The ministry is encouraging rice farmers to recycle excess straw in environmentally friendly ways, rather than burning it, as part of a wider comprehensive plan to combat severe air pollution and episodes like the black cloud.
Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a farmer in the Sharqia Governorate, northeast of Cairo, has been recycling rice straw for years to use as animal feed or to make organic fertilisers for his farm.
“Recycling includes spreading this straw in livestock barns to protect the animals from diseases, as straw prevents the spread of mosquitoes and insects,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “Recycling rice straw is no longer limited to physical efforts. There are special presses now, adopted by industrial entities, that help farmers realise the economic value of this vital plant’s outputs.”
Official Efforts to Combat Air Pollution
With Egypt preparing to host COP27, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Sharm el-Sheikh in November, authorities are intensifying their efforts to combat air pollution. Achievements so far include a surge in installing instantaneous air quality monitoring stations. The ministry now has 116 stations linked to a national network for monitoring ambient air pollution throughout the country.
The stations contain devices for monitoring nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter.
Particulate matter consists of tiny particles suspended in the air that can can affect the lungs and heart, causing health problems. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less (PM10) can lodge deep inside the lungs. Smaller particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) are even more damaging, as they can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system.
“The ministry has worked to develop a sustainable economic model and establish incentives for reusing this straw, turning it into a profitable product for farmers by helping them to use it as fertiliser, fodder for livestock, or to be converted into fuel.”Mustafa Murad, Head of the Air Quality Control Department at Egypt’s Ministry of Environment
Chronic exposure to such pollutants in the air contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as lung cancer.
In 2017, the estimated cost of these health effects in Egypt was equivalent to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product, according to a 2019 World Bank report. In the Greater Cairo area alone, the cost was 47 billion Egyptian pounds, or 1.35 percent of GDP.
WHO statistics released in April 2022 showed that air pollution causes seven million premature deaths annually. In 2016, 91 percent of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest number in the South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. While a record number of over 6,000 cities in 117 countries are now monitoring air quality, the people living in them are still breathing unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.
Emissions Monitoring System
Mustafa Murad, head of the Air Quality Control Department at Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, told Al-Fanar Media that burning agricultural waste, especially rice straw, has been responsible for 42 percent of air pollution in Cairo and the Nile Delta region.
He said: “The ministry has worked to develop a sustainable economic model and establish incentives for reusing this straw, turning it into a profitable product for farmers by helping them to use it as fertiliser, fodder for livestock, or to be converted into fuel.”
Murad added that Egypt has a three-part system for monitoring air pollutants and emissions. The first consists of a monitoring network for ambient air pollutants throughout the country. The majority of the stations, 44, are in Greater Cairo. They monitor the concentration of air pollutants at a given time, providing data that the ministry uses to prepare reports on the rise or fall of pollutants over time.
The system’s second part consists of a network to monitor emissions from industrial facilities, through devices installed on about 440 smokestacks in 88 industrial facilities. These devices measure emissions around the clock, to gauge whether industries are following the law and to record violations. The data is automatically transmitted to the ministry, guaranteeing without the need for tight control.
The third part is an early warning system, which predicts weather factors that affect the state of air pollution, such as winds that can transport pollutants.
Murad says that the ministry also inspects industrial facilities regularly and has issued decisions suspending work at facilities that burn wood to produce charcoal in some governorates, to avoid exacerbating local air pollution. The ministry also decided to stop industrial activities after 5 p.m., said Murad, explaining that the dispersal of pollutants is weaker in the evening, making them stay in the air longer.
Air Quality Standards
Murad explained that the World Health Organization has developed air quality standards for six pollutants: suspended particulate matter such as dust, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and lead.
“Egypt produces an average of about 38 million tons of agricultural waste annually. Companies’ recent trend to use rice straw to make compost and biofuels made a big difference in reducing the size of the black cloud, which was once like a complete curtain falling on Cairo and the Delta.”Magdy Allam, An adviser to the World Climate Research Programme and secretary general of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts
“Egypt does not exceed the WHO’s indicators in five pollutants,” he said. “However, it exceeds the annual standard set for dust particles in Cairo and the Delta by 30 percent of the normal level annually. By 2030, Egypt aims to cut the annual average particulate matter down by 50 percent.”
At a cost of $200 million, Egypt, with the support of the World Bank, has started a six-year project to improve air quality and combat climate change in Greater Cairo. The project aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, improve solid waste management, and strengthen the private decision-making system in terms of air quality and climate.
Magdy Allam, an advisor to the World Climate Research Programme and secretary general of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts, says that there are climatic factors that control the degree of pollution and the size of the black cloud, in addition to the main source of pollution, which is burning rice straw and sugar cane residues.
“Smoke remains for longer periods inside cities when the winds are light, and pollutants do not deposit underground due to the lack of rain,” he explained.
“Egypt produces an average of about 38 million tons of agricultural waste annually. Companies’ recent trend to use rice straw to make compost and biofuels made a big difference in reducing the size of the black cloud, which was once like a complete curtain falling on Cairo and the Delta.”
Allam believes that tree-planting projects in Egypt should be given priority. “It is a desert country where dust is concentrated,” he said. “Taking care of green spaces would reduce this problem.”
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Yasir Hassan, a professor of air pollution chemistry at Egypt’s National Research Centre, says that Egypt has drawn up a list of actions it will take to cut down pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as part of the country’s plan for combating climate change. The plan is described in a report submitted to the United Nations in June called “Egypt’s First Updated Nationally Determined Contributions”.
“This plan includes reducing dependence on fossil fuels by using renewable energy to generate electricity and green technology that does not pollute the environment,” Hassan said.
- Egyptian Officials Defend Country’s Climate Change Initiatives Before COP27 Summit
- Egypt Faces an Uphill Battle as Host of the Next Global Climate Summit
- Britain and Egypt Agree on Climate Initiatives Ahead of Climate Summit
- Better Weather Data Will Save Lives as Climate Threats Increase, U.N. Says
- Egyptian Researchers Seek to Reduce Aircraft Pollution
Also see Climate and Environment, an archive of Al-Fanar Media’s reporting on this topic.