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EGYPT: Clearing the air pollution after the revolution

September 27, 2011 |  9:34 am

REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- When the thick clouds of tear gas and repressive rule lifted last winter, Egyptians breathed more easily. And in a shade of serendipity, the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak accomplished what the Egyptian Environmental Ministry had failed to accomplish for years: noticeably cleaner air in Cairo.

During the 18-day revolt that ended in February, curfews and roadblocks kept hundreds of thousands of toxic fume-spewing cars and minibuses off the streets. At the same time, labor strikes and a lack of security shuttered factories, many with long histories of spilling lead, gases and cement dust into the air.

Now, seven months later, grim skies are back. Not only are noxious vehicles once again clogging roads and factory smoke choking the sky, but many in this country of more than 81 million are worried about an even more vexing poison:  the coming "black cloud" that veils the sky each autumn when farmers burn rice chaff.

“This year in Egypt is special,” wrote Ahmed El-Dorghamy on Al-Masry al-Youm online. “The 2011 black cloud, and the implications of the revolution, will keep us environmentalists in great suspense. We’re in a period of chaos.... The loss of control over rice burning expected this year might actually be good. After all, the imposed ban over rice straw burning had previously driven many farmers to burn in the darkness of the night when inspectors can’t see them. This was actually the worst time to burn.”

An air layer traps the pollution during the clandestine night burning, a phenomenon called thermal inversion which doesn’t happen during the heat of the day.  

Facebook, which helped spur the Jan. 25 revolt, is also a player in the fight against pollution in Egypt.  In March, 4,000 members launched a campaign to prevent the black smoke when growers burn their rice straw.

Engineer Mohamed el-Koshty, who founded the group, estimated that burning of rice stalks was responsible for 43% of autumnal air pollution in Cairo. The group warned that Nile delta villages would witness a “burning orgy of rice stalks very soon unless prompt measures were made to make use of these stalks economically, for example as straw for agricultural, industrial and other purposes.”

One longtime Cairene and native Californian, Maryanne Stroud Gabbani, owns a horse farm at the edge of the desert.

“Years ago I could see the blocks in the great pyramids from 10 miles away. Now it’s haze, most mornings,” she said, “just like in Los Angeles.”

Though she doesn’t feel that straw burning is the only reason for the autumnal "black cloud," Gabbani has found uses for the plentiful rice chaff. “I feed my horses rice straw. So far everyone is thriving. It's also great for cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep.”

In addition, Gabbani found that the straw makes excellent bedding for her animals and insulation in building. Still she doesn’t see an end to the burning without education of the farmers. 

“During the revolution, there were the most stunning blue skies,” she noted. “We should have had this revolution sooner.”


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-- Clare Fleishman

Photo: Fume-spewing cars and minibuses fill the streets in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in this file photograph. Credit:  Dana Smillie / For The Times