by Sonia Farid | Special to Al Arabiya News
Sunday, 3 May 2015

The capsizing of a ship carrying 500 tons of phosphate in the Nile has sent shockwaves across Egypt. As a state of emergency has been declared and an investigation committee established, concerns keep escalating about the impact of the spill on crops, potable water and marine life.

Views on the issue have been strikingly different, with some regarding it as a prelude to a disaster, and others downplaying it as an exaggerated reaction to an easily manageable situation.

Panic among Egyptians was especially highlighted when three days after the accident, some 500 people were hospitalized for showing symptoms of poisoning in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiyya. A link was immediately established between the mass sickness and the contamination of Nile water.

However, Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazi dismissed such a link, saying the Nile passes by seven cities between Qena inthe south, where the ship capsized, and Sharqiyya in the north.

“None of those seven cities reported cases of poisoning,” he said. “Plus, it would take 12 days for the contamination to reach the Nile Delta, while the poisoning took place only three days after the ship capsized.” Moghazi added that samples taken from Nile water in Sharqqiya showed no signs of contamination.

Irrigation Ministry spokesman Khaled Wassef said the poisoning of Nile water was unlikely. “Phosphate isn’t soluble in water so there’s little risk,” he said. Health Minister Adel Adawi said patients showed no symptoms of phosphate poisoning, adding that the ministry was monitoring the situation. “Nile water is being tested every 12 hours to detect any change,” he said.

Such statements did not, however, dissipate fears of an impending crisis, especially with the death of one of the Sharqiyya patients, reports that the number of poisoning cases has exceeded 700, and no decisive explanation for the poisonings.

Magdi Allam, secretary general of the Union for Arab Environmental Experts, said the phosphate the ship carried was in the form of rocks, not powder, which explains the insolubility theory. “Pure phosphate is extracted from these rocks at fertilizer factories, and this is a complicated chemical process,” he said, adding that out of the 500 tons, the quantity of pure phosphate would not exceed 20 percent.

Allam said those rocks would either not dissolve in water at all, or dissolve at a very slow rate. “Even if part of it dissolves, the Nile extends all the way from the south to the north of Egypt. The concentration of phosphate will, therefore, be very low in all this amount of water,” he said.

Toxicology Professor Mahmoud Amr seconded Allam’s opinion: “The ship didn’t sink in a canal or a lake, and Nile water isn’t stagnant and the current is very strong at the place where the accident took place.”

Amr scoffed at rumors about the link between the accident and poisoning cases in the north: “It would’ve been more logical that people get poisoned in Qena or other Upper Egyptian governorates. How come it started in Sharqiyya?”

Professor of toxicology and environmental diseases, Nabil Abdel Maksoud, underlined the dangers of mineral impurities contained in phosphate rocks. “Those minerals are soluble, and can reach the human body through potable water, fish and crops,” he said.

“If the water isn’t thoroughly purified, minerals like cadmium and silicon dioxide can reach the stomach, causing severe diarrhea and vomiting as well as other long-term problems like atrophy of the central nervous system and the immune system.”

Abdel Maksoud said those mineral impurities can be removed at water treatment stations before the water is available for human consumption. “It’s important, in this case, to decrease the percentage of chloride acid, used for purifying water, because it accelerates the dissolution of cadmium,” he said. “It’s also necessary to leave water for longer times in oxidation ponds.”

Yehia Gadou, secretary general of the NGO Voice of the Nile, said the spill is another example of the abuse to which the Nile is subjected. “Why is cargo containing toxins or hazardous material transferred through the Nile in the first place? Why aren’t they transferred by train, which is in fact a much cheaper way?” he asked, adding that the NGO has sent a request to that effect to the government.

“The Nile, around which the world’s most ancient civilization was founded, has for a long time been subject to a variety of violations. Fertilizers and chemical waste are thrown into the Nile. Donkeys and buffalos are bathed in the Nile. Sewage is dumped into the Nile. This is only to cite a few examples.”

Journalist and blogger Laurie Balbo seemed to dismiss the arguments of both camps about the level of threat posed by the spill. Balbo said there were several types of “phosphates,” therefore it was impossible to determine the impact of the spill without knowing the exact components of the sunken load, which in turn determines how soluble it is.

“Phosphates are natural salt derivatives of the element phosphorus, negatively charged ions that link with positively charged ions such as sodium, potassium, ammonium, lead, and barium, each greatly changing how phosphate behaves,” she wrote.

“Some phosphates (aluminum phosphate as example) would present human health risks such as skin irritation and – if ingested – abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Others (such as highly toxic lead phosphate) would leach into the water at a low concentration, but stay present for a long time if the spill is not quickly cleaned up. Without having more specific information about the nature of the material, it is impossible to foretell health risks.”

Balbo said while Egypt’s dependence on Nile water was a matter of life and death, the authorities did not seem to be examining the matter thoroughly, and official statements about the insolubility of the material were not accurate since they were not accompanied by a detailed account of the components of the shipment.

Journalist and anchor Amani al-Khayat blamed the Muslim Brotherhood. “We need to know who was driving this ship, who his assistants are and what their history looks like,” she said. “We also need to know the load allowed for a ship of this size, and whether the load of this ship conformed with regulations.”

Khayat said it was suspicious that even though the ship crashed into a concrete bridge pillar, neither the driver nor his two assistants sustained any injuries. “There wasn’t even one single bruise! They don’t look like they were taken by surprise. It’s obvious that they crashed it.”

Khayat said the accident was one of many orchestrated by the Brotherhood since the ouster of President Mohammed Mursi, to “block the path of Egyptians toward the state they aspire for.” She also accused the Brotherhood of scheming to poison Egyptians in Sharqiyya. “Think of why Sharqiyya in particular was chosen? Isn’t Mursi’s hometown in Sharqiyya? Isn’t Sharqiyya home to a large number of senior Brotherhood leaders?”