CAIRO—It is Africa’s largest city, yet no one really knows how many people live here. Estimates vary, but hover somewhere around 19 million.
It’s tough to keep track of that many people, a job made harder because so many of Cairo’s residents live unofficially in what’s known as informal housing—or buildings constructed without government permission.
A trip by train through the Nile delta from Cairo to Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, about 130 miles away, reveals the scale of the problem. The view on the journey is dominated by uniform red-brick buildings encased by skeletons of reinforced concrete pillars. They are lined up ceaselessly from the railroad toward the horizon, nestled on what used to be agricultural land.
The houses have few windows, sometimes just a couple of openings for ventilation. They often have steel rods poking out from the roof to make the addition of an extra floor at a later date an easier task.
“The people who live there aren’t poor. They have money, though not a lot,” says Manal El-Shahat, an assistant professor at Ain Shams University’s department of urban planning and design. “They’re converting the land use because the economic conditions are changing. It makes more sense to build than farm on these lands.”
Migration to already-swelling cities is a common trend throughout the region, and it looks likely to continue. “Urbanization is rapid throughout the Arab States. Over the next 40 years, urban populations are set to double,” says Dyfed Aubrey, the Arab States regional director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme.
Aubrey says people are leaving rural areas in the Arab world for three main reasons: economics, conflict and climate change. Rural residents are leaving their homes to seek cash income, to avoid war, or because changing weather is making it difficult to farm productively.
As much as two thirds of Cairo is made up of informal housing, estimates Omar Nagati, co-founder of Cluster, a non-profit urban studies research lab based in downtown Cairo that often collaborates with universities. “They aren’t squatting, they own the land,” he says, “This is hardly a marginal phenomenon. It’s mainstream.”
Obtaining official permission would involve dealing with several government agencies, including the local municipality, the electricity authority and the water agency. The buildings may not be pleasing to the eye, but they are usually structurally sound, according to Nagati and other experts. They may not be all that comfortable—many of them lack running water or electricity—but they’re not in danger of falling down.
When the government built Cairo’s extensive ring roads in the 1990s, one of its goals was to fence in the sprawl. “There was no attempt to link the informal settlements to the city,” explains Nagati, “Residents might see the ring road literally outside their window but they couldn’t get onto it.”
The ring road bypassed informal areas and instead bridged the city center with wealthier suburbs. So residents of informal housing took matters into their own hands. They built staircases from street level up to the highway, and then moved on to constructing entire access ramps for cars. Nagati says he is aware of at least four such ramps.
The government is aware of such structures, but has opted not to tear them down. The scale of the sprawl is daunting, and efforts to destroy the buildings are unlikely to be more than a token gesture. There also isn’t any political will to execute such an unpopular policy.
Informal housing in Cairo has progressed to informal infrastructure.
While residents are able to take matters into their own hands and build access ramps, there are many other public services they can’t provide. “Everyone builds their own houses, but nobody is building hospitals or schools or public spaces,” says Nagati.
Informal housing isn’t uniquely Egyptian. Baghdad has seen many refugees arrive from war zones, refugees with little money for rent or mortgages. People readily take government land and start building with whatever scrap material they have. “There’s housing in Baghdad made from a mixture of brick, tin cans and straw,” says Aubrey.
Some parts of Cairo’s informal housing resemble the Iraqi slums. El-Shahat, from Ain Shams University, works in some of these neighborhoods. She is a coordinator for the Ezbet Project, which is supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and seeks to build a prototype of sustainable construction in the Ezbet Abu Qarn area of Cairo.
El-Shahat’s team is made up of like-minded researchers and students from Ain Shams University. They hope the Ezbet community, which is mainly made up of poorer migrants from Upper Egypt, will follow the prototype’s example and build more sustainable homes. “We’re trying to teach the community how to build in a safe way,” says El-Shahat.
The project is currently building a community center on land donated by other NGOs. The center will provide a space for health services and education and will be built with low-cost materials and efficient methods. For example, the builders are using mud bricks combined with plastic bottles, both readily available materials, to construct the walls.
Other universities in the region are tackling the issue from a research perspective. A paper published last year in The Lancet by researchers at the American University of Beirut and colleagues elsewhere focused on the sustainability—or lack of it—in informal housing. The researchers warned of resource scarcity and ecological degradation caused by uncontrolled and ever expanding settlements.
Moroccan cities used to have a similar problem to Egyptian ones. But in 2004 the government announced a “cities without slums” program. It was mainly an effort to re-house residents in safer and more sanitary homes. Each city had its own target to meet for slum relocation. “The government gave the mayors responsibility to achieve these targets with incentives to meet them,” says Aubrey, “This meant that the slums were prioritized in terms of resources.”
Within seven years of the program’s initiation, about 100,000 new housing units had been built, according to the UN. Because of this, the World Bank refers to the Moroccan effort as a program that worked.
“With the success of Morocco, we hope to introduce learning to other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Iraq,” says Aubrey.
University researchers want to point to other possible solutions. And they hope their efforts to measure and map the problem will help governments to grasp the scale of the issue, the first step toward solving it.