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Big, Black Cloud Over Cairo

"Gasp... pant... pant... okay... Kavitha... only one more flight of stairs... cough... gasp..." I say to myself as I struggle to make it up to my hotel on the 5th floor of an old elevator-less building in downtown Cairo. I barely make it up to my room, and immediately tear apart my bag looking for my inhaler. I take a big whiff and hold it in waiting for the instant relief. "AAAAAhhhhhhhhh..... I can breathe again," I thought. But looking out of my window at all the smog and car exhaust from the chaotic frenzy below, I wonder, "Maybe it would be best not to breath too deeply after all."

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Can somebody please lift this smog?
Yes, I have asthma, so I carry my inhaler with me, but I haven't had to use it in months...maybe even years. But here in Cairo, I've had to use it every day for the past week! If you've ever been to Cairo, I'm sure you would understand why. The air here is not something you mindlessly intake into your lungs as the day passes by. No, the air in Cairo hits you like a 10-ton brick. You can see it, smell it, even feel it...the thick, black, smoky haze that envelops the city is not easily forgotten.

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.

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Welcome to Cairo, the world's most polluted city.
According to the Environmental Minister, there are a number of causes at work here. In addition to the usual factors that lead to air pollution in Cairo such as vehicle exhaust and toxic emissions from garbage combustion, it is the end of the rice-harvesting season so farmers are burning their leftover debris. These two factors alone are enough to make breathing difficult, but this year things are particularly unbearable because of the unusual weather problems. A front moving along the northern part of the country has pushed vapor-laden air from the Mediterranean towards the Delta and Cairo. This has formed an isolating layer in the air that is preventing circulation and dispersal of the pollution particles. To make matters worse all this has also coincided with lower wind speeds than normal, assuring that all the smog stays put where it is!

Vocabulary Box:

asthma - a disease, characterized by difficulty of breathing
emissions - substances discharged into the air (as by a smokestack or an automobile gasoline engine)
combustion - the state of burning

Clean air is something many people take for granted. This past week, we've all been complaining of feeling worn out just from walking outside. Our eyes hurt, our throats are sore, and our skin feels clogged. After days of feeling groggy and irritated, we had virtually given up hope---there are too many people, too many cars, and too much industry. Cairo's problems with air pollution will never change.

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 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.

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Here is evidence of the damage that pollution is causing to many of Egypt's great monuments.
Our friends at CAIP helped explain to us the many causes that contribute to Cairo's air pollution and the different steps they are attempting to combat them. The most obvious is the car exhaust. There are over one million vehicles on the streets of Greater Cairo and that figure increases every year. Automobile emissions are hazardous and can cause serious upper respiratory ailments and cardiovascular disorders, especially among the elderly and young children. Another major component of air pollution in Cairo is lead (link to Monica's "monzeinab" article in 11-17-99 dispatch). Lead can reduce IQ levels, create learning disabilities in children, and kidney and reproductive disorders in adults.

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.

"I didn't build the pyramids, but I laid my little stone at the foundation."
-- a dedicated member of the CAIP staff

CAIP is trying to implement change by combining forces. Experts and administrators from the U.S. collaborate with experts from Egypt who better understand the local culture. The mostly Egyptian staff is made up of an inspiring mix of men, women, recent graduates, scientists and organizers who have a firm belief in what they are doing. As one of the Americans put it: "If I didn't believe I could make a difference here, I would pack up and go home."

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.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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