Egyptians Battle The 'Black Cloud' Of Cairo

A camel-mounted tourism policeman on the Giza Plateau looks out over Cairo, Egypt. i i

A camel-mounted tourism policeman on the Giza Plateau looks out over Cairo, Egypt, which was blanketed by a black cloud of smog in this October 2007 photo. Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images
A camel-mounted tourism policeman on the Giza Plateau looks out over Cairo, Egypt.

A camel-mounted tourism policeman on the Giza Plateau looks out over Cairo, Egypt, which was blanketed by a black cloud of smog in this October 2007 photo.

Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

In Cairo, this is the season of the Black Cloud — the inky haze of pollution that on its worst days descends on the Egyptian capital with noxious, throat-burning fumes.

The black cloud, a decade-old phenomenon, has been attributed to farmers burning rice straw after their harvest. But studies show there are several contributors to the foul air, and while the government has made some progress reducing the smog level, it has a long way to go.

October and November are wonderful months in Cairo. Air conditioners are switched off, windows are thrown open, and warm sunny afternoons give way to cool evening breezes. It's a pleasure to be outdoors — except when the black cloud appears. Then the coughing starts, eyes water and asthma sufferers and others flee indoors.

If you ask Egyptians who is responsible for the cloud, most will point north to the Sharkiya governorate, where much of Egypt's rice crop is planted. Farmers traditionally burn their rice straw this time of year, and the smoke adds to Cairo's already heavy pollution to create a dark layer of smog.

In the town of Zagazig, the regional hub for farming villages north of the capital, environmental official Omar Abdelaziz Akul says the farmers aren't getting a fair shake. He says the black cloud is made up of many types of pollutants.

Still, Akul says there's been progress in getting farmers to stop burning the rice straw. Instead, they can now sell it to factories, which convert it to animal feed or biofuels.

And he notes that one private company, a joint Saudi-Egyptian venture, is buying up rice straw at an ever-increasing rate. "So this company buys the rice straw from the farmers, and they give it to the Ministry. The Ministry distributes it to the different factories," Akul says.

By the government's estimation, only a minority of small farmers in the Sharkiya are still burning rice straw.

In Cairo, the Egyptian environmental agency says the official count of "black cloud days" so far this year is two. Last year, there were six. When people first noticed the cloud 10 or 11 years ago, it seemed to hang around for weeks on end.

Air-quality chief Ahmed Abu Sa'oud says the cloud has had one positive effect — it spurred the government to tackle air pollution problems that have been allowed to grow for decades. In addition to the burning of agricultural waste, he says vehicle exhaust fumes and industrial pollution are major contributors. And he says the smog is worse this time of year because of meteorological conditions that trap the pollution in the lower atmosphere.

"You can see if you have a camera and you go over to the pyramids, you can draw this line between the pollutants and the clear air," he says.

Professor Hassan Abu Bakr at Cairo University has specialized in environmental education for the past 15 years. He says fixing the city's dismal air quality will take time.

Cairo, like many mega-cities, is a "thermal island," he says, with high-rise buildings, miles of asphalt and constant burning of fossil fuels. It's also surrounded by factories that pump more pollutants into the air.

Abu Bakr applauds the government for trying to convert vehicles to natural gas, and get taxis and buses more than 20 years old off the streets. But he notes that such efforts overlook a more basic problem: Cairo's woefully inadequate public transportation system. It depends on taxis and micro-buses, and largely ignores less harmful options used in the past, such as river taxis to carry people across the Nile.

"Really, it was very nice and very practical. And I don't know why they stopped it," he says. "So the river can really be used as a very effective means of transportation. So unless a solid public transportation facility will be in operation, I think we will continue suffering from these problems for years."

For now, the government is pleased with the improvements it has managed to bring about in regard to agricultural waste-burning. In fact, Abu Bakr says that in creating biofuel factories that burn rice straw instead of corn, Egypt has neatly avoided the problem facing European and American advocates of biofuels: how to make biofuels without aggravating the world's corn shortage.

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