Sameh Ghali
Ashoka Fellow since 2006   |   Egypt

Sameh Ghali

Sameh Ghali is introducing a new system of community participation in the design of low-cost, community-appropriate sewage systems in Egypt's villages to improve public health, quality of life,…
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This description of Sameh Ghali's work was prepared when Sameh Ghali was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Sameh Ghali is introducing a new system of community participation in the design of low-cost, community-appropriate sewage systems in Egypt's villages to improve public health, quality of life, and the environment.

The New Idea

Sameh works with both men and women in villages and rural areas to build and maintain sewage systems that are appropriate for household size, income-level and village context. His new idea is to introduce a new system of community participation in sanitation design. Sameh is introducing a village-wide sewage system for smaller villages to connect their household septic tanks by gravity-fed pipes to a communal filtering facility. Importantly, this mini-sewage plant can be built and maintained with locally available materials and labor, thereby significantly reducing the cost compared to government-proposed sewage systems and increasing the likelihood that the community will actually develop a system that meets their needs. Sameh is promoting these sewage systems to households in villages who are currently deprived of hygienic living conditions and will not likely be served by government programs in the next decade or two. Sameh invites local communities to actively engage and participate in planning the sanitation systems implemented in their communities. He introduces improved technology after group discussion to determine their needs and preferences. By reducing the pollution of canals and underground water, he improves the environment and health conditions of rural and village populations and establishes a sense of ownership and pride in the community.

The Problem

The low quality of life and deterioration of the environment in the majority of rural areas in Egypt has contributed to a loss of pride and sense of belonging to one's village. According to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, Egypt is the second most polluted country in the world, resulting in hotter weather, the spread of disease, and contaminated food, particularly fish and vegetables and water. Poverty and low levels of education often prevent the rapid adoption of appropriate technologies that could mitigate some of the worst environmental health problems.One of the major causes for pollution is absence of sewage systems in rural areas, which account for 70 percent of the country's inhabited land. While sanitation and safe water supply are considered the most important indicators of public health, prevailing government policies and public attitudes have precluded rapid investment and amelioration of this situation. In the majority of villages, sewage waste flows directly into simple holes in the ground without any means of preventing it from leaching into groundwater used for drinking and other household and agricultural needs. Often, waste may flow directly into canals. Only 29 percent of the rural population has access to piped water, compared to 82 percent of the urban population. The United Nations Development Program reports that 90 percent of rural villages are not covered by sewage systems. A growing number of water-related diseases such as diarrhea, schistosomiasis, intestinal parasites, lymphatic filariasis, and trachoma are responsible for major health problems in the majority of rural areas and villages. The current government structure is not designed to optimally support rural communities. In 2004, the autonomous Holding Company for Drinking Water and Sanitation was established to include the General Economic Authorities for Drinking Water and Sanitation operating in governorates. The Holding Company, under the authority of the Ministry of Housing, is the sole agent concerned with public sewage systems on the national scale but it does not cover stand-alone technologies for individual households in villages and rural areas. As a result, only large villages near an existing urban sewage system currently benefit from the public sewage system and government expansion plans. Also, the current design of the government's sewage system relies on pipes that are too large for most narrow village streets and lanes and is too expensive to build given its reliance on imported materials. The government's one-size fits all scheme simply does not fit the majority of rural communities. Moreover, their large sewage systems do not have adequate provision for maintenance so they suffer from frequent breakdowns.Ongoing dialogue between the government of Egypt and international agencies such as USAID and the World Bank on water and sanitation focus on urban areas and cities. Some donors, like UNICEF have invested in a number of pilot projects for rural water and sanitation, yet, no commitment has been given for a campaign or national scale program to improve sanitation coverage for all segments of the population. No civil society group focuses exclusively on this objective and of those who do provide water and sanitation, often the lack of community participation accounts for insufficient understanding of the model, and therefore the community does not undertake maintenance measures, resulting in unsustainable systems.

The Strategy

Sameh began working on ways to introduce appropriate technology in poor rural communities to improve environmental health and quality of life twelve years ago. He tested different models of stoves and furnaces, solar heaters, and simple sewage systems, all drawing heavily upon the participation of local community leaders and members in the identification of their needs, the design of the solution and its implementation. To date, all of Sameh’s models are still functioning because of his strong methodology and his most successful is the sewage systems.Sameh has improved the traditional one chamber, stand-alone septic tank that serves one household by offering a more cost-effective dual chamber septic tank that can be constructed with locally-available materials and labor. This model does not require the costly frequent pumping of traditional closed septic tanks because it is larger and has an internal filtering system for sewage water. This model is appropriate where the groundwater table is at least six feet deep and has important environmental health advantages over traditional systems that often ignore water table depth and overflow, if not well-maintained. Through his work with 17 community development associations (CDAs) in as many villages, benefiting 32,700 people, he is convinced that he has a viable model to improve water quality and sanitation in rural areas through low-cost sewage systems. Sameh has created a network of grassroots organizations to advocate for wider adoption of his idea in other villages and lobby to policymakers. He has trained teams of five people in each village, and as a condition of their participation, each of the CDAs involved must work with other formal or non-formal groups in nearby villages to spread this new technology.Because of the villagers' outreach, Sameh enters new communities by invitation. Depending on the size of the village, the current investment by households in stand-alone septic tanks, their needs and preferences, Sameh will outline the various ways they can address their sanitation needs and explains the environmental health benefits. After they have discussed their options and the process, a team of five is created and trained to implement the plan. They are networked with the other local teams for wider outreach and advocacy.For individual households, he shows them a cost-effective dual chamber septic tank that can be constructed with locally-available materials and labor. This model does not require frequent pumping because it is larger and has an internal filtering system of sand and gravel for sewage water. By customizing the size of the tanks to the number of people in the household, this model will only need to be pumped every five to seven years. He explains that this model is appropriate where the groundwater table is at least 6 feet deep and helps the community to know how to measure the water table at their homes. For clusters of at least several dozen households, he primarily encourages the adoption of a village-wide sewage system. This is appropriate for the majority of Egypt's villages which are all too small to be on the government's priority list. He explains how it can be designed to meet their specific needs and conditions, using pictures and drawings to show how to connect existing household septic tanks (if they have already invested in one) by installing gravity-fed pipes to a communal filtering facility. Larger villages can have one to four filtering facilities depending on size and lay-out of the community. If they do not yet have a latrine inside the house with a septic tank, he works with the community team to train them on appropriate design. Importantly, this mini-sewage plant can be built and maintained with locally available materials and labor thereby significantly reducing the cost compared to government-proposed sewage systems and increasing the likelihood that the community will develop a system to meets their needs. Consulting the women in the household yields higher adoption rates, and Sameh identifies unemployed youth and other members of the community to be trained to construct and maintain these systems.Communities raise funding for the project and every household contributes if they are connected to the system. By consulting with all community members, Sameh is able to generate a sense of ownership confidence within the community to undertake collective projects. Sameh intends to create centers of excellence in the best villages with strong CDAs and continue to build a strong network of like-minded local groups. He encourages villagers to visit other villages and see the system in operation. Sameh plans to reach at least 30 new CDAs in the next three years and to have this network of 50 CDAs carry out advocacy campaigns at the national level for improved rural sanitation. Sameh has also developed and modified models for stables and barns to treat domestic waste, animal dung, and agricultural waste. In conjunction with this project, farmers were taught how to treat then use the waste as a source of organic fertilizers. The number of stables implementing the model increased from 3 to 500 in the village. Sameh plans to spread the model to other villages when he introduces the household sewage system, and where appropriate, will also encourage improved furnaces and solar heaters. Unlike many other associations and organizations working in the field, as Sameh works with CDAs, he monitors the results after installing a new technology. Sameh is in the process of registering his association in the governorate of Beni Seuf, not in Cairo, to remain close to the population most in need and to be able to train villagers to spread this idea. Sameh would like to see this model spread to other rural communities, particularly in Arab countries, increasing the number of people using cost-effective sewage systems in the region.

The Person

Sameh was born in a rural community in Upper Egypt called Samalot, Minia in 1965. He was one of three children of a middle class family. At an early age, his father died and he had to take care of his younger brother and sister. His own childhood was limited by having to take on adult responsibilities to help his family and serving as the role model for his younger siblings. Sameh graduated in 1984 from the technical commercial institute in Beni Seuf, but could not afford to go to university because he had to support his family. He sought opportunities to earn higher income by working abroad. In 1986 he worked in Iraq for one year then moved to Jordan for two more years. In 1989 he returned to Egypt to live in his governorate, Minia, where he currently resides with his wife and two sons.In 1990, Sameh seized the opportunity to do something more meaningful for the development of his country and joined a leading national citizen organization (CO), the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. He held a number of significant positions at CEOSS such as project director and head of the southern area of Minia. He also worked for one year as a project director for Catholic Relief Services; has participated on teams with UNICEF influencing their approach and strategy; and as a project director at the National Council of Women. In 1995, Sameh traveled to the Netherlands to study ecological environmental agriculture, obtaining a diploma from the International Center for Ecological Agricultural. To acquire management skills, he took a “change management” course in 1999 in Cairo, and that same year, traveled to the United States to attend a course on volunteerism and ways to attract volunteers to cooperate with civil societies. Recently, Sameh enhanced his skills in Social Marketing through a course for people from the Arab region offered in Egypt by Christian Aid. These additional studies and experience with development organizations significantly influenced Sameh's work and direction in life. He became fascinated with ways technology might solve his country's most pressing environmental health problems and improve life for villagers, particularly the poorest. In addition to working in development, Sameh has been an active volunteer for over a decade. He helped a number of CDAs in Minia draft funding proposals and helped twenty COs to obtain grants and donations from different sources. He also volunteered in many associations such as Wadi El Nile for Protecting Quarry Workers led by Ashoka Fellow Maher Boshra. Sameh is a very dynamic, persistent, and creative person who believes in his idea and impact which makes him more than willing to be fully dedicated to the achievement of his dream. He is currently Executive Director for the Better Life Association.

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