Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salah Hafez

Garbage in the streets of Cairo

Culture in any country is judged by the nation's commitment to certain civilized issues in life, and one of them is cleanliness, writes Salah Hafez*

Waste is a product which is generated from different human activities whether social, industrial or civil. The main categories of waste are municipal (garbage), industrial, agricultural and hazardous.

Waste management has always been a problem in all communities throughout recent times. It was originally a natural phase of human activities and was easily accommodated locally. Then technology developed, natural resources began to be depleted, and synthetic non- biodegradable matters started to be introduced. At this point, environmental problems commenced.

In the developed world, it was realized early on that the need for management of waste is essential in communities, and that unless a tight system is developed, natural resources will be badly hurt. However, in our race to grow the economy, certain aspects were overlooked and great damage to Mother Earth began to be noticed. It is evident now that local and global resources in all countries are suffering from great loads of pollutants, and the supply of clean water, land and air became smaller.

In 1972 the Stockholm Conference was convened and the first alarm was flagged that pollution is causing tremendous damage not only to the local environment but also globally. Our oceans were badly polluted by all types of wastes, watersheds and rivers were becoming badly deteriorated, and the fertile land was degraded or eroded to a level which jeopardized food security worldwide. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that there are even more serious issues: the protective layer of Ozone in the stratosphere, which stops the harmful Ultra-Violet component of sunlight from penetrating to us, is being depleted and threatening humanity.

The outcome of this conference was an agreement to establish a committee to be headed by the Prime Minister of Norway, Mrs. Bruntland, to study the situation further and to present a comprehensive report to the UN portraying the size of the problem and the prescription to remedy it.

The final conclusion was to follow certain footsteps to achieve sustainable development which is, in essence, to consider that the present generation is borrowing the natural resources from the future generation to hand them over the same intact to the next generations to carry out the development and to conduct the same.

Twenty years later, The Earth Summit was convened in Rio de Janeiro and was attended by 108 heads of state in addition to prime ministers and many ministers. The purpose was to ratify Agenda 21, and conventions related to global warming, land degradation and international waters. The outcome was more recommendations, meetings and disagreements.

Now, in 2009, a few things have developed globally but at a much slower pace than what was conceived. More stringent targets were set to deal with different environmental problems. However, procrastination in implementation, and a lax attitude in fulfilling commitments became commonplace among all stakeholders.

Egypt's role within these global issues is insignificant; however, the domestic environmental problems are readily apparent. Garbage is ubiquitous in all towns, bad management of municipal waste has become the norm, and damage to our natural and cultural heritage threatens our future. Hazardous and toxic wastes are not managed separately, and consequently health hazards for our nation menace our development. Air pollution from industry and transportation is very loosely controlled and the black cloud in autumn every year is attacking us without mercy.

Culture in any country is judged by the nation's commitment to certain civilized issues in life, and one of them is cleanliness. Yet, our best residential areas in all cities, towns and villages are disgracefully filthy to the extent that not only does it destroy our image and reputation but it threatens the health and welfare of the whole population.

The garbage generated in our communities has special features that require strict management. The content of garbage is rich in organic material, quantities of plastic bags and a mixture of many other things including hazardous items like batteries and electronic components. The organic waste could easily be converted into useful products like fertilizers and compost, but plastic bags should be banned immediately for they generate when burnt an extremely hazardous product, dioxin. Those gases are carcinogenic to a very high degree, and they are living among us day and night, forcing us to inhale it. Similarly, hazardous and toxic materials which contain heavy metals are mixed with the municipal garbage which is then converted to fertilizing compost. The life cycle of this compost with heavy metals would transport heavy metals to the land then food then eventually to animals and human beings.

The waste as generated in different forms always has a negative financial value, but after collection, sorting, transportation and recycling, its value will be less negative, but may not yet have a positive value. However, if one puts a price tag on the indirect benefits of avoiding political, psychological or physical damage to the nation, then it is the most lucrative business to any nation. Financial resources are important to properly implement the issue of waste management but cannot be used as a pretext to ignore it and blame it on the bad habit of the people. Only wrong systems and bad implementation of existing ones make stakeholders develop "those" bad habits.

Management of waste is not esoteric nor is it difficult to achieve. It only needs a well conceived formula to manage the different phases, including: collection, transportation, sorting, followed by recycling, reuse or final and safe disposal. It is also imperative to change the consumption pattern and culture of people to introduce a consistent system of management to all levels and to be applicable everywhere.

It is sad that poor and deprived groups are always more vulnerable to damage than privileged ones. It is the right of every person to enjoy an acceptable level of quality of life enough to lead safe, clean and healthy lives. Individuals have to contribute to the solution of this problem but it is the obligation of Government to put forward and implement a waste management system which is acceptable socio- economically to everyone and results in clean and safe communities.

* The writer is an energy and environmental expert and ex- chairman of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency under the Cabinet of Ministers from 1991 to 1997.

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