Up in smoke: Why does Egypt keep burning its farm waste?

Mariam Rizk , Tuesday 28 Oct 2014

It's autumn, which means smoke from rice farms in the Delta hanging over the city, posing a health risk. But experts see a bigger problem of waste management

A map for Egypt's Nile Delta published by NASA in their October press release, showing the leftover rice straw flames (Photo: courtesy of NASA website)

A NASA satellite took an image of Egypt's Nile Delta in mid-October, where red spots, indicating fires and plumes of smoke, were scattered along the map.

But the fires weren't from vandalism or unrest – they're part of a yearly event where farmers burn their leftover rice straw, causing severe pollution and two to three months of potential complications for respiratory and heart disease patients.

This year saw nearly 1,000 fires for leftover straw in the Delta, NASA said.

Autumn weather in Egypt is potentially the best, with fresh air after months of stifling heat. However, in recent days Egyptians have been forced to seek shelter indoors, hiding from a black smoke cloud that leaves their lungs, eyes and noses burning.

Forecasting possible health problems, the Environmental Affairs Authority issued warnings for patients with heart and respiratory diseases, advising them to stay indoors.

The black cloud's health implications could go beyond obvious allergy and respiratory diseases, including autoimmune diseases and causing the body to abnormally react against itself.

A fellow of the American Academy for Immunology, Abdel-Hady Mesbah, said the waste burning could cause autoimmune diseases, which are often chronic and life-threatening, as well as cancer.

File Photo: The city of Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza are seen from an aircraft, in this December 4, 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

Slow burn

The black cloud first appeared over the Delta and the capital Cairo in 1997, but did not become apparent until two years later. Experts and environmentalists have always blamed the cloud on straw burning during the rice harvest. But despite knowing the reason for the problem, the issue of agricultural waste management still hasn't been solved after almost two decades.

As the coughing season comes again to Cairo, Ahmed Hoza, a student originally from the Delta city of Damietta, remembers how the black cloud caused him to suffer from allergies when he was living in Cairo in 2009.

"I had to take the agricultural road between Mansoura and Damietta (two Delta cities) daily for three months," Hoza said. "Now I never take that road … I try to stay inside during these months."

He said he had to undergo treatment for more than a year due to complications from allergies.

The black cloud appears some days in September, October and November of each year. Its negative effects reach their peak at night and in the early morning, when the polluted air falls closer to the earth. 

Environmentalists say the smoke travels on the wind from the Delta to Cairo, where it remains between the city's two outlying hills.

"In simple terms, the polluted air gets stuck," said Kawthar Hefny, head of crisis management at the Environmental Affairs Authority.

She said the black cloud only appears in autumn months because of the added factor of burning rice straw, which joins with the already polluted air.

Official figures indicate nearly 1.5 million tonnes of rice straw are burned every year; other estimates put it at 4 million tonnes, contributing up to 42 percent of total air pollution.

The problem is that farmers clear their land of agricultural waste after the rice harvest, and due to the lack of an efficient waste management system have no choice but to burn it.

Straw for cash?

However, the straw is potentially a great economic benefit that could be used as fodder or fuel for some industries.

A tonne of rice straw could be sold for nearly LE80 ($11), and up to LE300 ($42) if is processed first.

But a plan to provide compressors to make the straw into blocs for sale hasn't gone into effect, despite years of acknowledging both the health risks and economic benefits.

The state says it is making progress and has already started projects with young farmers to make an industrial network for the rice straw. Hefny said the "farmers' awareness" has increased while the black cloud has decreased as the ministry of environment deals with 400,000 tonnes of straw this year.

But the pronouncements are undercut by reports that the faculty of agriculture at Cairo University – a state school – had burned its farm waste on site.

The incident was reported last week and confirmed by the faculty's acting dean, raising questions about the seriousness of the measures to regulate environmental abuses, even at state institutions.

"This only represents one person's mistake," said the dean, Taha El-Beddawi. "We apologise for the incident and promise that whoever is responsible will be harshly punished."

Experts say the problem of agricultural waste removal in Egypt isn't just limited to leftover rice straw.

"Egypt produces 25 million tonnes of agricultural waste every year, which consecutive governments have failed to deal with," said Gamal Seyam, professor of agricultural economy at Cairo University.

"The rice straw is in the spot light because a lot of waste is burned in a limited number of days, making it more obvious," Seyam said, suggesting that the government should delegate the problem to the private sector for investment, "which will be in the benefit of all."

Mesbah, from the American Academy for Immunology, also cites the need to relocate funds.

"The cost of health problems because of the pollution could be spent on an efficient scheme to protect the environment," Mesbah said.

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