Egypt’s Black Cloud: a recurring nightmare?
Smoke rises from burning garbage in downtown Cairo October 20, 2011- REUTERS

CAIRO: A cloud of thick smoke blankets the Delta area each autumn, leaving the country with reportedly high levels of pollution and serious respiratory diseases.

The phenomenon occurs when Egypt harvests its rice crop, as farmers burn leftover straw to clear the lands. It usually hangs over Egypt’s skies in October and November.

The Ministry of Environment is “hopeful” this year that it might control the burning of the rice straw through cooperation with farmers, ministries and funds, Kawthar Hanafy, head of Central Department for Environmental Disasters told The Cairo Post Thursday.

Satellites are currently used to spot open burning process; a penalty will be imposed on violators ranging from 5,000 to 100,000 EGP ($12,767.)

Black cloud in Egypt since 1999

“The black cloud phenomenon has existed in Egypt since 1999, but burning rice straw is only one of several factors that form the cloud,” Hanafy added.

Video of Black Cloud covering Egypt sky in 2013, by Youm7

Over the past years, the government has repeatedly blamed farmers for exceeding the authorized areas for cultivation, and for burning the straw.

Some environment experts also argue that farmers believe myths that burning rice straw increases soil fertility, head of Environment Research Center Mawaheb Abu el-Azm previously told The Cairo Post.

According to Hanafy, “a campaign was launched and is scheduled to continue in order to raise farmers’ awareness of the dangers of the burning habit, as well as to provide them with tools they need to bale the straw and transfer it to fertilizers.”

 

The government is also working to encourage investors to buy the leftovers and enter the industry of transferring them into organic fertilizers, she added.

 ‘Empty promises’

“Unfortunately, all pledges by the government to contain the long-existing problem are just repeated, empty promises,” the head of Farmers’ Syndicate, Mohamed Barghash, told The Cairo Post.

In his opinion, the government is late when it comes to control the burning process. “None of the ministries alone can solve the problem,” said Barghash, who is known in the local media as “The Eloquent Farmer.”

“The whole problem boils down to concerted efforts from ministries to provide machines for harvesting, extracting straw from rice, baling straw and transporting it only in 30 days; that’s what we call a full harvest,” he added.

Barghash continued, “And I want to say for those who blame farmers, hush! Did you first provide them with a full harvest?”

Contribution to climate change

The process of burning rice straw and agricultural wastes “contributes to the problem of climate change due to the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide,” the Spokesperson for the Egyptian Meteorological Authority, Waheed Seoudy told The Cairo Post.

 

Caption: Smoke rises from burning garbage in downtown Cairo October 20, 2011- REUTERS

Caption: Smoke rises from burning garbage in downtown Cairo October 20, 2011- REUTERS

 

 

Despite hundreds of violations for burning rice straw was reported last year, Seoudy saw the thickness of black cloud witnessed last year “has declined due to government’s efforts and imposed penalties.”

Egypt was listed the sixth in World Health Organization’s (WHO) ranking of the most polluted countries in 2014.

Health repercussions

“As the phenomenon nears, we, doctors advise patients suffering asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary (COPT) to follow up on their treatment because they are the most affected by the cloud,” Yasser Mostafa, Chest Disease physician, told The Cairo Post.

He further warned of “severe and repetitive health relapses, especially in children with respiratory issues.”

“After the black cloud ends, we also find normal people suffering frequent bouts of coughing although they do not have respiratory problems in their medical history,” Mostafa added.

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