Egypt faces environment and health catastrophe
Cairo - Egypt risks an environmental and health catastrophe if it does not deal with waste and rubbish piling up on its streets, environmentalists and officials said.
“You can have nothing from the accumulation of tens of thousands of tonnes of garbage on the streets every day but disease and environmental destruction,” environmentalist Mohamed Ismail said. “Our government needs to prove that it is serious in dealing with this problem or the consequences will be dire for everybody.”
An estimated 70 million tonnes of waste end up on Egypt’s streets every year. That includes industrial waste, some of which end up in canals and the Nile. Drinking water is often contaminated, threatening millions of people.
Some blame private rubbish collection companies, saying they do not do their jobs adequately despite lucrative government contracts. Members of parliament are calling on the government to terminate those contracts. They are also asking the Cleaning and Beautification Authority, the agency responsible for cleaning the streets, to do its work properly.
Lack of funding is one of the problems facing the authority. The Cairo branch of the authority needs $45 million every year to clean the capital’s streets, branch head Hafez al-Saeed said.
Another issue is the lack of space in which to dispose the waste.
Available dumps around Cairo can receive a maximum of 2,500 tonnes of waste a day, considerably short of the capacity needed, Saeed said, adding: “This can show you why thousands of tonnes of refuse cannot be removed from the streets.”
Rubbish collectors used to go from home to home to collect people’s trash and dispose of it away from population centres. They would sort out plastic and glass for recycling and use organic wastes to feed pigs. Pig farming used to be a lucrative business in Egypt to satisfy the food needs of Egypt’s Christians.
In 2009, a cull of all pigs was ordered after fears of swine flu. The cull caused huge losses for farmers and rubbish collectors.
“Organic waste used to make up almost 60% of all waste,” said Shehata al-Meqadis, a pig farmer turned rubbish collector from Cairo. “We used this waste to feed the pigs, which was why the collectors had the motivation to collect the trash from the streets and homes.”
The dozens of collectors Meqadis employs return with plastic, cardboard and glass because he can sell those items to recycling factories. The organic waste stays on the streets.
The waste issue had taken a back seat to more pressing concerns, such as terrorism, electricity outages, water shortages, declining revenues from tourism and exports, rising commodity prices and a weakened national currency, experts said.
“But the harm that can be caused to Egypt from leaving garbage to pile up and choke its streets can outweigh the harm caused by leaving these problems unaddressed,” Ismail said. “These piles of rotting garbage cause all sorts of disease, spread bacteria and pollute the environment.”