3 - 9 June 1999
Issue No. 432
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Awakening to the environment
Visiting the minister of state for environmental affairs is rather like penetrating a tropical rainforest. In her environmentally-friendly office, plants and greenery stretch away as far as the eye can see. Nadia Makram Ebeid has been in office less than three years, yet her frankness, directness and determination have already won her many friends. She is a dynamic woman, who believes passionately in what she is doing. Which is just as well, as the task on her hands -- restoring an Egyptian environment worn down by decades of overuse and rampant industrial pollution -- is a Herculean one. Yet despite the countless demands upon her energy and time, she was still able to receive us with her habitual charm, relaxed and smiling. Even her simplest answers reflect the sophistication of her thinking. In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, she reviews the achievements of the last few years, and looks ahead to the challenges to come
Interview by Mahmoud Bakr and Sherine Nasr
In recent years, the environment has increasingly been a focus of concern for governments throughout the world. In Egypt, we have seen the Ministry for Environmental Affairs established, and a major new law -- Law No 4 of 1994 -- passed. Yet, to the casual observer, the country still seems to be labouring under enormous environmental problems. How do you explain this paradox?
The environment is a massive issue. We are dealing with problems that have been accumulating over the past fifty years. It took Japan 30 years, the USA 25 years and France 20 years to begin to solve their environmental problems. Even just two years ago, nobody in Egypt really gave the environment much thought. Now, however, we are getting a lot of political support, and the environment is firmly on the political agenda. It is no longer seen as a luxury. A genuine environmental awareness has been born. This fills me with hope and confidence.
When you were appointed minister, what was the first priority you set?
Throughout 1998, the main theme of my work has been freeing the Nile from industrial pollution. Now, thanks to regular inspections, persistent follow-up and constant monitoring, 34 factories and companies across the country have met the deadline for compliance set by Law 4 of 1994. We have thus prevented the discharge of 100 million cubic metres of industrial waste into the Nile -- at a cost of LE350 million.
My priority for this year is to continue with this task. We now have to move beyond industrial pollution to address the problem of sanitary waste. This will involve major infrastructure investment, particularly in the new cities. It is a huge task, needing billions of pounds to be completed. Considerable sums have been allocated for that purpose by the state -- some LE26 billion. This will provide a sewage network for the whole nation by the year 2017. We will be working very closely with the Ministry of Housing on this project. Once the network is complete, it will reflect very positively on the environment. The bulk of this kind of pollution will be eliminated.
There is also the problem posed by the 230 river boats moored on the Nile: this can be solved by ensuring they are equipped with appropriate waste disposal units. In addition, we will build five stations to receive this waste, in the governorates of Aswan, Assiut, Sohag, Minya and Cairo, which should be operational by the end of the year. We also want to address the hazards created by river barge accidents, especially those transporting chemicals, in the context of stricter monitoring of all traffic on the river. Finally, the river will also benefit from our plan to work with the governorates to bring about a general improvement in people's environmental awareness and behaviour.
There is also the problem of agricultural waste...
That is true. The Ministry of Agriculture has already reduced the nation's pesticide use from its earlier level of 38,000 tons a year to less than 3,000 tons. Moreover, this quantity will drop even further, as serious steps are taken to switch to the use of organic methods of pest control which pose no threat to the environment.
So, in general, you are happy with the progress made on the water front?
The Nile is now a clean river, as Dr Mahmoud Abu Zeid, minister of public works and water resources, has testified.
Egypt's lakes also have a long-standing problem with pollution...
The ministry has taken steps to tackle this problem. At Lake Manzala, we have established a biological treatment project with the support of the Global Environmental Fund. If this succeeds, I hope to extend the programme to other lakes. As for Lake Maryout, a number of factories still discharge industrial waste directly into a sewage system that empties straight into the lake. The governor of Alexandria is doing all he can to find ways of putting an end to this.
What other big problems do you hope to tackle in the near future?
Air quality in the Greater Cairo area remains a major concern. To this end, we have recently completed training a new generation of environmental managers, who will staff 36 new monitoring stations. Their task is to monitor the levels of lead and particulate matter. There are also another six stations, specifically charged with monitoring carbon dioxide, sulphuric acid and nitrogen levels. The network is part of USAID's Cairo Air Improvement Project, which we are implementing at a cost of $60 million. Danida (the Danish International Development Agency) is also working with us on this.
This project is also part of our broader programme to strengthen our institutional capacity. We want to train young men and women to provide the backbone of Egypt's environmental capacity, and to expand our presence in the various governorates, so as to ensure we have a solid and accurate database.
That is why we are putting a new data infrastructure in place, on which we will in future be able to base our decisions and which will give a precise picture of the quality of both air and water in Egypt.
What steps are you taking to reduce air pollution levels?
The overall quality of Cairo's air continues to improve. Lead-free gasoline is now available throughout Greater Cairo. There are promising initiatives to expand the use of natural gas in buses, and it is already used extensively in various industries, including 85 per cent of our thermal power stations.
Yet, industrial areas such as Shubra Al-Khima still register extraordinarily high concentrations of lead. The main culprit would seem to be suspended particulate matter, which stands at six times the level set by the law. Of course, geographical location has a direct impact on the quality of the air. There is no comparison between Heliopolis and Shubra Al-Khima, for instance.
This year, we plan to relocate all brick kilns, foundries and cement factories outside residential areas. This will entail regular inspection to monitor compliance with environmental protection codes.
We understand there has been trouble with one major project, which was supported by the World Bank, for a new public sector General Metals Lead Smelter. What is the present situation?
The joint project with the World Bank did not work out, but we will still be able to build the smelter through the Cairo Air Improvement Project. A contract has also been signed to relocate the major private sector lead smelter, which is responsible for almost 70 per cent of all Egyptian smelter emissions, from Shubra Al-Khima to the desert area of Abu Zabaal.
What has the ministry been doing to resolve the pollution problems posed by the cement factories? Have the factories actually taken any steps to bring their emissions into line with the conditions laid down by the environment law?
I am not worried about the new cement factories, because they have been subject from the outset to very stringent and strict conditions. They have to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). By law, their emissions must not exceed 200 mgm per cubic metre. I have since reduced this to 50 mgm, and I intend to reduce it further.
As for the old factories, they made enormous efforts to comply with the law. They have installed filters at a cost of more than LE250 million, and the discharge from their chimneys is now below the stipulated 500 mgm per cubic metre ceiling. However, we want to see the discharge levels brought down to 200 mgm per cubic metre. And it is true that working environment levels are still in violation of the legal norm -- several times higher, in fact, than the legal limit.
This problem is mainly due to dust escaping from the by-passes into the corridors -- that is the number one culprit. It is imperative that we find a solution to the problem, yet although a lot of work has been done, there is still no practical solution to hand, ready to be applied. However, it is a situation which we are taking very seriously. We now have constant round-the-clock surveillance of the factories' emissions, thanks to an automatic monitoring system connected directly to the computer in my office at the ministry.
What are you doing about the manufacturing of asbestos, and the trade in this substance, which has been proven to cause cancer?
The decision to halt the importing of asbestos -- a bold and important step -- was taken by the Minister of Supplies and Trade Dr Ahmed Guweili. As for the Sigwart Asbestos Factory at Al-Ma'assara, the plant is under continuous inspection, and will remain so until it has complied with the law by installing a fully-enclosed system that will prevent waste escaping into the surrounding area.
There are over 26,000 industrial plants in Egypt. How far are we from seeing all of them comply with the environment law?
Many of them have already complied with the law's requirements. We are focusing at present on some 500 factories, which are the major polluters. They are concentrated in certain industries -- petrochemicals, iron, steel, cement, fertilisers and food production.
So far, they have collectively spent LE1 billion on compliance. We estimate the industrial sector in Egypt needs to spend some LE12 billion in total to bring it into full compliance with the environmental standards set by the law.
That is a huge amount of money. Where will it come from?
Already, $100 million have been made available to us by a number of international institutions, such as the World Bank and the German Bank for Reconstruction and Development (KFW). These funds will be channelled to different industries in the form of soft loans. Moreover, the banking sector in Egypt is now playing an important role by providing soft loans at low interest rates. It is a drop in the ocean, it is true, but I think that things are starting to move ahead.
We are also providing the private sector with technical support, in the form of training initiatives, for example. And the environment law stipulates that incentives should be granted to companies that comply with its provisions. The Ministry of Finance has already agreed to a number of such measures. Pollution abatement equipment is to be tax-exempt, and we are discussing further possible forms of preferential treatment. We hope this will encourage yet more companies to comply with the law.
When you work in cooperation with international donors, who sets the priorities -- the donor or the ministry?
Everything that is done in this country is government-led. The government is the one to set the priorities, because we know what our priorities are. But this does not inhibit us from working with the international donor community, who can provide us with much-needed support. Indeed, one of our main priorities is to forge the strongest possible partnerships at both national and international levels. Recently, we have seen some very positive initiatives in this sense.
Can you give us some examples?
Just recently, we launched a $20 million project funded by Canada, which aims at promoting a number of different initiatives, working through NGOs in Egypt, to encourage small- and medium-size businesses.
We are also implementing a pioneering project in South Sinai in collaboration with the European Union to preserve the coral reefs and promote national capacity-building through training young rangers to look after the underwater treasures of the Red Sea.
Projects such as this are crucial if we are to achieve a sustainable tourism. By the end of this year, the Red Sea will be declared a natural protectorate, and by 2017, such protectorates will cover close to 15 per cent of Egypt's land mass, in 35 distinct areas.
In the past, the role of international donors was a minor one, which tended to produce nothing but an endless stream of studies, research documents and reports. Now, there is much more positive action, and the concrete results are already being felt.
What about the role of the international private sector? Can this too be harnessed to work for the environment, not against it?
This is a very important area. Egypt is now widely seen as an emerging free market economy -- the Tiger on the Nile. Thanks to this perception, we have received four trade missions from North America and Europe in the past six months, seeking to forge close partnerships with private and public sector businesses in Egypt. There are a number of fields in which such cooperation can be mutually beneficial -- for example, in wastewater treatment, solid waste management and energy efficiency techniques.
Are these technologies affordable for the average small- to medium-sized business?
In my experience, the technologies on offer are very reasonably priced. Nevertheless, we are very careful not to accept everything that we are offered indiscriminately. Egypt has had her fill of polluting technologies imported from the West, and now we want to introduce only the most modern, clean and environmentally-friendly technologies. At the same time, we are trying to promote joint ventures and Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) projects.
Can the Egyptian private sector not supply our technological needs?
There are some very energetic initiatives underway to do exactly this. For example, the ministry is engaged in a very pragmatic dialogue with the private sector on producing the waste water treatment and solid waste management equipment we need. But it will still be quite some time before we see any concrete results.
At the end of 1999, 10th of Ramadan City will be declared Egypt's first "Environmentally-Friendly Industrial City". What benefits will this bring the nation?
What has been done in 10th of Ramadan should be a matter of national pride for all of us. The businessmen there are trying to foster the notion of public-private partnership, while we at the ministry are promoting the notion of voluntarily compliance. And it is working out very well. No fewer than 800 industrial projects in the city have between them spent some LE120 million introducing new environmentally-friendly technologies. But the best thing is that their enthusiasm is contagious. The other industrial cities have been infected with the same zeal, and are now trying to emulate what they have seen at 10th of Ramadan.
Technology transfer is also one of the major goals of the Mubarak-Al Gore initiative, is it not?
This is a very exciting project. As part of the initiative, we are cooperating with the United States in a number of different areas of common concern. In particular, under Egypt's Global Climate Change Action Plan, we are trying to build a successful energy efficiency technology transfer programme, with the help of USAID.
One of the most important global issues at this time is climate change. Egypt has drawn up a national plan in this respect, and we are cooperating with the Ministry of Electricity and Power on our strategy, which we hope will be translated into action by the end of this year. We also continue to work very seriously with the rest of the international community on this subject, because we know that we can play a pivotal role in relation to the G-77 group of developing nations and China. The Foreign Ministry has also done much outstanding work to this end.
What is Egypt doing to implement the Kyoto Protocol?
We are doing what the rest of the world should be doing: reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
This is not simply a negative exercise, either. Through the donor community and in collaboration with other signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, we are engaged in a new concept, namely, the Green Development Mechanism. This is a new language which many countries are still not familiar with. Under this mechanism, Egypt undertakes to reduce its emissions, and by fulfilling its obligations, will be able to acquire more green technologies to be implemented in different fields. It is a "win-win" situation.
What powers do you have to force industry to comply with environmental regulations?
The law has given governors the authority to shut down polluting factories. Several companies have already been shut down for operating in an irresponsible manner. A few weeks ago, a ceramics company in 10th of Ramadan was shut down because its pollution rates were highly hazardous both for the workers and for the surrounding area.
But shutting a factory down is not really what we want. We want to encourage industrial growth -- but it must not come at the expense of our people's health.
Is that why Law 4 seems to be taking time to make its impact felt?
I believe the law should be effective, not peremptory. It should be enforced only when necessary. The response from the community has been encouraging, but we remain committed to the law, which we will not hesitate to apply, if need be.
Indeed we did so in 10th of Ramadan, where we have closed down two factories which were violating the law, as well as the Sindbad Amusement Park, until such time as they bring their operating conditions into line with the requirements of the law.
However, I would prefer it if people's responses were born out of conviction, rather than coercion. Their cooperation must stem from within them. Then we will have succeeded in securing their lasting cooperation.
So education, not enforcement, is the key to a sustainable future?
There is no doubt that we still suffer from a persistent "environmental illiteracy". At the same time, no one can deny the emergence of a new environmental awareness. President Mubarak's recent speeches, in which he expressed his great concern for the environment, have played a major role in this awakening.
There have been a number of formal educational initiatives pioneered by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, of which the most important is the Green Corner project. This was Mrs Mubarak's own idea. It was launched in seven libraries, and has already spread to another 25. Mrs Mubarak has now requested that the project be extended to include schools. To this end, I have signed an agreement with the minister of education, Dr Hussein Kamel Bahaaeddin, to ensure that environmental themes are well-represented in our school libraries, as well as in the curricula at all academic levels.
Education is also a domain in which the NGO's can play a crucial role. They should be directing all their energies into promoting environmental awareness across every sector of society.
So far, women have not managed to play a full role in the sustainability process. Is that something you believe will change in the near future?
Definitely. Women play a pivotal role in many fields, especially the environment. Think, for instance, of the responsibilities rural women have for managing natural resources, especially water. They handle them directly each day. We need urgently to make them more aware of the problems we are all facing.
Women are also the guardians of much knowledge, for example, in the fields of alternative medicine and herbal remedies. In the years to come, they will play an ever greater role in our national plan for the environment.
What role would you like to see the media play in the future? And how would you evaluate their performance in the past?
The media are among the most effective and powerful partners we can hope to find. Indeed, they provide us with the only means we have to inform those who are responsible for polluting our country of the consequences of their acts, right down to the grassroots level. The media can also warn the public against the effects pollution has on their lives, and thus help us to raise public awareness. They have a vital role to play in changing the patterns of people's behaviour. This is something which the law by itself can never hope to achieve.
How can the individual citizen report a violation of the environment law?
There are two ways. Every citizen is entitled to report any breach of the law to the police station, where an affidavit will be written out. Alternatively, people can contact us directly at the ministry. Both my office, and that of the head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Authority (EEAA), Dr Ibrahim Abdel-Gelil, are empowered to receive such complaints. We are also currently establishing a dedicated Complaints Unit, which should soon be up and running.
How would you sum up the environmental challenge facing Egypt on the eve of the third millennium?
Environment Law No 4 of 1994 is a great achievement, and one which is very dear to me personally. It is my hope that we can find a way for all of us to translate this vision into a new practice of daily life, a new idea of what a civilised society should be. This is the greatest gift we can offer our children. It should be our aim to create a future for them that is filled with promise, rather than burden them with a debt to nature which we have incurred, and which they may never be able to repay.
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi