Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 November 2005
Issue No. 768
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Smog season

Recapping with a conversation with the minister of state for environmental affairs, Mahmoud Bakr sifts through the myth and reality of the black cloud

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For the past six years, the black cloud has been a major air polluant

Endemic bouts of air pollution that start around this time of year have dogged the country since 1997. The cloud-like effect, most visible at sunrise and sunset, was first studied in 1999, when experts noted a sudden rise in airborne pollutants that have since varied from one year to the next. On first appearing the cloud prompted complains of an acrid smell and a burning sensation of the eyes and the nose as well as breathing problems. Environmentalists were quick to blame car exhaust and industrial emissions: the number of vehicles on the streets of Cairo had after all risen from 0.4 million in 1980 to 1.3 million in 1998; and all manner of hazardous industries -- foundries and mines, for example -- operated within city boundaries.

The problem was further complicated by the routine, open-air burning of tonnes of municipal solid waste. In 1999, officials blamed the cloud specifically on the Wafaa wal-Amal garbage dump. The dump was closed down, but the cloud didn't go away. Later, rice chaff burning throughout the Nile Delta, where rice cultivation had grown sufficiently to produce an annual three million tonnes of chaff, most of which is disposed of by burning, emerged as a more likely cause; more damningly, it was noted, the cloud appeared mostly in autumn, the rice harvest season.

Yet subsequent scientific tests have proven that, while chaff burning accounts for 40 per cent of the pollution during that season, air pollutants through the year are 32 per cent industrial emissions, 26 car exhaust and 36 garbage burning, leaving only a tiny fraction to agricultural refuse. Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Maged George told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government has short- and long-term plans for improving the quality of air: "Several ministries and government agencies are cooperating in this effort, which may take years to bear fruit." According to the minister, there are over 12,000 factories emitting pollutants in Cairo alone, including textile, steel, car, cement, chemicals, and petroleum plants. Traffic is another story altogether: 1.5 million vehicles in Cairo, including 28,000 taxis that are over 30 years old.

In the meantime the Ministry of Environment has provided Delta farmers with nearly 300 chaff presses, enabling them to turn this unwanted material into income-making commodity -- to discourage burning. Ministry refuse recycling units are cooperating with NGOs and the National Social Fund to help turn agricultural refuse into organic fertilisers, animal fodder and energy source.

As for municipal refuse, George described the problem as "massive, for refuse has been accumulating at various dumps in the capital for years". Of an estimated total of 14 million metric tonnes that had accumulated in Cairo and its surrounds, the ministry has so far removed six million; and work is in progress to dispose of the rest. "The government is making sure that the municipalities have the right equipment, such as garbage trucks, with which to face the problem." He added that the Governorate of Al-Qalioubiya has plans for removing polluting industries from Shobra Al-Kheima in north Cairo, to uninhabited locations.

The ministries of environment and interior are cooperating on a programme for testing car exhaust in the capital and the nearby areas of Giza and Al-Qalioubiya, George added. All vehicles will have to take an exhaust test as part of the road licensing procedure, which means that all cars in Cairo, Giza and Al-Qalioubiya will abide by strict standards regarding exhaust emissions. Cairo public buses are currently subject to an engine- overhaul plan to ensure such standards. And the government has set aside LE25 million to switch all government-owned vehicles to natural gas, a far more environmentally friendly fuel than petrol. The Ministry of Electricity and Petroleum has also promised to convert power plants currently using diesel oil to natural gas; all industries are encouraged to make the switch, and the government intends to spend nearly LE3 billion over the next 15 years to make natural gas available to homes and industries across the country.

A national network of 46 stations monitoring air quality, George went on, now operates across the country. In Greater Cairo alone, there are 14 units that monitor and analyse airborne pollutants and produce monthly reports of their findings, and more units are to be introduced. An early warning system is in place to monitor sudden surges in pollution -- all in the hope of a safer place to breathe.

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