Cairo attempts to shake off tag as one of the world’s most polluted cities

Egypt capital’s air quality and waste management issues continue to plague metropolis of more than 20 million people

This picture taken on February 22, 2021 shows a view of vehicles stuck in a traffic jam amidst street vendors and pedlars in the central Attaba district of Egypt's capital Cairo. In gridlocked and heavily polluted Cairo, startups are searching for technological solutions to solve the transport headaches for an expanding megacity already struggling with over 20 million people. Cairo, the most populous Arab city where a fifth of all Egyptians live, is ranked 30th worst in the world for congestion, according TomTom, the Dutch vehicle navigations systems maker. / AFP / Khaled DESOUKI
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Cairo, with its poor air and water quality, congested traffic and long-standing waste management issues, has often ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities.

As Egypt prepares to host the Cop27 climate change conference in the Red Sea city of Sharm El Sheikh in November, its capital of more than 20 million people will also probably be in the spotlight.

While the government has made a concerted effort to combat pollution in the urban centre, environmental experts say there is still a way to go.

“In Cairo specifically, the concentration of PM2.5 — those small airborne particles that are able to get deep into your lungs — is about 12 times as high as the limit that the World Health Organisation recommends,” said Martin Wolf, principal investigator for the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) at the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy.

He said that puts Cairo as one of the worst major global cities in terms of air quality.

In the 2020 EPI, which ranked 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality, Egypt was the worst country for PM2.5 exposure, 177th for lead exposure, 112th for unsafe sanitation and drinking water, and 102nd for waste management.

The most recent report from Swiss pollution technology company IQAir ranked New Cairo on the outskirts as 502nd out of 6,475 cities in its PM2.5 levels, but the measurements are much higher in the city’s centre.

Egypt accounts for only 0.6 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the country’s environment ministry. But climate models predict Egypt’s mean annual temperatures will increase by 2 to 3 Celsius by 2050, resulting in more frequent heatwaves and droughts, and rising sea levels.

As part of its commitment to the Paris Agreement, which targets limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Egypt has formulated a greenhouse gas emissions reduction action plan and set a target of reducing concentrations of PM10, slightly larger airborne particles, by 50 per cent before 2030.

Air quality

“Air pollution constitutes a chronic problem in Cairo due to the growing population, uncontrolled rural migration, rapid urbanisation, and the presence of a large number of publicly owned chemical, metallurgical and other heavy industries near residential centres,” reads the government's 2021 Egypt Human Development Report.

The WHO recommends average annual readings of PM2.5, harmful particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometres in diameter or less, should not exceed 5 micrograms per cubic metre. The annual mean level in Egypt is 72, according to the WHO’s Global Ambient Air Quality Database.

As many as two million Egyptians a year seek medical treatment for respiratory problems related to poor air quality, said the country’s health ministry. Health risks include pulmonary infections, stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

In Greater Cairo alone, average annual premature deaths due to exposure to PM2.5 are estimated at 12,600, a 2019 World Bank report found.

A camel-mounted tourism policeman in the Giza Plateau silhouettes against the pollution smog covering the city of Cairo 23 October 2007. For the eighth consecutive year, pollution is causing serious respiratory infections in the city with a population of over 17 million, with levels of NO2 measuring 305-482 mg in Giza and Cairo, double the threshold set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The pollution is attributed to the seasonal burning of rice straws to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the daily open-air incineration of 12,000 tons of domestic refuse, in addition to the emission of polluting substances from industries and more than 1.6 million vehicles in Cairo and adjacent neighbourhoods. AFP PHOTO/CRIS BOURONCLE (Photo by CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP)

“What’s really unique about Cairo is the air quality is fairly poor throughout the year, but there is this huge seasonal cycle that we don’t often see in other cities because of the burning of the leftover rice husks and agricultural products,” Mr Wolf said.

The burning of rice straw, a by-product of rice farming, at the end of the harvest season started to create a black cloud over the Nile Delta and Cairo in the late 1990s.

In recent years, the government has started collecting and recycling rice straw in an effort to reduce pollution. Egypt collected 500,000 tonnes of rice straw in 2020, close to 90 per cent of the total straw produced, the environment ministry said.

Construction began in January on a €210 million ($230m) facility north of Cairo that will convert rice straw into wood, using technologies by German plant engineering firm Siempelkamp.

In September 2020, the government and the World Bank signed the six-year Greater Cairo Air Pollution and Climate Change Project. The $200m initiative aims to reduce vehicle emissions, strengthen the air and climate decision-making system and improve solid waste management.

The project includes the purchase of 100 e-buses to replace diesel buses. However, the bank’s analysis found more than 90 per cent of the reduction in carbon emissions would need to come from a shift away from automobiles and taxis.

Sustainable transport projects under construction in Cairo include a monorail connecting the 6th of October City west of the Nile and the New Administrative Capital in the east, an electric railway and the expansion of metro lines three and four.

Waste management

Cairo’s waste management issue stems from multiple problems, including a lack of co-ordination and clear responsibility between different government bodies, the absence of a formal waste segregation system and very limited public awareness.

Legislation issued in 2021 now regulates the collection, transportation, storage and processing of waste — and introduced penalties on violations.

“The good thing is we now have a framework specifically for waste management. Before that, there used to be an environmental law that was issued in the 1990s and it didn’t take into consideration so many things,” said Amr Elkady, head of the Middle East and Africa at Plastic Bank, a social enterprise that compensates plastic waste collectors with money, services or goods.

Everyone who works in the field of waste management, sustainability, climate change …is really expecting Cop27 will create some movement in society.
Amr Elkady, head of Middle East and Africa at Plastic Bank

Cairo has a large informal sector of traditional waste collectors and recyclers known as the “zabaleen” who used to collect garbage door-to-door, separate recycling and feed organic waste to pigs. But the waste problem went out of control when the government slaughtered all of its pigs in 2009 in an attempt to combat swine flu.

“This of course destroyed their ecosystem and disrupted their income, so it did not work out and resulted in a failure,” said Mr Elkady.

Plastic Bank, which began operations in Egypt last year, includes close to 1,000 plastic waste collectors in their network. Last year, they collected more than 150 million plastic bottles, which were then converted into other plastic forms and sold to customers mainly in Europe and North America.

Waste management responsibility in Cairo has now been divided between four Egyptian companies as directed by the government last year, said Salah El Haggar, professor of energy and sustainable development at the American University in Cairo.

When international companies were given the task about 15 years ago, “they came mainly for business without understanding the social-economic aspects of the problem”, said Mr El Haggar.

Mr El Kady said the government must also address the problem of public awareness by educating students in schools and universities from an early age about the importance of recycling and sustainability.

“This part is not embedded in the mindsets of generations and generations,” he said. “Honestly without improving or developing this concept, I don’t see anything happening.”

Cop27 may be just the push Egypt and Cairo need to move forward.

“Everyone who works in the field of waste management, sustainability, climate change … is really expecting Cop27 will create some movement in the society,” Mr Elkady said. “Even if it leads to 2 to 5 per cent more understanding, it’s much better than what we have now.”

Updated: March 25, 2022, 9:09 AM