Egypt faces 'environmental crisis' following ousting of Mubarak

Egyptian flag
Egypt's political future may be looking brighter, but what about the environment?
The political future of the Arab world's largest country could look brighter following the recent uprising in Tahrir Square and beyond. But the country faces an ecological catastrophe - much of it tourism related - reports Joseph Mayton from Cairo

It is a warm and sunny April afternoon on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. The sun is blazing down on dozens of lounging people, soaking up the rays from the yellow mass. Ironically, it is here where the ozone layer’s hole peeks through. Burning is a major risk. Looking around at the sand, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Egypt has an environmental problem on its hands.

Plastic bags, empty cups and the remnants of sunbathers are strewn across would be pristine sands on the Red Sea coast. Environmental groups in the country have long lamented on the poor state of environmental awareness in the country, with campaign after campaign ending with little success. Now, with Egypt moving forward after ousting President Hosni Mubarak from three decades in power, there is growing hope that change will finally see the implementation of green policy, along the Red Sea coast, along the Nile River and throughout the Arab world’s largest country.

It will take strong efforts from activists and environmental leaders to effect that change however, said Omar Radwan, a political activist who participated in the clean up of Cairo’s Tahrir Square on a number of occasions during the 18-days of protests that forced out the dictator. He told the Ecologist that picking up trash and throwing it in a bin is only the first step on the path to a cleaner and better Egypt.

‘When we picked up garbage on the streets during the protests and afterwards, the media was all over the story because it was something that we Egyptians had failed to do for so long,’ he began. ‘It is surprising, but now, after a few months since the protests, things have returned to normal, people are throwing their trash onto the streets and nobody seems to care about our land and making it better.’

He is hopeful that through efforts, with activists and others, the New Egypt will not fall victim to the ills that afflicted the old regime. ‘People have to change,’ he added.

Tipping point

The Red Sea has often been the tipping point in talking about Egypt’s environmental degradation. It is currently facing a crisis that could see much of its marine life cease to exist. Continued polluting of water, constant oil spillage from offshore rigs and a lack of awareness in the country about the importance of maintaining vital ecosystems all contribute to the threat.

No longer is the Red Sea a pristine location to witness the spectacle of marine life and coral reefs. One of the main causes is the constant pouring of waste from hotels along the coastal areas, but the tourism industry more generally has done further harm by pumping chemicals and other waste products into the sea. Resolving these problems is proving extremely difficult.

Not only are coral reefs under threat, but other marine life, too. Offshore oil rigs have been in the Red Sea waters for decades, but little has been done to ensure the equipment is up to date. These rigs stream a constant pool of oil into the sea. An official from the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (HEPCA) said earlier this year that much of the dolphin population has migrated further and further south as a result.

Already, in the past few years, Egypt has seen a number of areas become uninhabitable as a result of oil spillage, the official, who asked not to be named due to the organisation’s discussions with the government on new green policy. The organisation has long warned over the oil that continually seeps into areas along the coast, including beaches, which have seen massive declines in usability in recent years. A major oil spill last summer showed the ugly face of offshore drilling - not only in the Gulf of Mexico, but here in the Red Sea.

The oil spread far and wide, according to reports, and even as the government claimed it had been contained, beaches continued to be flooded with it. Even today, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) told the Ecologist that a number of the beaches are still ‘unsafe for tourism.’

According to Mahmoud Ismail, the head of Egypt’s Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), his organisation is responsible for the constant clean up of what he dubbed ‘routine oil spills.’

‘Our organisation is there so we can monitor and help to connect oil companies with the necessary means of clean-up during the routine oil spills that occur in the Red Sea. Just look at the most recent one, the beaches were completely cleaned in less than one week,’ Ismail said.

But, he added that if Egypt is to move toward a sustainable future, it would take a combination of legislation and personal understanding and effort to maintain a better country.

‘We have long been in the dark about the environment. People have believed that they are not doing anything out of the ordinary, throwing trash and things into the water, but this is the number one cause of our poor state of affairs in the waterways and Red Sea in the country,’ he added.

Revolution brings hope?

For many, life after revolution has returned to normal, and with it the pollution. Walking out of one of Cairo’s upscale restaurants, a group of eaters toss a few napkins onto the ground before hopping in their Mercedes and BMW vehicles and speed off.  Every napkin has a price, says Ahmed el-Fattah, a longtime environmental consultant at the ministry of environment who is attempting to implement a series of new regulations that he hopes will drive the country in a new direction.

That new direction, says Sudanese environmentalist Omnia Amr, who is also the founder and director of Eco Options Egypt – an environmental event planner, consultancy and content provider.

She said that ‘what makes it extremely difficult to have a widespread environmental movement in the country is that people don’t see the public domain as common space like they see their homes.’

Fattah is trying to break those boundaries, attempting to develop a strategy within the ministry that will bring about an understanding that all Egyptians are in this together and that without a concerted effort to succeed, the country’s future is in jeopardy.

‘Look around, what you see is pollution on a grand scale,’ he said, ‘and this is partly because of the former regime, but it is also a direct result of apathy among the people who didn’t care enough to keep the streets, water and other things clean. It is killing this country.’

Last year, the ministry’s climate unit reported that Egypt is the third most at-risk nation in terms of its vulnerability to climate change affects, which means action needs to be taken. Young activists are already getting underway to make this a reality, with at-home efforts to educate their family and friends on the importance of reducing trash, pollution and waste disposal.

‘I have talked with officials from the ministry of environment and they have told me that change must start at home,’ said Salma Nada, an activist who helped lead the clean-up efforts in Tahrir Square and who added that if Egypt is going to truly change, the environment must be a top priority.

‘We have long been talking about the political change that is needed, but that change will be worthless if we don’t create a better future for our children in terms of how we treat our surroundings,’ she added.

More polluted than New York

The ministry said that their recent studies have shown Cairo is 100 times more polluted than New York City. Fattah believes that a number of initiatives already implemented can help bring about further success. He pointed to natural gas taxis that have entered the roads in the past year and a half as a possible solution.

According to him, these taxis reduce carbon emissions by as much as 50 per cent, and with stricter regulations on vehicles, and the promotion of public transit, ‘Egypt can drastically limit the amount of GHG that enters the air.’

It may be too early to see major success, but with the conversation beginning to manifest, the young activists who took on a dictator could very well be the best hope for ending decades of environmental neglect.

But Egypt needs to be prepared for what is to come, Munqeth Mehyar, the director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) said. ‘Being left unprepared will affect not only economic, physical and environmental security, but national, regional and global security, if actions are not taken now to mitigate and adapt to, the projected impacts of climate change,’ Mehyar said.

Creating a better world for the next generation can be an empowering challenge and one that most people are willing to make sacrifices for. As Mustapha Saleh of Egypt’s Environment Quality International (EQI), ‘we all have to do our part if we are to see the places we live in continue in the years ahead.’

This is what it comes down to, but if people are going to continue to push the environment to the back burner, there can be no hope for making peace with the environment and create a brighter future for our children. With revolution brings new possibilities, and there are already those who are fighting for that future that sees Egyptians and the environment function hand in hand.


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