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

A journey of discoveries

Sohaylah El Sawy writes about a group of women from Mohandessin who wanted to "clean and green" their streets

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It all started seventeen years ago when the committee that was later to become the "Egyptian Association For Environment And Community Services" started its twice a-week walkabouts to pinpoint areas of litter for the "Giza Cleaning and Beautification Authority" and to monitor litter removal, with full support of the Governor of Giza.

Our first discovery was that sidewalks, an important pedestrian right, were fast disappearing, being usurped by street vendors or having become extensions to shops, mostly fast food outlets. Litter was everywhere. Our motto became "Bring Back Our Sidewalks" symbolizing law and order, in the hope to control garbage. We discovered that not everyone agrees on what garbage is. Only huge heaps seemed to warrant removal. Strangely, "underprivileged" areas had less garbage than high income residential districts.

Then, the offending sight of garbage bags stuffed into bigger sacks, and left at the crossroads of side streets or corners of midans (squares) was explained as a temporary state of things, as garbage removal by donkey carts was being replaced by collection trucks shared by several collectors.

As our first pilot project, we decided to deal with this issue piecemeal and focused on Midan Abu El Mahasin el Shazly in Agouza district, trying to involve a small community of residents in cleaning up and improving their neglected midan. They participated with ideas and contributions, provided bins and lampposts, and housewives volunteered to monitor garbage disposal. The important thing was that everyone shared common views and interest. The Giza authorities helped with manpower and equipment. Eight other midans in similar residential areas were upgraded in the same manner.

Now with new high rise construction everywhere grouping commercial shopping areas and business areas with residential apartments, garbage has increased a hundredfold and waste removal became very difficult to organize.

Recruiting school children, especially those living in informal and underprivileged areas to help, was another eye opener. First, in "Houteya" in the Agouza district, we discovered a neglected youth club. The children in the area were only too happy to help clean up. After we got the club going, the children became attached to us and most of them took part in our cleaning campaigns. We called them the Environment Scouts. Other Scouts from other youth clubs, and from over twenty government schools, joined our environmental activities. Now, they do not only care about their surroundings, they have become role models able to work in teams. I hope we managed to have them realize that sweeping to maintain cleanliness all around is not a demeaning activity as it is viewed by their elders.

Garbage has become a serious health hazard. We think that one government department should have full responsibility and supervision for managing the whole process of garbage collection and its adequate disposal. However, the government can not do it alone. All stakeholders must be engaged On the individual side, we must reduce our production of waste. Let us not buy products with unnecessary packaging. Let us reuse carrier bags. The denim carrier bags introduced by our association some years ago to replace plastic bags for shopping is working very well as a step to minimize harmful waste.

* The writer is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Egyptian Association for Environment and Community Services.

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