of Environment. “We're currently working on an awareness plan in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education that will target university students because they're the future of our country."
The fishermen cleaning project is currently centred on the Cairo and Giza governorates. The initiative plans to expand to other areas in the future.
“We want to have our hubs all over Egypt, but we're still testing the full success of this project,” Mr Habib said.
Ultimately VeryNile does not want to stay forever. “We hope that in 10 years we will be able to close our doors and start planting trees instead.”
“We hope that people will stop dumping their waste in the Nile, so that we can stop cleaning after them.”
This article is written in collaboration with Egab.