8 - 14 August 2002
Issue No. 598
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Wish you were here?Egypt's first landfill may be helping to solve the garbage disposal problems facing Alexandria, but not without costs, finds Gihan Shahine
As the orange sun sank behind a startlingly blue Mediterranean, vacationers hurried out to enjoy the evening breezes that in summer are one of the major attractions of Egypt's northern coast. As the waves lapped gently across the white sandy beach holiday-makers relaxed, taking in deep breaths of fresh air. And then they gasped.
"It is not the first time this obnoxious smell has gripped the area," says Amira Refaat, owner of a beach villa in the north coast resort of Zomorroda. "During the 23 July holiday it was so strong I could barely sleep. And there have been many more insects this year than before, which is surely no coincidence."
Refaat's complaints have been echoed by dozens of other owners of holiday homes in neighbouring resort villages. The smell emanates from the nearby landfill, where 3,000 tons of household garbage from Alexandria is daily dumped. It lies only 500 metres along the coastline, in the area of Burg Al-Arab. The landfill was established six months ago as part of the 15-year contract the Alexandria Governorate signed with Onyx, a French Company, to collect and treat one million tons of the city's waste annually, at a cost of LE72 million.
News of the landfill provoked a public outcry and several complaints were filed at the nearby police station. The press had a field day reporting on the "environmental crisis" of the north coast, and called for the relocation of the dump.
In response a committee of independent university professors was charged with investigating the problem, following on-site visits by Alexandria Governor Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub, and Minister of Environment Mamdouh Riyad. Measures are, officials say, already being taken to curb the spread of the obnoxious smell.
But why choose a popular coastal holiday destination to dump waste in the first place? What about the billions of pounds poured into the endless tourist villages? What about the Housing Ministry's own development projects in the area?
"We come here to escape the pollution of Cairo. Couldn't they find anywhere else to dump the waste?" asks Refaat.
Ahmed Khalaf, secretary-general of the Alexandria Governorate, insists the current location is the most suitable. A former quarry, the base of the 25m depression remains 10m above the water table, with prevailing winds blowing away from the tourist villages. It is, furthermore, easily accessible from Alexandria.
"There was no other area suitable for the landfill," claims Khalaf. "Desert lands either had high levels of subterranean water or did not belong to the governorate."
"Lack of space does not justify the creation of health hazards," argues Mohamed Nagi, chairman of HABI, a non-governmental environmental organisation. "The government needs to be more open about the reasons. People are entitled to know the truth."
Fatemah Abu Shuk, head of the Alexandria bureau of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), insists the landfill is "environmentally safe". The malodours and insects are, she says, a result of the open dumps and flawed sewage systems of the tourist villages themselves, a claim vehemently denied by the villages' administrators. Widespread fruit cultivation, particularly of figs, and the hot weather, were added factors, she said.
Ali El-Ra'i, dean of Alexandria University's Higher Studies and Research Institute, who made preliminary studies of the landfill location, is tired of talking to the press. "All I can say is that the location is perfect," he scoffed. "The smell and the flies are not my fault."
Thierry Chazelle, waste treatment director at Onyx, explains that the smell is a normal result of biogas emissions from the garbage. "It cannot be avoided," he explained, "but can be controlled through chemical treatment. And that is what we are trying to do."
Onyx runs 150 landfill sites worldwide. "Each country has its own quality and quantity of garbage, waste sub- products and weather conditions," Chazelle says. "Background information helps us define the best way to treat waste, and since this project is the first in Egypt we are still in the process of collecting data. By the end of August, we will have finally decided on the best way of treating Alexandria's garbage."
Landfills have an environmentally friendly reputation. Garbage is dumped in impermeable cells, compacted and ultimately covered and landscaped. In the meantime biogas emissions and garbage leakage is treated or pumped. But while in France, according to Chazelle, the law stipulates a 200m distance between a landfill and residential areas, under Egypt's environmental law 4/1994, any landfill must be at least 1,500 metres from housing areas. That this landfill is only 500 metres from north coast tourist villages is an anomaly about which NGOs, the Ministry of Housing and of Tourism, are keeping quiet.
"We are waiting to see whether the landfill is the cause of the flies," said Mohamed El-Guindy, chairman of the Alexandrian NGO Friends of the Environment. "If it proves to be the case then we will look for solutions. It is only if those solutions fail that we would think of moving the dump to another area. The landfill has certainly solved Alexandria's endemic garbage problem."
Which does not leave the inhabitants of Burg El-Arab, most of whom are engaged in market gardening, very happy.
"Life has become unbearable," one complained. "The smell and flies are horrible, horrible, horrible."
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