Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 October 2008
Issue No. 918
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Clouded efforts

Mahmoud Bakr still sees a glimmer of hope in the sky

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Minister George visiting Daqahliya to ensure farmers stop burning rice straw

Remember the black cloud? If, over the past few years, you've been in Cairo in autumn, then chances are you do. It is an atmospheric phenomenon caused by trapped pollution that hangs over the city like thick fog. Experts have blamed it on many things, but the main cause was said to be the burning of rice straw. Now the government is helping farmers recycle their straw and to make some money in the process.

Every year, agricultural activities leave behind 30 to 35 tonnes of plant and animal refuse. Unprocessed, the refuse can cause not only environmental problems, but also health hazards. At present, experts say that the refuse is only being partially processed. Farmers manage to produce seven million tonnes of fodder and four million tonnes of manure every year. But about 3.5 million tonnes of straw and similar plant refuse go unused. Currently, the government is providing farmers with alternative methods of recycling as well as presses to keep the straw stored for later use. For now, farmers are allowed to burn some straw, but only in designated sites.

Straw burning, however, is not the only factor pushing pollution up. Industry, cars, and household emissions are all guilty to one degree or another. The Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs (MSEA) is taking action on all of these fronts. It is encouraging the use of natural gas in transport vehicles, industry, and power stations and has a plan to move small and medium- sized industries away from populated areas.

A project costing nearly LE1 billion is underway to reduce hazardous emissions from major polluting industries. The project aims to monitor factories around the country and ensure that they have the right filters and procedures needed to keep the pollution down.

In a recent field tour, Maged George, minister of state for environmental affairs, went to Gharbiya governorate to inspect a model processing unit for rice straw. "MSEA has commissioned the Egyptian Company for Recycling Solid Waste to operate 15 sites of five to 15 feddans each [one feddan equals 4,200 square metres], for the collection, recycling, and processing of rice straw," said George. In these sites, an estimated total of 290,000 tonnes of straw collected from 145,000 feddans would be processed and treated for future use, mostly as an ingredient of organic fertilisers.

MSEA is providing the local authorities with three lauders, five tractors, and three trailers to help them in this effort. Straw is being collected from the farmers of Gharbiya free of charge and the farmers are entitled to get back organic fertilisers in return. The new procedure is likely to improve the quality of agricultural products, reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers, and create 500 jobs.

George called upon farmers to take the excess straw to the processing sites, which now exist in various governorates. "With nearly four million tonnes of rice straw produced every year, farmers who opt for burning their straw can be reported to the authorities," he added. MSEA has a hotline to receive complaints from the public. The number is 19808 and it can be dialled toll free from any part of the country.

To ascertain the outcome of its efforts, MSEA is keeping track of air quality in various parts of the country. An early warning system for air quality in Cairo now uses 54 monitoring stations to analyse air samples at different times of the day.

The ministry is also coordinating action with other parts of the government to ensure that agricultural refuse is being properly handled. The Arab Industrialisation Authority is now operating two factories for producing organic fertilisers in Sharqiya governorate. The Ministry of Military Production has built two more factories in Daqahliya governorate. Nearly 600,000 tonnes of rice straw will be processed in these factories.

Two model units to turn rice straw into thermal gas have been set up in Sharqiya and Daqahliya. The units, which can process 500 tonnes of straw each year, are expected to produce enough gas to meet the needs of 300 households. This effort is only part of a plan to process nearly one million tonnes of rice straw in the governorates of Sharqiya, Daqahliya and Gharbiya.

Private businesses taking interest in the new clean-air technology are pitching in. A privately-owned company in Sharqiya is now processing 200,000 tonnes of rice straw each year. As a result, nearly 45 per cent of the rice straw produced in Sharqiya is expected to be pressed and processed this year. In Daqahliya, private companies are handling 300,000 tonnes of straw -- nearly 40 per cent of the total amount produced in the governorate.

Young entrepreneurs with small capital can also benefit from the clean-air campaign. MSEA is organising 70 training sessions to teach college graduates how to use rice straw to produce mushrooms. Bell peppers and tomatoes can be produced on beds of rice straw, agricultural experts say.

Meanwhile, "the traffic authorities have tested 96 per cent of all vehicles operating in the country for emissions. Interestingly, the most polluting vehicles are not the big buses, or even trucks," said George. "The biggest polluter is the smallest of all vehicles. One motorbike produces on average as much harmful emissions as 10 to 12 automobiles." Egypt has 500,000 motorbikes.

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