In Cairo Slum, the Poor Spark Environmental Change In one of the city's poorest areas, residents who recycle trash by hand and a handful of environmental activists are slowly improving their community. Their efforts serve as an unlikely model for environmental change in an age of global warming.

In Cairo Slum, the Poor Spark Environmental Change

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From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

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HANSEN: For NPR's Climate Connection series with National Geographic, we are exploring Egypt, where for thousands of years the fertile banks of the Nile River supported a powerful civilization.

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HANSEN: The focus of our story today is the population of Cairo's inner city communities, and the millions of people who live in the devastatingly poor slums. In 2007, when the United Nations reported that greenhouse gas emissions will have disproportionately negative effects on the world's poorest countries, it cited Egypt as an example.

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HANSEN: We're in the back of a taxi. Where are we going? We're in the heart of Cairo now. Where are we going?

Mr. THOMAS TAHA RASSAM CULHANE (Founder, Solar Cities): We're in the heart of rich Cairo, or foreign Cairo right now. Zamalek is the sort of the playground of the rich. It's where you see the greenery, where a lot of investment has been put in. And we're headed to the poorest part of Cairo.

HANSEN: That's Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane, also known as T.H. The Iraqi-Irish American is the charismatic founder of Solar Cities. The NGO, funded with a grant from USAID, is installing solar hot water heaters on the rooftops of Coptic Christian and Muslim communities in Cairo slums.

Culhane is the Ph.D. candidate in urban planning at UCLA. He moved to Egypt several years ago to work on environmental science education and training among the urban poor.

Mr. CULHANE: The affects of global climate change that we're so afraid of in the West and that we've talked a lot about have already happened here. The environmental degradation is a reality. When you come into these communities that they live in, you will see what the whole world could look like. It's a Blade Runner-esque scenario.

They have a desperate desire to improve their communities. They're already living in the worst of it. They don't want to see it get any worse. They want to improve it.

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HANSEN: When you think about renewable energy and conservation measures in the city, Culhane says you don't necessarily think about the poor. As individuals, their energy use and carbon footprint are low, but he says their sheer numbers create a problem for the overall economy because their energy consumption is subsidized by the government.

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HANSEN: We have just come through a bit of a bridge past a quarry and now we're in an alley. Where are we?

Mr. CULHANE: We are in a (unintelligible) Zabaleen. This is where the garbage recycling community built its city by themselves.

HANSEN: The official name of this neighborhood is Manshiyet Nasser. Informally, it's called the Zabaleen community, named for the garbage collectors. The Zabaleen are well known throughout many urban parts of the world for their industrious nature. Eighty percent of the garbage they haul here from Cairo is recycled.

The 60,000 or so people who live here are primarily Coptic Christian. For the past century they have recycled garbage for a living. Their ancestors were economic migrants from upper Egypt.

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HANSEN: The alleyways here are just wide enough to accommodate small vehicles and donkey carts - lots of donkey carts overloaded with mammoth bundles of trash. Culhane says the Egyptian government prohibited the use of these carts when the waste management system was privatized. But the big garbage trucks could barely make it down some of the narrower streets, so the donkeys returned.

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HANSEN: Today foreign companies pick up 90 percent of Cairo's garbage, but they don't recycle as much as the Zabaleen do. Children as young as three sift through broken glass, scraps of metal, aluminum cans, dirty diapers and rotted food by hand with their mothers.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. CULHANE: What's she saying is she's saying that, you know, here I'm working all the time, my hands get dirty, there's no water, the price of food is too high, the gas has gone up to seven pounds a bottle, so it's expensive to heat. Everything is so expensive, she says, and I have to live like this.

HANSEN: The poverty is mind-boggling, but the people are proud. There is a Coptic monastery on the nearby hill overlooking this neighborhood. It's played an active role in encouraging the recycling efforts and a solar hot water system has been prominently installed on the roof.

The international community began to pay attention to the Zabaleen many years ago, when UNESCO began to invest in a local school.

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Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: As we enter the schoolyard, we see a young boy washing mounds of plastic shards in a small tank. Although dusty with bits of trash blowing around, this is the cleanest place we've seen. The school itself is a one-story stone building the size of a mobile home.

Mr. CULHANE: This is where it all began. We're standing at the informal recycling school for the Zabaleen, which is colorfully painted with Proctor & Gamble shampoo bottles on the outside.

HANSEN: You heard that right: Proctor & Gamble shampoo bottles. Culhane says counterfeiters used to take the company's shampoo bottles, fill them with cheaper products and resell them. To get the bottles off the streets, Proctor & Gamble agreed to build the school and helped the community how to recycle plastic. In the past six years, almost 1 million bottles have been recycled.

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HANSEN: When we visit the Mokattam School, the students are taking a break under some shade trees bordered by a small, but beautiful, garden. While in class, students are trained to use Excel spreadsheets. This way, they learn about the business and economics of recycling.

Musa Nusmee Zachrabahi(ph) used to be a student here - he's now a teacher. A slight, smiling young man, Musa lives right around the corner from the school.

Mr. MUSA NUSMEE ZACHRABAHI (Teacher): (Through translator) He had known how to recycle plastic because that's the family business, but here they taught them how to do it safer and in a much more healthy fashion, more responsibly and in a way that they could make a profit.

HANSEN: On the roof of the school, we see one of the solar hot water heaters that the Solar Cities group has installed.

Mr. CULHANE: People ask how is this going to help prevent climate change. And we say the statistic here and abroad is that about 25 to 35 percent of a household's energy is devoted to heating water. That means that when you shift to using solar hot water, you've cut CO2 emissions by 25 to 35 percent. It's the most radical change that you can make.

So, solar's the first step. Get the hot water and then everything else will follow.

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Mr. CULHANE: One of the most gratifying moments in this project is when we finished our first solar hot water system here on the school and the kids ran and got these Pert shampoo bottles. And they'd never used the shampoo that they recycle because it's just empty, usually. But they scraped enough shampoo out, came under here and for the first time started taking shampooed showers -washing each other's hair, lathering each other's hair and having a great time under the hot water.

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HANSEN: The Mokattam School only educated boys until recently, when USAID began to fund programs for girls.

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HANSEN: Geraldine Samir manages the girl's scholarship program.

They're learning how to recycle, they're learning how to read and write. Are they learning about the environment as a whole?

Ms. GERALDINE SAMIR (Manger, Girl's Scholarship Program, Mokattam School): Now they have little bit more the notion of beauty. And with the new project with the solar heaters, I think for the first time I think they start to think about other sources of energy, because for them energy was gas.

Because when we speak about the solar heaters, we speak about the whole world -the pollution of the whole world, the idea in the whole world. So, I think they started to think that their problems are not only the problems of the area. Some of the problems are worldwide probably.

Mr. CULHANE: We just walked up a staircase and the roads are unpaved - it's dirt roads covered with feces and flies, bits of garbage. There is a donkey feeding on garbage to our left ahead of us.

HANSEN: There are also some small factories here, where Culhane can find parts for his solar hot water heaters.

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Mr. CULHANE: You hear the sound of incredible activity. This is Workshop Street, (speaking in foreign language), where you have all of these experts in steel cutting, in copper welding, in glass making.

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Mr. CULHANE: This is where the craftspeople of this community live, and so it's very easy to build solar hot water systems because we just brought copper pipe, brought it to the welder and said, hey, can you do it like this, show them the design. They say absolutely. And then they say but we could improve if we did it like this.

Then you have this collective intelligence. People here are very, very talented. So it isn't a matter of coming and saying, hey, build me a solar hot water system. It's a participatory process.

Mr. HANNA FATHY: (Speaking in foreign language)

HANSEN: Liane.

We meet up with Hanna Fathy, a self-made man in his 20s who taught himself English, put himself through school and is now one of Culhane's proteges on the Solar Cities Project. Fathy leads us to a green door decorated with a plaster plaque of the Virgin Mary draped with an old cassette tape and what looks to be a fan belt.

We go in and the first thing we notice is an energy-efficient light bulb in the small foyer.

This is your home and we're in the hallway of the home. So, tell us a little bit about your place. What is it, three stories, two stories high?

Mr. FATHY: Four.

HANSEN: Four stories high.

Mr. FATHY: Yeah.

HANSEN: And how many people live here?

Mr. FATHY: We are seven, but my sister married in upper Egypt. Now we are six.

HANSEN: Now you are six.

Mr. FATHY: Yes.

HANSEN: Off to the right on this first floor, there's this cement sink filled with dishes.

Mr. CULHANE: This was the only source of water in the house, this tap right here.

At the entrance to the door was where they got all their water from. And when I first visited Hanna, there were buckets like this and buckets like this all over the house. So, we came in and one of the presents I gave to Hanna is he'd worked so hard on the project helping others is when he went to a Christian service away from Cairo, he came back after three days and I had built a solar hot water system with a cold water storage tank. So there's 200 liters of cold water and 200 liters of hot water every day.

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HANSEN: It's a long, dark climb up some very narrow stairs to reach the roof. There, we see a bright, blue barrel filled with cold water. It's connected to some solar panels made from recycled garbage bags.

How did your neighbors react when you started building this?

Mr. FATHY: They was wondering then. They want to know what I'm doing here and they laughed and they say, oh, you are crazy sometimes. And they want to know. And I went in the street and I talk with them about the system and many of them, they sit here and say tell me the story, talk to me, tell me what's happening. And many of them, they asked me to get the system.

HANSEN: How long have you had this system here? How long since it was finished?

Mr. FATHY: It's, like, five months.

HANSEN: And it's still working?

Mr. FATHY: Yeah, it's working.

HANSEN: Standing on this rooftop, can you see the fruits of your labor from here?

Mr. CULHANE: The place where we can see the systems we've built is from the monastery. And we're deliberately building systems that can be seen from the monastery because more visitors will come to the monastery than Hanna's home. We want to create as much exposure as possible.

HANSEN: Hanna Fathy's Coptic Christian neighborhood now has seven of these blue barrels. But this isn't the only neighborhood that has them. Together with Fathy and Culhane, we get in the car, drive past a cemetery, a beautiful new park built on the landfill, and eventually arrive at an opening in an ancient stone wall.

Mr. CULHANE: Welcome to Mahmoud's World. This is the Darbill Ahmar(ph) Muslim community. Part of what was historic or medieval Cairo. It's an area of craftspeople. As you can see on this street, people are making furniture. It's carpenters. This would've been the sort of place that Jesus would've learned his trade at when he became a carpenter. And in fact, Jesus, Mary and Joseph many of these streets, and various tourist people takes to see that.

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HANSEN: Next week we'll walk with Mahmoud, another young environmentalist, through the Muslim district where T.H. Culhane says that climate change is not an abstract concept nor some future threat.

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HANSEN: You can see a photo gallery of the work in Cairo's Zabaleen neighborhood, and you can hear more stories about global warming at There, you can also find the latest climate change features from National Geographic magazine.

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