Environment

Living in Cairo Is the Same as Smoking a Pack a Day

The average resident of Cairo ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day, the same as a pack of cigarettes.
Air pollution is so bad in Cairo that living in the sprawling city of 18 million residents is said to be akin to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. According to the World Health Organisation, the average Cairene ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution a day.

A 2002 World Bank report estimates that pollution causes 2.42 billion dollars worth of environmental damage each year, about five percent of Egypt's annual gross domestic product.

Industry is to blame, in part, the worst offenders being factories that burn mazot for power. Mazot is the heavy oil left over after more valuable fuel products have been extracted from crude oil; when burnt, it emits substantial amounts of the greenhouse gases said to cause global warming.

The Ministry of the Environment continues to promise new measures to hold industry culprits accountable for air pollution, but has failed to put teeth into enforcement.

There are, however, signs of hope elsewhere.

An enterprising group of Canadian businessmen and Egyptian mud brick factory owners is quietly overhauling the mud brick industry, one of the biggest users of mazot, through switching from the heavy oil to natural gas.

These factories are usually clustered together for distribution purposes, leading to a concentration of emissions -- with severe effects on the environment, and the health of surrounding communities.

By changing to natural gas the entrepreneurs are dramatically reducing pollution and the carbon emissions of the factories, at a profit.

The conversion to natural gas was initiated by the Egyptian factory owners. They needed technical and financial assistance to make the switch, and approached Canadian Richard Szudy, then project leader of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI), for help. The CCI is an internationally funded programme aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Egypt.

Their request was granted last year when the Canadian International Development Agency, a government body, funded a pilot programme to convert 50 mud brick factories to natural gas.

The mud brick industry is one of the country's oldest. Since pharaonic times, mud bricks have been Egypt's primary building material, and brick making has changed very little over the last few centuries. The industry still uses a crude methodology: barrels filled with mazot are placed on top of blazing hot kilns with a pipe extending down into a stack of bricks. The mazot drips out of the pipe, and is then lit, cooking the bricks.

Introducing new technology into these conditions was "risky" says Szudy, now director of Idea Egypt, a Cairo-based firm. "We had to select a technology that was robust enough to handle this very, very tough activity, and simple enough for the rudimentary capability of a lot of the workers. A lot of these workers are not even literate."

The industrial area of Arab Abu Sayed, a few kilometres from downtown Cairo, has the largest cluster of mud brick factories in Egypt: almost 200. The area also has a population of 80,000 to 100,000 people, 45 percent of them children.

CCI analysed the effects of mazot burning in this region during the pilot phase. Almost 60 chemicals released by the burning were identified in air and soil samples, many of them aggressive carcinogens present in quantities far above the permitted national levels. "Every living creature in this area is suffering," says Hatem El-Bassyouni, Idea Egypt project manager.

Despite these sobering findings, factory owners were swayed more by the efficiency of natural gas and the resultant savings in fuel costs, says Szudy. "They are not doing this for the environment. Very few people anywhere in the world will actually make financial investments just for the environment."

The efficiencies allowed owners to recover the cost of switching to gas within a year and continue with an annual saving of about 20,000 dollars. Furthermore, the gas process creates a much higher quality brick than the mazot fired brick.

The intentions of owners aside, air quality in the surrounding environment has also improved substantially. Each brick factory conversion is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent -- or 2,000 tonnes -- per year. Having 50 factories running on gas is the equivalent saving of getting 300,000 cars off the road in Cairo -- a city of three million cars.

The switch to gas has also made a visible difference. Previously, the dozens of smoke stacks in Arab Abu Said could only be seen when you were within half a kilometre of the area because the air was so heavy with smog. With a quarter of the factories running on natural gas, the stacks are now visible from a few kilometres away.

The story of the success of the conversion project soon spread, and other factory owners asked to be included. What started as a development project has now evolved into a privately funded business venture run by Idea Egypt with Canadian investment. Currently 311 factories are slated to make the conversion, which will reduce carbon emissions to the equivalent of taking almost 1.9 million cars off roads in the Egyptian capital.

Project officials also expect that the venture will be approved as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) initiative.

The CDM is one of various processes established under 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The mechanism permits industrialised nations to meet agreed targets for greenhouse gas reductions by investing in projects that cut emissions in developing countries.

CDM approval will provide Idea Egypt with Certified Emission Reductions, which can be traded internationally as carbon credits. To date, only four projects in the North African country have managed to start selling carbon credits.

Szudy says CDM projects are very risky, and that revenue can be highly variable: Idea Egypt is only expecting income from carbon credits in the third year of the project.

While the price of carbon credits varies day to day, the total revenue to Idea Egypt from emissions trading could be 90 million dollars over the next decade. If countries fail to extend their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol after 2012, the project might only generate about three years worth of carbon credit sales.

The total cost of the project is 46 million dollars, 30 million of which is provided by investors.

Altering the face of the mudbrick industry is about more than technology transfer and greenhouse gas reductions, however.

"It would have been a shame if all we focused on was greenhouse gases," says Szudy. "That is valuable of course, world wide, but what we wanted to know was what was going to be the net impact on the local community..."

During the pilot project, Idea Egypt conducted interviews and workshops with the labourers at the mud brick factories and collected extensive information about their harsh living and working conditions.

Workers live on site at the factory, with up to twelve in a one room dwelling. "They have no medical coverage at all, no access to first aid, no access to education, no access to healthy water or sanitation...it is a terrible, terrible quality of life," says El-Bassyouni.

During the pilot project, Idea Egypt worked with an Egyptian development agency to provide informal education classes for teenagers who work in the factories. A bus picked up the children from the plants so that they could attend classes during their lunch hour. "It was an opportunity for them to be kids and just play," says Szudy. Often, more than 80 children attended classes in the one room school house.

Beyond the pilot project, Idea Egypt has insisted that investors fund informal education classes as well as a number of other social programmes for the next wave of factory conversions.

During a visit by IPS to Arab Abu Said, residents are quick to praise the cleaner air. And, during a lunch hour lesson for the young workers, one sees the effects of this project on young lives. Within moments of their arrival, the boys seem to have rediscovered their childhood, their weary faces transformed as they sing boisterously and impulsively throw their arms around one another.
(* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS -- Inter Press Service -- and IFEJ, the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)