Climate change is happening now

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 31 Aug 2021

What can be done to cope with the impact of climate change in Egypt, asks Dina Ezzat


On 3 September, a group of non-governmental organisations and government bodies that work on climate change will meet in Cairo to discuss cooperation and possible plans of action to expand awareness and programmes designed to help reduce levels of pollution and with them the carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global warming.

The Greenish Environmental Festival is a pioneering event that brings together a wide range of environmental partners at a time of unprecedented awareness of the reality of climate change. “Climate change is no longer something in the future; it is here and now. It is happening now, and there is a price that is being paid for it,” said Shadi Abdallah, executive director of Greenish, an environmental NGO.

The event is taking place weeks before the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November with the active participation of Egypt, which is hoping to host the next round of the conference.

According to Abdallah, Friday’s festival aims to help environmental actors in Egypt to work together better to consolidate collaboration in implementing plans to deal with climate change. In Egypt, the reality of climate change has been seen in the sharp increase of average summer temperatures and signs that include the reduction in the quality of some crops and declining fish catches off many of Egypt’s shores.

Moreover, Abdallah said, the Greenish Festival is also going to be an opportunity for environmental partners to discuss other pressing topics including waste management, working towards sustainable cities, and the development of ecotourism.

With close to 3,000 participants, Abdallah said that he was expecting the event to come up with some practical and innovative ideas that could allow for wider action to reduce levels of pollution and deal with the impact of climate change on segments of society that have been particularly harmed by global warming, “generally speaking the poorest and less empowered”.

“When we talk about global warming, we are talking about water resources, food security, and health issues. Climate change is linked to all aspects of our lives, and this is one of the most important messages we want to get out there,” Abdallah said.

“Climate change is about poor people who will become poorer and ill people whose health will decline if warming is not reduced. We are talking about women whose suffering will increase as they will find it more and more difficult to put a decent meal on the table for their families. We are talking about day-to-day challenges for many people,” said Ragia Al-Gerzawi, a researcher on environmental affairs at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO in Cairo.

SIGNS OF CHANGE: In Hurghada on the Red Sea this summer, Maryam Al-Sadek, a member of the communication and awareness team of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), an NGO, saw hard-to-avoid signs of climate change including bleaching corals, fishermen coming back with unusual species of fish, dead turtles and stranded dolphins.

For Al-Sadek, a graduate of marine science, nature is already crying out in protest against the abuse it has been undergoing at the hands of humanity. HEPCA, she said, an NGO that has been operating since the late 1980s, was essential in helping the community of Hurghada face up to climate change.

“Part of our work is to help the community, including the divers, the fishermen, and others, to be more aware of best ecological practices to help protect biodiversity, which is one of the prime victims of warming and of environmentally unfriendly patterns,” Al-Sadek said.

In the 1980s, HEPCA promoted the use of moorings as a replacement for anchors to reduce the damage that boats could inflict on the coral reefs. Today, she said, this project was still important, but over the past five years HEPCA has also been putting more and more efforts into facilitating proper waste management.

“This is key to any serious attempt to reduce global warming,” she said.

The Paris Agreement signed at the UN COP21 meeting in 2015 set out a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below two degrees Celsius. This year, a UN report noted that the world was on track to fail this objective.

According to Al-Gerzawi, in the case of Egypt, carbon dioxide emissions are far from being the key culprit for the warming, however. She said that Egypt’s share of global emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases does not go much beyond 0.6 per cent of the total. Emissions were more the responsibility of the developed countries, though it was the developing countries that were being forced to pay the price.

Mohamed Younis, another EIPR researcher who works on environmental mitigation and adaption policies, said the government was taking measures to convert the public-transport system, one of the main sources of contaminating emissions in the country, to clean energy. The work might be slow, but the commitment was serious, he said.

For Ahmed Yassin, a solar energy engineer and founder of the Alexandria-based NGO Banlastic, waste, especially single-use plastic bags, was one of Egypt’s worst problems.

He said that there were around 20 factories in Egypt that produce 12 billion single-use plastic bags a year. Over the past three to four decades, plastic bags have become mainstream in the packaging and sale of a wide range of products. The result, he said, has been “tons of plastic waste from these plastic bags, ending up causing an incredible amount of environmental damage.”

The worry, Yassin said, is not just about plastic bags but also about plastic bottles, plastic straws, and plastic utensils, among other things. “Single-use plastic bags are the most worrying, but they are not the only reason for worrying about what plastic could do to our cities, our shores, and our seas. We see the problems in Alexandria, especially around this time of the year towards the end of the summer holidays, when the city seems to have been infected by mushrooming amounts of plastic,” he said.

Plastics are manufactured from hydrocarbons, and when used and thrown away, they do not decompose. They break down into micro-particles that pollute the environment and contaminate the sea, leading to a decline in maritime biodiversity or polluted fish, which, when consumed for food, can cause a wide range of health problems, including hormonal imbalances, fertility problems, and even several types of cancer.

“So, we are not just talking about ugly waste, but about a major environmental and health hazard,” said Yassin. “This is why Banlastic is fighting to prohibit the use of plastics, particularly single-use plastic bags,” he said.

“It is not an easy fight to win, because the owners of the factories that produce these plastics have taken up their own fight to continue, lobbying against the Ministry of Environment that has been arguing for legislation against the production of single-use plastics, or at least the limitation thereof,” he added.

POPULAR AWARENESS: In Alexandria over the past seven years, Banlastic has been investing in awareness campaigns that aim to encourage people to voluntarily decrease their use of plastics, especially single-use plastic bags and straws.

In parallel, it has been recruiting volunteers to collect plastic waste and work on recycling.

So far, the collection of plastic waste has proven to be easier than recycling. “It is much easier to get keen volunteers who will put their time into cleaning up plastic waste than organising recycling, which is not always economically feasible,” Yassin said.

He said that providing alternatives to plastics is essential, but not always easy. While plastic bags are not good for the environment, they are cheap, for example. An alternative would be either old-fashioned grocery bags that shoppers would take to stores or paper bags made of recycled paper.

photo courtesy of HEPCA
photo courtesy of HEPCA

 “We need to get producers to put out these alternative bags despite the fact that they know it will not be easy to beat the single-use plastic bags. We need to get stores and shoppers to get into the habit of using alternative bags, and we need the authorities to help us by imposing either a ban on offering single-use plastic bags in supermarkets or by getting shoppers who chose these plastic bags to pay for them, as this might encourage the use of alternatives,” he argued.

Abdallah is convinced that providing alternatives is only one of a three-step approach that is required to help move beyond polluting practices, including the use of plastics. Greater awareness, he said, was a first step. “This is why civil society is crucial in the race to reduce global warming — but also why the media is essential too,” he said. Another step is “firm laws that are firmly imposed”.

According to Younis, introducing legislation against polluting practices is part of the mitigation and adaption practices that the authorities have already been implementing over the past few years.

In addition to converting public transport to green energy, he said, the government has been working on encouraging factories, especially those with high energy consumption like cement factories, to opt for energy produced by recycling waste. There has also been growing attention to the wider production of green energy with the creation of solar and wind power plants, especially in the border governorates.

Meanwhile, Younis said, the government needs to work harder on recycling waste as a route to both sustainability and energy production.

“But we need more sustainable funding from the government to work on containing pollution and reducing warming. For the most part, climate-change projects depend on funding,” he said.

Moreover, he added, the authorities, including the Ministry of Environment, need to take bolder action in adopting and imposing anti-pollution measures and penalising violations.

According to Al-Gerzawi, the government needs to be more mindful of best environmental practices. “It is a good thing that the government is pursing clean energy and trying to reduce emissions. However, it is equally crucial to observe the need for applying environmental studies to all the mega projects that it is building,” she said.

She argued that infrastructure schemes that aim to reduce traffic jams help to reduce emissions, but cutting trees to allow for the construction of flyovers is also harmful to the cause of acting against warming.

“We need to have more trees and more greenery across the city to avoid having people becoming more and more dependent on air-conditioning, which is another warming concern,” she said. Worse still, she added, for poorer people who often live in overcrowded conditions on limited budgets the elimination of greenery means tougher living conditions without even the chance of air-conditioning.

According to Ahmed Khalil, a sales manager in an appliance chain in Cairo, air-conditioner sales accounted for over 50 per cent of overall sales over the past three months. This year in particular, he said, had seen high demand, mostly on installment packages that make the end price higher.

Despite the increases in the prices of appliances as a sequel of currency devaluation and the increase of fuel prices as a result of the reduction of subsidies on electricity, Jihan, a civil servant in her late 30s, said she had had no choice but to buy two air-conditioners this year on installments for her bedroom and that of her children.

Previously, she had one air-conditioner in the living room of her apartment. This year, she said, with the unprecedented heat waves that had hit the country, she had had to invest in the air-conditioners despite the higher electricity bills.

She had had to do so, she said, because “the heat is unbearable,” she said.

GREENER AND BLUER: According to Al-Gerzawi, dealing with climate change as an emissions and plastics concern is a recipe for small wins in a larger war.

She argued that the concept that needs to be adopted is to “think green”, including in the environmental framing of urban and agricultural policies.

“Having cities or neighbourhoods deprived of greenery is a concern, eroding beaches is a concern, losing agricultural land is a concern, having polluted water is a concern — and all of these concerns should be given equal attention,” she said.

This is not just a task for the Ministry of Environment, however, but also for the ministries of housing, agriculture, and irrigation. “If we really mean to face up to the problem, we need to expand green spaces and green concepts with an eye on the marginalised and weaker segments of society,” she said.

In Minya in Upper Egypt, Maria George, the founder of Takafoe, an NGO that aims to give women a better share in agriculture, has been acting precisely to do this. In fewer than 10 years of cooperation with governmental and non-governmental bodies and the business sector, it has managed to reclaim around 180 feddans of land in the desert around Minya and has assisted many women farmers.

“We are working under the umbrella of the state-sponsored project to cultivate 1.5 million feddans of land and are working with all the concerned government bodies, including the Ministry of Social Solidarity that is trying to help as many women as possible be in a position to earn their own incomes. The activities have been working really well,” George said.

“Land reclamation is the key to a greener tomorrow in Egypt,” she added. Reclaimed land was the only way to compensate for the loss of agricultural land that has been taking place over the past few decades. “It is also the way to allow our agricultural land to regain its overstretched fertility by promoting an agricultural system that is designed for this purpose,” she said. Moreover, it is an opportunity to improve the quality of vegetables and fruit and to go more organic.

“Eighty per cent of the crops we grow in our projects are organic, and for the other 20 per cent we are very conservative and selective in the use of fertilisers and pesticides,” she said.

Elsewhere, in the coastal city of Qusseir around 140km south of Hurghada on the Red Sea, Ali Sayed, an environmental activist, has been seeing fishermen moving their houses away from the coast or out of their hometowns as a result of declining fishing coming from global warming.

“The weather is becoming too humid, and the sea level is getting higher, and this is making it hard for people to live in houses on the coast,” Sayed said. Moreover, a decline in some species of fish as a result of global warming and overfishing has made it uneconomic for some fishermen to continue.

“For many, the income they make after a month at sea has dwindled so much that it is no longer worth the time or energy,” Sayed said. He added that without efforts on the part of the government to secure fishing regulations and encourage training in environmentally friendly techniques, the situation is going to get worse.

Through his initiative “Keeping Qusseir Beautiful,” Sayed has managed over more than ten years to increase the level of environmental awareness on issues like waste management to spare the sea excessive rubbish at least. “But we also cannot ignore overfishing,” he said.

“Keeping the sea blue and eventually making it bluer is not something that civil society can do on its own. The government has to be a lot more involved,” he said.

In press statements last month, Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad said that the ministry was planning ambitious schemes to monitor the water level and biodiversity of both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean as part of national plans to cope with global warming.

Monitoring the level of the waters in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and controlling the volume of pollution are among the issues that will be discussed at this week’s Greenish Festival.

“Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to go greener, but I think we are making a good start. I think that there is a willingness on the side of the authorities to work on this,” Abdallah said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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