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To make our stay here all the more memorable, the air pollution in Cairo over the past two weeks has reached record highs! A thick black cloud hovers over the city all day long. We've been complaining about the car exhaust and pollution in the city since we arrived, but lately even the locals have been complaining. The pollution problem has been on the front page of the newspapers, and it seems everyone has a different explanation for the mysterious black cloud. Some say it's due to the farmers burning their fields. Some blame it on the trash burning and smelters. Some suspect a top secret military operation.
That's the easiest thing to do after all... to give up hope and lay the blame on someone else. Thank goodness there are dedicated people who are willing to take on the challenge-like our new friends at CAIP: Cairo Air Improvement Project.
CAIP is a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and run in partnership with Egyptian Environmental and Energy Planning agencies. Cairo is a city of many superlatives, but this year the one that stands out is not for it's unrivaled ancient history or its wonders of the world...no this year Cairo has surpassed Mexico City in becoming the most polluted city in the world. Even the Great Pyramids of Giza, which have lured travelers by the millions for thousands and thousands of years, are suffering the effects of the pollution here. These tremendous monuments that have withstood the test of time for ages are now deteriorating at a faster rate than ever before because of pollution.
CAIP has set up a number of steps to combat Cairo's major air problems. CAIP is installing air monitoring facilities and local training, enacting vehicle emissions testing and regular tune-ups to reduce harmful emissions, helping convert public buses and cars to cleaner burning compressed natural gas, and working with Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency to reduce airborne emissions from lead smelters in the Cairo area. The greatest challenge that CAIP faces in instilling these measures is cultural. As we've seen in many countries we have passed through on our world trek thus far, environmental issues are often of secondary importance in poor countries. When you don't know where your food will come from, how can you think about the long term effects of what you're burning to fuel your stove?
One of the biggest obstacles CAIP has had during its existence has been to increase public awareness about environmental and health issues. It has been a challenge to get the government and the people to do long range planning. With the current scare caused by the mysterious black cloud hanging over Cairo, some of the government's responses have been hasty. One of the most controversial moves was to close down the potters in Old Cairo. These potters have been molding clay and firing their beautiful bowls and plates and vases in this historic section of downtown Cairo for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, the potters have resorted to burning plastics and trash to fuel their kilns, causing hazardous air emissions. When the black cloud over Cairo started drawing media attention, the government focused on an easy target - the potters. A military garrison surrounded the numerous workshops for days. The poor potters were left with no options. They have tried in the past to ask for assistance to convert to cleaner combustion alternatives to no avail. Now the government has targeted them as an easy scapegoat to make the general public think something is being done about the pollution.
Our friends at CAIP explained to us that closing down the potters was not a long term planning effort. The Egyptian government has been caught up in piecemeal approaches rather than conducting a coordinated broad range solution. In actuality Egypt has more environmental laws than the U.S., and has spent over $175 million on environmental policy issues. The problem has been enforcing them.
Weather patterns are changing, the harvest burnings are ending and a new wind is coming in. This will alleviate the immediate threat of the black cloud over Cairo. But after meeting the inspiring folks at CAIP and learning of the step by step process they are instilling, I sense a whole new wind approaching on the horizon. If all goes well, these winds of change will bring the government and the public together. This teamwork will hopefully ensure that the historic monuments and the vibrant people of Cairo have a healthy future with clean air to breathe.
Jasmine - Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee
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