[This article is part of a roundtable on the relationship between engineering, technopolitics, and the environment in the Middle East and North Africa. Click here to read the introduction and access links to all entries in the roundtable.]
My research examines debates among sanitary engineers in Cairo during the British colonial period. These debates are important for two main reasons. First, they enrich our understanding of the hierarchies of colonial Cairo by highlighting their manifestations in everyday life. Second, they give us an insight into how engineering works. In the following, I highlight how sanitary engineers in colonial Cairo were concerned with the relationship between growth and technological systems, which was instrumental in judging the efficiency of their designs.
Sanitary engineering became indispensable for public health during the nineteenth century when waves of cholera pandemics hit much of the globe. Egypt became a node in transnational discussions concerning the cause of cholera, its mode of transmission, and new preventive measures and health standards, such as maritime quarantines, sanitary infrastructures, and housing regulations. By the end of the century, the opinions of bacteriologists, public hygienists, and sanitary engineers converged on the importance of sewage systems as a preventive measure against the spread of infectious diseases in populated cities.
I should note from the outset that virtually all engineers in charge of sanitary projects in colonial Cairo were foreigners (British, French, and German). They were professionals working across national geographies and in interconnected imperial circles. Egyptian engineers, on the other hand, occupied the lower rungs of the administration because the colonial regime excluded them from decision-making posts. Only after 1919, when conditional independence sparked a wave of Egyptianization of the bureaucracy, did local engineers climb up the professional ladder in the Public Works Ministry.
My reading of engineering debates particularly draws on Thorstein Veblen’s The Engineers and the Price System (1919) and Edwin Layton’s The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (1971). Both of these studies investigate engineers in the United States during the progressive era (1890s-1920s). They each underscore the centrality of growth and efficiency for engineers involved in the supply of goods and services. Veblen was critical of business methods that sought to limit industrial production in order to maintain profitability. He imagined that production engineers could unify themselves as a “soviet of technicians” that would oversee multiplying industrial output in order to reduce the price of commodities. While Layton reached a different conclusion regarding how engineers viewed their role, his analysis reveals crucial moments when progressive engineers felt that business demands and political constraints clashed with their professional ideals. The progressives had interpreted efficiency according to a philosophy of professionalism and ideas of social responsibility that made them the foremost proponents of the growth of industrial production.
There is a clear and fundamental difference in context between sanitary engineers in Cairo and industrial engineers in the United States. However, I would like to devote the short space I have here to highlight some parallels. Cairo’s sanitary engineers understood and contested growth and efficiency in terms similar to American industrial engineers. Let me examine the following debate that took place in Cairo in 1890 to see how one engineer argued that growth was more efficient, while others dismissed growth altogether.
In 1889, the Egyptian government hired the British civil engineer Baldwin Latham to design the city’s first sewage system. Latham had extensive experience in sanitary matters based on years of work in English towns. He authored Papers Upon the Supply of Water to Towns (1865) and Sanitary Engineering: A Guide to the Construction of Works of Sewerage and House Drainage (1873), which became a classic and established him as a leading authority in the field.
Latham submitted a report in late 1889, in which he proposed a sewage system that could accommodate 500,000 people. Cairo was then a city of 414,000. Latham divided the 500,000 on the ratio of one to five for engineering purposes: one fifth were elites, and the rest were the “lower class.” Based on certain calculations that will be discussed below, he estimated that when the system became functional, foreign and Egyptian elites would consume thirty gallons per head per day, while the lower classes would consume five gallons per head per day.
One way to understand the significance of these figures is to examine them next to current consumption. While the difference between thirty gallons for the rich and five gallons for the rest is striking, we should keep in mind that the government at the time estimated that Cairo’s poor majority consumed only one gallon of water per day. In effect, Latham’s scheme suggested that the water consumption of the poor was going to increase five-fold in the future. However, we should also put this growth in perspective. A simple calculation would reveal that more than half of the total capacity of the system served the elites.
Latham’s scheme was based on a model of modest growth in water consumption, which was in line with the spirit of social and sanitary reform popular at the time. Sanitary reform movements proliferated in nineteenth-century Europe and were particularly strong in England due to the influence of Edwin Chadwick. Reformists professed belief in the “civilizing influence” of water to aid in the “moral uplift” of the poor. Their ideologists often presented reform as the alternative to radicalism.
The reason why the poor consumed little water in colonial Cairo was the high rate charged by the water company. Established in 1865, the Cairo Water Company had secured a concession that gave it a monopoly over the distribution of filtered water. The company’s rate was so high that only a fraction of private houses and collective sanitary facilities were able to afford it. In 1890, only 2,600 houses (out of 52,000), 60 water fountains (out of 200), and 10 mosques (out of 279) were connected to the company mains. Therefore, the majority of Cairenes lived in houses not connected to water. Rather, they continued to rely on older methods of water supply and distribution, such as wells, cisterns, and carriers distributing unfiltered water from the Nile and its derivatives, as well as communal facilities like public baths, standpipes, and mosque latrines. At the same time, these traditional methods and facilities suffered deterioration due to government neglect and the disintegration of the system of charitable endowment that sustained them financially. The result was a colonial city where water was distributed very unevenly. The role of the Cairo Water Company in maintaining this situation led to popular antagonism that I examined in an article in Arab Studies Journal.
To come back to Latham’s proposed plan: how did the government receive this reformist proposal? Particularly, how did it receive his recommendation to make room for growth in water consumption? To the government experts, Latham’s proposal was too elaborate for existing demand. The project was reviewed by engineers like A. G. W. Reid, director of the Barrage at the Public Works Ministry, and John Price, sanitary engineer at the Public Health Department. In Reid’s opinion, the project was founded on a model applicable only to European cities, while Cairo was “partly European partly Oriental." Reid blamed Latham for not realizing that “the poor of an eastern country possess no boarded floors to be scrubbed, no table equipment to be washed daily, no changes of linen to be sent to the laundry, no elaborate meals requiring large quantities of water for cooking—they bathe only at a river, canal, or a public bath." Reid’s alternative suggestion was to reduce the allowance for lower-class water consumption from five to one gallon. In other words, he wanted the sewage system to reflect Cairo’s current consumption and assume no growth in the future. This way, the project would become significantly cheaper, since it would require smaller pipes and weaker pumping machines than suggested.
Latham wrote a sixteen-page reply to his critics. Underneath the professional language boiled the frictions that motivated him to dismantle the position of the government engineers. Three points serve as illustrations of his counterarguments. Latham’s short answer was that his provision for growth reflected his concern for efficiency.
First, Latham showed how well he had studied Cairo. He argued that government engineers had underestimated water consumption by relying mainly on the figures of the Cairo Water Company. However, the majority of the urban population obtained water from many other sources that escaped the urban bureaucracy. For instance, the government did not have complete information on shallow wells, which supplied brackish water that could be used for flushing.
Second, Latham’s position was that Cairenes would use more water when available. He argued that patterns of consumption change as a result of the extension of sanitary infrastructures. “The experience in India,” he wrote, “is that year by year with the introduction of sanitary works, the demand for water by an Oriental population are continually on the increase, and in the new Water Works of India, I do not know a single town that is not providing at least 20 gallons per head per day for the whole population." In other words, growth was very likely in Cairo. Dealing with it at a later stage could jeopardize the system and eventually require expensive expansions and alterations.
Finally, Latham slammed the critics’ urge to reduce the size of sewers as another case of putting economy ahead of efficiency. The suggestion was impractical if not dangerous. He pointed out that reducing the size of sewers would not have the effect his critics had in mind. Narrower pipes were more prone to stoppage and could require more force. Thus, government critics could incur more expenses and lose capacity in their attempt to design the system on the cheap.
Latham wrote his long reply on 19 March 1890, from the steamship Bokhara heading to India, where he studied and designed drainage systems for a number of cities including Calcutta, Bombay, Benares, and Nani-Tal.
Portrait of Baldwin Latham (1836-1917). Credit: Obituary, Proceedings of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society (1917).
Now we can see how the sanitary engineers in Cairo were as concerned with growth and efficiency as the US engineers in the accounts of Veblen and Layton. For Latham, provisioning for growth was more efficient and less expensive than designing a system based on the constraints of economy. He reasoned that Cairo will consume more water once a sewage system becomes available. The government engineers disagreed and argued that Latham was wrong to base his design on a model of growth. Instead of Latham’s limited reforms, they offered a sanitary anthropology of “natives” and their habits, which legitimized the financial and political constraints on water usage in Cairo. For them, the technological system should reflect the reality of the city, where the majority did not need nor could afford sanitation.
My research examines this and other engineering debates while remaining attuned to the specificity of colonial Cairo as well as the commonality of engineering practices and principles in an age of global circulation of disease, capital, and knowledge.
 Norman Howard-Jones, The Scientific Background of the International Sanitary Conferences, 1851-1938 (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1975); Richard Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Peter Baldwin, Contagion and the State in Europe, 1830-1930 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); and Valeska Huber, “The Unification of the Globe by Disease? The International Sanitary Conferences on Cholera, 1851-1894,” The Historical Journal 49, no. 2 (2006).
 Thorstein Veblen, The Engineers and the Price System (New York: Viking Press, 1934 ). The book was first published in 1919 as a series of essays in The Dial.
 Edwin Layton, The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986 ). See also Roland Kline, “From Progressivism to Engineering Studies: Edwin T. Layton’s The Revolt of the Engineers,” Technology and Culture 49, no. 4 (2008).
 Dar al-Wathaiq al-Qawmiya [The Egyptian National Archive] (hereafter DWQ), Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number: 4003-037344.
 30*100,000 = three million gallons; 5*400,000 = two million gallons
 Christopher Hamlin, Public Health in the Age of Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
 DWQ, Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number: 4003-037344.
 Shehab Ismail, “Epicures and Experts: The Drinking Water Controversy in British Colonial Cairo,” Arab Studies Journal 26, no. 2 (Fall 2018).
 DWQ, Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number: 4003-037344.
 DWQ, Diwan al-Ashghal al-Umumiya (Public Works Ministry), file number: 4003-021820.
 Archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers (UK). Baldwin Latham papers.