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EGYPT: Cairo's hovering 'black cloud'

October 27, 2009 |  7:40 am

Cairosmog1_200 Fires burn in the provinces, and mornings break smoky in the city.

It’s harvest time. The rice has been gathered, and farmers light the chaff. The Cairo skyline -- smudged gray even on good days -- turns ominous, an ashy, strange-scented cloak. Lungs grow scratchy. Eyes water. 

Is the annual rice harvest alone to blame for what Egyptians call the ‘black cloud’? Many say, definitely. But there are other theories and myths: Military maneuvers kicking up sand in the desert, dust storms, rubbish fires, global warming, autumn fog off the Nile or, perhaps, all of these mingling with the smoke from rice farms to create a sky of gloom.

Some days are worse than others, but even on the “clear” afternoons the horizon seems tinged with smoke. Egypt is not known for environmental protection, and Cairo, a city of 18 million, is streaked in air the shades of mustard dust and pepper. 

"It has been 10 years since we first saw the black cloud," said Dr. Mostafa Ghoneim, a specialist in respiratory illnesses. "The government and the Ministry of Health never put any effort into investigating such a phenomenon despite the diseases many are suffering because of it."

The problem is larger than the burning of rice straw "because smoke that spreads from these burnings can only have limited effect and shouldn’t reach Cairo with the strength we see here. Cairo alone has more than 12,000 factories and 2 million vehicles," said Ghoneim. "The black cloud is most dangerous to people with sensitive eyes, as well as children. Children’s lungs become very vulnerable when inhaling such smoke, and they can easily develop asthmas once exposed to smoke for long."

The harvest fires in the Nile Delta will burn until mid-November. Until then, shutters stay dirty, windshields gritty and the sky is a plague, descending.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: A policeman views Cairo's '"black cloud." Credit: AFP/Getty Images