Slow but Sure Environmental Progress in Cairo A short distance from the new $30 million Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, Egypt, young environmentalists are installing solar hot-water heaters in poor neighborhoods. They're overcoming setbacks — and bridging religious divides — to bring change in a time of environmental upheaval.
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Slow but Sure Environmental Progress in Cairo

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Slow but Sure Environmental Progress in Cairo

Slow but Sure Environmental Progress in Cairo

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

(Soundbite of music)

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

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HANSEN: Our focus is the population of Cairo's inner city community and the millions of people who live in the devastatingly poor slum. Last Sunday we walked through the industrious Coptic Christian recycling community and met the young environmentalists who are helping residents generate hot water with solar energy.

Thomas Taha Rassam Culhane was our guide then, as he is today.

Mr. THOMAS TAHA RASSAM CULHANE (Founder, Solar Cities, Guide): And I'll point out to you too as we pass this wall, this man is doing traditional dyeing of sheep's wool.

HANSEN: Culhane is the founder of Solar Cities. With a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the NGO is installing solar water heaters on the roofs of Cairo's impoverished Coptic Christian and historic Muslim communities. Before we go to the gate of medieval Cairo, Culhane suggest we stop for lunch in a lush green park. From the café we look across a small lake, and on a knoll above the shore there's a concert going on.

This is Al-Azhar Park.

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HANSEN: There are fountains, beautiful green trees, lots of people here with their children. What is this place?

Mr. CULHANE: This place is a garbage dump.


Mr. CULHANE: Yes. You're sitting on one of the largest garbage dumps in the city of Cairo. It was a hill of garbage until five years ago. The shame of the city, given that it was next to the beautiful Ayuban Wall of Historic Medieval Cairo. But the Aga Khan Foundation, with its fantastic vision of revitalizing Islamic Cairo and Islamic centers of knowledge all over the world, decided to make this its flagship.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: The Aga Khan Foundation Culhane mentioned is run by the spiritual leader of the world's second largest Shiite Muslim sect, the Ismailis. He's a skilled diplomat and his charitable reach extends to hospitals, businesses, schools and heritage sites.

The foundation hired world-class Egyptian, European and American architects who worked with the city and local residents to turn this dump into Al-Azhar Park, Cairo's first new green space in over a century. The Solar Cities organization is consulting with the Aga Khan architects to build and install Culhane's signature blue barrel solar water heaters.

You have a philosophy about the poor and about climate change.

Mr. CULHANE: The idea is that the poor has depended on subsidy from nature for their entire existence. In pre-industrial times the poor could depend on the sun shining at certain times, the rain falling at certain times, the river flowing, rising, depositing fertilizer. This subsidy from nature meant that even if you were financially poor you could lead a fairly rich life in terms of comfort. The predictability is now gone. The poor can no longer depend on their environment for any kind of subsidy.

And so it now is can you earn enough money to buy the resources that were mined out of the environment by the rich and then put in warehouses now sold at commodity prices. Having no subsidy left, the poor are completely dependent on fluctuations in market prices.

HANSEN: With us is Mahmoud Dardir, one of Culhane's young environmental protégés. He's in his mid-20s, has a ready smile and today is nursing a sore arm from a sports injury. Dardir has built a handful of Solar Cities' water heaters. He also helped to create an environmental science center in Cairo, which is raising awareness of climate change and environmental problems.

Dardir says people of his generation have a responsibility.

Mr. MAHMOUD DARDIR: My teacher in my high school told me that if you want to do something, start with yourself then invite others to do the same. Everything about the climate change, the behaviors, everything. Then time-by-time, the people, the young people as me, they start to come and say, can we do nothing more? What can we do? And we'll start to gather people that are not. And I think maybe it will take time, but there is light.

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HANSEN: To get to the gates of medieval Muslim Cairo, we must pass the City of the Dead, Muqattam, where some of the larger tombs are home to squatters. We then walk beside the long 12th-century Ayuban wall, behind which we can see old stone facades in various stages of repair. As we pass through the gates, we leave the bright sunshine and enter a labyrinth of shaded streets.

(Soundbite of banging, music and car horn honking)

Mr. CULHANE: This is the Darbil 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 have been the sort of place that Jesus would have learned his trade when he became a carpenter. In fact, Jesus, Mary and Joseph walked many of these streets and there's tours people take to see that.

(Soundbite of music and banging)

HANSEN: We follow Culhane and Dardir to a home where they have installed a solar hot-water heaters. The homeowner is very eager to see them.

Unidentified Woman (Homeowner): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. DARDIR: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. CULHANE: The mother of the children, who's using the hot water, came up and she said, I'm not getting any hot water.

Mr. DARDIR: (Unintelligible)

Mr. CULHANE: Oh, you mean it's too hot for you to fix it.

Mr. DARDIR: Yeah, it's very hot.

Mr. CULHANE: So you'll have to do it at night.

HANSEN: The solar water heater isn't working properly. Culhane and his team are on the roof investigating.

Mr. CULHANE: Look at this. Five centimeters you've lost. So instead of 37, you're at 32. Thirty-two doesn't work. There's no uniformity in manufacturing these. It's not one size fits all. It's about (unintelligible).

It's always a big problem because we did this at the school, the Zepolene School. We made five different holes in the side of the barrel until we found the hole that worked perfectly with that particular barrel. These are some of the challenges in a country where things are not standardized.

HANSEN: This is not the only problem Solar Cities has faced in the past few weeks. There are now questions over whether the solar water system should be removed from the roof of this house and possibly others along the historic wall. According to Culhane, the system can be seen from Al-Azhar Park and some people think it spoils the look for medieval Cairo.

This is very frustrating because Culhane says the solar water heaters were built here precisely because the Egyptian architect said such visibility was the best way to promote renewable energy.

Mr. DARDIR: But the problem - what will happen is the floor begin like that. I mean...

Mr. CULHANE: Then it should close it, it should close it...

HANSEN: Culhane, Dardir and Hanna Fathy, whom you met last week, are tinkering with a broken solar water heater. Setbacks are a given when these three are trying to make a difference against all odds. Culhane says on this rooftop, differences over religion, politics, class and culture don't exist. Solar Cities is above all a social project.

Mr. CULHANE: Science is, to me, ancillary. We need technology to survive but that is something that's just a given for us. And we felt that you had just the Al-Azhar Park as you mentioned and the City of the Dead separating these two vibrant but very different communities. And if we could find a reason to get together on a daily level to cross that divide, then this interchange, this exchange of ideas, would begin to create its own flow.

HANSEN: Hanna...

Mr. HANNA FATHY (Works with Culhane): Yeah, in my opinion, there's no difference between Muslim and Christian. Many people, they say, like, think, like, we are enemies. No. I go to them, they help me. We can't take Egypt and move. That's my opinion.

HANSEN: Mahmoud, comment on that.

Mr. DARDIR: I think there is no problem to work with Christians. I think Hanna as a friend with me. I sit in his house, eat with his family. If he have different religion, his own right. He's very good friend. We are from the same nation. We're all Egyptian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: As our day ends, we ask Dardir, Fathy and his fiancée to join us on a felucca ride on the Nile. Feluccas are traditional sailboats, long, fast and gaily decorated.

(Soundbite of grinding)

HANSEN: The Nile River is the backbone of Egypt, and in Cairo everyone loves to be on the water.

(Soundbite of water crashing)

HANSEN: Since our visit to Cairo, we have an update on the Solar Cities project in the historic medieval neighborhood. The installation of solar water heaters on the first row of houses along the historic Ayuban wall has been postponed. One of its funders, the Aga Khan Foundation, says it's committed to the project but wants to test the technology on a small scale to rectify problems.

The foundation told us a leaking solar hot water heater can make the local community reluctant to adopt and implement such technologies. We will continue to follow developments in this story and give occasional updates on the Solar Cities Project in Cairo.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Our story on environmental efforts in Cairo slums was produced by Davar Ardalan and Ed Wharton. It was edited by David Malakoff.

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