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2019: Egypt's environmental initiatives

Nile clean-up campaigns, limiting single-use plastics and converting waste into energy were among this year’s growing efforts to protect the environment

Mahmoud Bakr , Sunday 29 Dec 2019
Egyptian volunteers
Young Egyptian volunteers collect waste and plastic as part of a campaign to clean up the River Nile photo: Reuters
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Numerous initiatives to protect the environment and combat climate change were carried out by government and civil bodies.

The Ministry of Environment, in collaboration with civil society organisations and individuals, worked to preserve biodiversity, and reduce pollution and encroachments that threaten natural protectorates and the River Nile, said Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad. Other issues of concern to the public, including treating waste and controlling industrial pollution, were also addressed, and finding alternative uses for agricultural waste and controlling air pollution were priorities throughout the year.

CLEANER AIR: Domestically, Fouad said, the notorious annual black cloud, caused by the burning of rice stalks, was averted this year as a result of “turning a crisis into an opportunity”. Instead of burning waste that accrues from rice cultivation, this year farmers processed 80 per cent into compost.

The process of providing farmers with the know-how and machinery to help make the most of agricultural waste is ongoing.

Besides reducing the burning of agricultural waste the ministry, in coordination with police authorities, inspected factories, monitored small and medium-size industries and examined vehicle exhausts to ensure they comply with environmental regulations.

NO PLASTICS: The Ministry of Environment campaigned to increase public awareness of the environmental hazards of single-use plastics and promote environmentally friendly alternatives. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) oversaw the drafting of a resolution in March to “significantly reduce” the use of plastics. At the same time Egypt’s Ministry of Environment launched an initiative that encourages civil society organisations to submit proposals on the best ways to reduce plastic use.

Campaigns to reduce the use of plastic bags were launched in many governorates. In Hurghada, 10,000 multi-use bags were distributed among the public at markets. Early in 2019 Red Sea Governor Ahmed Abdallah announced a ban on all single-use plastic bags beginning in June.

Studies were undertaken to determine the amount of plastic produced and who consumes it. The Ministry of Environment conducted trial initiatives to replace plastic with biodegradable bags and new policies were drafted, in cooperation with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Federation of Egyptian Industries and other partners, to provide incentives for producers to use biodegradable alternatives to plastic bags. 

“Environmentally friendly plastic bags were distributed in shops and hypermarkets and more than 10,000 multi-use bags made of synthetic fibers were handed out in tourist resorts,” said Maysoun Nabil, director of the Industrial Pollution Sector at the Ministry of Environment.

She added that while reducing the use of plastic bags had not been translated into legislation, as is the case in Morocco and Tunisia, the focus of the initiative was “on educating people about the environmental hazards of plastic bags and initiating dialogue in the community and with manufacturers of plastics to reach practical solutions”.

Mohamed Salah, head of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), said Egypt consumes 12 million tons of single-use plastic bags annually, at the cost of LE2 billion. “Efforts are being made to encourage and support producers to move towards biodegradable and paper bags, and to persuade consumers to buy environmentally friendly bags,” he said.

Hossam Allam, regional director of the Sustainable Growth Programme at the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), points out that “environmentally friendly plastic bags take 18 months to decompose, while bags made of plastics take up to 50 years though they cost 10 per cent more.”

Many countries have succeeded in reducing plastic waste and the use of plastic bags, notes Magdi Allam, president of the Union of Arab Environmental Experts. “The procedures needed to reduce the consumption of plastic bags are known. A model project will soon be rolled out, in cooperation with a commercial chain store, to replace plastic bags with biodegradable and paper bags.”

Plastic bags kill millions of marine creatures annually and also, says Allam, pose a threat to people’s lives. He advises the public “to use non plastic bags when shopping for food, to avoid placing hot foods such as bread in nylon bags, to buy glass water bottles instead of plastic and refrain from refilling plastic bottles and putting them in freezers”. 

WASTE INTO ENERGY: The National Authority for Military Production is cooperating with the Swiss company TCG to set up a factory to treat waste and transform it into electric or thermal power.

The deal followed a cabinet decree allowing a feed-in tariff for electricity supplied to the national grid from power plants using solid waste, sludge from wastewater treatment plants and biogas extracted from safe, sanitary landfills.

NILE CLEAN-UP: The Youth for the Nile initiative was launched in 2019 to help clear the river of waste. The project has been adopted by the Ministry of Environment in collaboration with the Egyptian Federation of Sailing and Water Skiing, Greenish, an environmental youth organisation, the Very Nile campaign and groups of young volunteers.

The Ministry of Environment has been increasingly keen to engage young people and civil society as key partners in protecting natural resources and conserving the environment, says Fouad.

The ministry conducts regular inspections of waste facilities, tests water quality and, in the event of violations, takes whatever action is necessary. 

In the first three hours of the Youth for the Nile initiative volunteers removed between three and four tons of waste from the river, Fouad said, commending the active participation of young people.

Fouad stressed the social dimension of the initiative which generates income for those who collect and recycle waste. 

The waste collected during the Youth for the Nile initiative was sorted for recycling by a civil society organisation, with non-recyclable waste buried in a landfill.

The Ministry of Environment also launched the Guardians of the Nile campaign to encourage children to participate in cleaning the river and raise their awareness about the importance of protecting the Nile from pollutants. The campaign was launched in Cairo before being rolled out in Luxor, Aswan, Assiut and Qena through EEAA branches.

A GLOBAL CHALLENGE: Egypt is involved in a number of schemes with other countries to help adapt to climate change and reduce its repercussions. 

According to Fouad, the Africa Adaptation Initiative which helps African countries to enhance their adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change impacts, is among the most ambitious of these schemes.

Fouad says Egypt has always favoured international collective efforts to offset climate change and plans are afoot to increase the funds and support available to the developing countries most severely affected by climate change. 

She stressed the importance of integrating biodiversity into development plans and of supporting Egypt’s Initiative to Link the Three Rio Conventions which explicitly links biodiversity, climate change and desertification.

She noted that Egypt is currently collecting the resources necessary to support the initiative and has already agreed a $500 million funding package with the Global Environment Facility. 

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Achieving economic and social development which preserves natural resources is a joint responsibility, says Fouad.

The Ministry of Environment strives to coordinate with all concerned parties and has restructured the concept of the environment to incorporate the challenges to development posed by environmental factors such as climate change. There are also efforts, says Fouad, to help decision-makers understand the costs of not adopting environmentally friendly development plans. 

The ministry is preparing an environmental communication strategy which will include competitions for school children, and has already launched the You First campaign which specifically addresses women who, says Fouad, have an enormous role to play in changing social behaviours.

Environmental expert Hussein Abaza, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Environment, argues that social cooperation on sustainable development can help preserve natural resources by shifting consumption and production patterns towards sustainable models.

NGOs, young people, the private and public sectors, MPs and the Ministry of Environment all participated in the launch of the Towards a Sustainable Green Life initiative.

Abaza said seven NGOs participated by showcasing products made from recycled waste, exhibiting textiles, wood products, roof plantings using hydroponics and furniture.

In July the Egyptian Youth Association for Development and the Environment launched the Environment Street initiative in cooperation with the European Union and the German government. It aims to improve the environment at the level of individual neighbourhoods.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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