In the village of Fares in southern Egypt, seventy homes have collapsed. School corridors are underwater, the cemetery has become a swamp and acres of mango orchards ruined.
Their river didn’t flood and there was no torrential downpour. Instead, the water rose out of the ground. Starting as a trickle, it worked its way into the walls and foundations of family homes in the form of damp. Puddles started to gather in bedrooms. Puddles that grew into ponds and lakes, knocking down walls and drowning fruit trees.
The precise source of this strange and devastating flood hasn’t been proven yet. But one suspicion dominates, as the waters started to rise soon after oil company Dana Gas set off explosive charges in the ground close by between 2009-2010. Over the couple years since then, the problem has become steadily worse, with no action by Dana.
I visited Fares in late January with Reem Labib of EIPR. Fares lies just south of Idfu, in the middle of the vast Kom Ombo oil drilling concession. The local residents are furious and are running a vociferous campaign, documenting the destruction and attempting to gain the attention of the outside world. But 1,000 kilometres south of Cairo, and 90 minutes away from the regional hub of Aswan, it’s hard to make either the oil company or the Egyptian state pay attention.
The anger is palpable. Local residents led by Sheikh Ahmed Abdel Hamid and former school director Hamed Rukabi Eid explain how mango crops – the village’s main product – have failed due to the rising water. They take us to visit home after home. Sometimes whole buildings have collapsed, other times “only” one wall has come down, and the family can still shelter in the remaining structure. The school playground has become a pond that students have to jump around. Piles of sand were repeatedly trucked in to soak up the water, but this only provided temporary relief.
There are fears that dangerous chemicals could be in the water. And for good reason; as Dana Gas has been fracking repeatedly nearby. The company has not disclosed the chemicals it has used. Dana is an Emirates-based company that drills in Egypt and Iraq and received almost $1 billion in sukuk bond financing on the London Stock Exchange, arranged by Barclays and Citi.
Where is the water coming from?
We are still trying to prove the precise source of the water by testing its composition. Most of Dana Gas’ drilling and oil extraction lies 11 kilometres away in the Baraka field. One well – Fares-1 – was sunk immediately next to New Fares, six kilometres west of the village proper.
But rather than the drilling itself, a more likely culprit seems to be “seismic testing” conducted by Dana all around the village. Sheikh Ahmed, Eid and their fellow villagers explained to us that the oil company had entered their orchards and pushed pipes a few metres into the ground, before setting off explosives inside them. These are known as “shot holes” in the industry. Dynamite is lowered into the holes and blasted, with the reverberations used to assess likely oil or gas bearing rock formations.
Seismic testing is more famous for the danger it poses to whales and dolphins. However, where “dynamite is used during exploration, the shot holes may intercept the water table, and water may begin to flow or seep to the surface. These flowing holes have caused problems for some landowners.” The seismic explosions may also create pathways for water to flow to the surface.
We made our way through the mango trees to examine the shot holes. Dana had left many of the plastic pipes behind, protruding from the ground. In some cases, water began rising where the explosions took place; other times it was nearby, but the pipes themselves remain dry.
Dana: Taking the people for granted
We have yet to establish whether the flooding is due to the seismic testing. But it is clear that Dana Gas is taking the local community for granted and not following best practice.
Dana Gas did not effectively consult the Fares community about their planned operations. The local residents told us that they were not even informed or warned of the company’s plans. One day, they discovered oil workers in their mango fields, driving pipes in the ground. Then the explosions took them by surprise.
Only when villagers complained, did Dana Gas eventually agree to pay 100 LE ($15) – a pittance – to each family whose land they used. Asking why they hadn’t complained louder, we were told “What else could we have done – this was still during the days of Mubarak.” So, Dana Gas has actively benefitted from the repression of the old regime, with less complaints from communities resulting in minimised payments for the company.
Since the flooding began, Dana Gas has refused outright to provide any compensation or support that might remedy the problem, stating explicitly that it would not do anything which might imply that it holds any responsibility for causing the damage.
According to standards for seismic testing in North America, shot holes should be plugged from bottom to top, and local water sources should be tested before and after the explosions. However, the holes we witnessed remained open and deep – it seems that Dana abandoned them without plugging. And the Fares residents we spoke to were not informed of any water resting.
The local support programmes that took place were cosmetic and ineffectual, including donations for a library. Sheikh Ahmed and his neighbours complain that there have been no jobs for locals, even though Fares is the closest village to the oil drilling. They want compensation for the damage caused and the disruption to their lives.
But most crucially, they want the problem solved, and the rising waters to be stopped. For the fertile Nile valley here is exceptionally narrow. Cutting through the yellow desert there are two small strips of green, sandwiching the blue river in between. Sometimes, the green is little more than a few fields on either side of the Nile. This means that as land is ruined, the residents of Fares have nowhere else to go.