18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Pollution on trialBy Mariz Tadros
The weather has improved, with the gradual disappearance of the "black cloud", as the smog that has been choking Cairo for weeks is popularly termed, but the debate over its appearance rages on. In an attempt to determine the reasons for the smog and those responsible for Cairo's pollution nightmare, Al-Ahram's Regional Press Institute in collaboration with the newspaper's environmental communications and development unit organised a public "trial".
"I accuse the Cairo governor and the ministers of health, agriculture, environment and transport -- in that order," declared prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salah Montasser. The roots of the problem, he argued, go back to the post-1952 "revolutionary" governments, whose industrialisation plans included building factories very close to the capital "for propaganda purposes". A case in point, he added, is the southern suburb of Helwan, once "the lungs of Cairo, but now the main source of the city's pollution". Before the revolution, explained Montasser, the government built factories in uninhabited areas, but since then, the industrialisation process has failed to follow an environmentally sound course.
"This dark cloud will pass, but the factors causing it will stay with us," said Montasser. He was outraged by the fact that, for a whole week, "no official bothered to explain to us what was going on. I began suspecting that they did not know the reasons for the smog. Naturally, rumours started circulating." Accountability, he suggested, was lacking because citizens did not know who to turn to. Eventually, they sought explanations from the press.
Montasser contended that the burning of rice straw -- cited by officials as the reason for the smog -- must have had something to do with it. When the price of rice increased last year, many farmers started growing the crop. "If one feddan of rice produces three to five tons of straw, you can imagine what one million feddans will produce," he affirmed. Montasser, however, was reluctant to blame farmers. "If the Ministry of Agriculture instructs them to burn the remains of their crops, what can they do? We should not blame the farmers, because we did not provide them with alternative solutions."
Montasser dismissed as "a joke" the government's suggestion that straw be transported out of the countryside instead of being burned. "Let's be realistic: can the government transport millions of tons of rice straw? And transport them where? Somewhere where they can burn it, away from the public eye?"
The reason why the "cloud" got so much attention, he added, is because it affected Cairo's inhabitants, whose complaints are more audible due to their proximity to the centres of power. "But the open burning operations are continuing," he asserted. Last but not least on Montasser's list of offenders was the media. "In confronting the smog, the government ignored television, which should have been used to raise people's awareness about what should be done to prevent pollution."
Nabil Zaki, chief editor of the opposition Al-Ahali, condemned the entire government rather than certain ministries, "and not only the post-1952 governments -- all the previous governments of Egypt. It is impossible for one ministry to protect the environment; this must be done through coordinated efforts. And look at the corrupt bureaucrats of the municipal councils! Every day, environmental violations take place before their eyes, and we know why they keep silent. Of course they get paid. What has happened [the smog] will repeat itself," he predicted.
Zaki asserted that the government itself has no environmental awareness, "perhaps because government officials move about in air-conditioned cars, and don't notice everyday levels of air pollution, until something they cannot ignore happens". He suggested that the government should develop environmentally friendly technologies to dispose of waste and establish a specialised "environment police" to monitor violations.
Defending the government, Magdi Allam, head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), argued that the political will to protect the environment should emanate not only from policy-makers but from society as a whole. He said the EEAA and the Ministry of Environment have been ineffective in doing their job because "the Environment Law stipulates that the environmental bodies should seek to implement the law in coordination with the responsible administrative authorities".
Such coordination is the crux of the problem, he suggested, because it gives the concerned authorities very little space to manoeuvre and limited powers of implementation. He cited industrial waste, the combustion of refuse and vehicle emissions as some of the principal sources of pollution, and added that a plan to provide farmers with economically viable alternatives to burning is being developed.
He then added: "The fact that we have not received any complaints about patients being admitted to hospitals because of the smog...," but, before he could finish his sentence, there was an uproar from the floor, with doctors and parents standing up to tell him of the respiratory problems many, especially children, have experienced. One speaker agreed with Allam that there were no reports of patients being admitted to hospitals because records are lacking altogether -- an indication of the absence of transparency.
Mohamed Mahran, head of the Meteorological Authority, denied that the public was left in the dark with regard to the weather situation, pointing out that he had issued a declaration the day the smog appeared, Saturday 23 October. He blamed the rice straw burning operations in the Delta and on the outskirts of Cairo, which combined with certain weather conditions to cause the smog. Mahran said a similar cloud had been observed last year, around the same time that rice straw was being burned, but only lasted for a day. Sceptical whispers could be heard from the audience, however.
With the issue of rice straw burning so central to the discussion, it seemed somewhat odd that neither the farmers nor the Ministry of Agriculture were taking part in the seminar-cum-trial.
Ultimately, there was no consensus on the "real reason" for the smog, which was viewed rather as one manifestation of a general environmental crisis gripping the country -- which shows no signs of abating -- and in which the relevant officials have played no small part.