Egypt: Living Under a Grey Sky

Egypt: Living Under a Grey Sky

Arriving in Egypt two months ago, I was shocked to see the state that the country has fallen in. I had previously written about ‘Egypt Falling Apart‘ but I had not seen it all first hand. Despite my already-low expectations, I was shocked to see the deterioration that Egypt has faced in the past three years: Garbage piles on every street corner, excruciating traffic conditions, lack of care towards our national treasures, and plenty of other distressing issues.

These are issues that continue to be ignored by the people, and passively-accepted by the population.  Unfortunately, these issues should not be ignored by the population as they threaten every corner of Egyptian life and society. In this article I will tackle the issue of pollution and tackle the issue of the Nile being used as a landfill. However, the coming articles will look at several other problems – Traffic, Sexual Harassment, and the illegal construction of buildings – that continue to plague Egypt and require urgent attention.

Pollution, and the Nile turning into a refuse dump for dead animals and garbage

Click here to skip and see the shocking lack of respect for the Nile River.

As the plane was landing in Cairo, I opened the side-window hoping to see the beautiful Egypt down below. This is what I first saw:

Yes. This is how 'polluted' Egypt is. The smog covers the whole of Cairo.
Yes. This is how ‘polluted’ Egypt is. The smog covers the whole of Cairo.

I had read that living in Cairo is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,but never imagined that the air pollution in Cairo (and Egypt in general) was that atrocious. Having come from Australia, the poor air quality was very obvious:  Egyptians never get to experience a ‘clear blue sky’, and are instead treated to dull, grey skies – even on sunny days.

Everything is grey. (Taken from the airplane)
Everything is grey – makes for a pretty ugly skyline (Taken from the airplane)
In Cairo, it is rarely possible to see more than a few kilometers ahead of you due to the smog.
In Cairo, it is rarely possible to see more than a few kilometers ahead of you due to the smog.

According to a WHO report,  this pollution costs the government more than 5% of their annual gross domestic product in environmental damage. I am no biologist, but pollution is a great concern for those living in Egypt – causing respiratory damage, cardiovascular issues, throat inflammation and other long-term health problems.

What makes Cairo one of the most polluted cities in the world? For starters, there is the lack of regulations on actions of factories.  Very few measures have been taken to reduce the carbon emissions of major polluting industries in Egypt. However, the greatest contribution to pollution comes from the lack of proper facilities to dispose of garbage.

Welcome to Cairo. The City of a thousand garbage piles.
Welcome to Cairo. The City of a thousand minarets garbage piles.
Blurry - but then again I don't walk around with a camera taking pictures of garbage.
Blurry – but then again I don’t walk around with a camera taking pictures of garbage.

From rich neighborhoods to poor ones – garbage is on every corner of Egypt’s streets. Garbage piles like the one above are left like that for weeks – attracting stray dogs and cats – and leaving a horrible smell in the air. Instead of properly disposing of them (once they are actually removed), a lot of Egypt’s garbage ends up being burnt. This has serious repercussions for the country’s air quality and health. The smoke released from the burning can deposit chemicals in crops (thus exposing people to those chemicals through food), lead to an increase in ‘acid rain’, accelerate ozone depletion, and cause the smog/grey skies that Egyptians experience.

Garbage Collector? Apparently so.
Garbage Collector? Apparently so.
This was taken from the Saladin's Citadel.
Smog. This was taken from the Saladin’s Citadel on a sunny, ‘clear’ day.

Yet, despite all those scary terms, there was something else that really disturbs me:

The dumping of garbage in the Nile. This is one of the more 'modest' photos - others (un-captured) are atrocious.
The dumping of garbage, dead animals, and more in the Nile is not uncommon (Note: this is not a picture of the Nile River).

In 2010, Al-Masry Al-Youm (a leading independent newspaper in Egypt) reported that 250,000 tons of garbage were dumped into the Nile at Minya. Today that number has multiplied: the Nile River has become a  refuse dump for dead animals, industrial waste, sewage water, and more. The health concerns from this are clear: crops, ‘drinking water’, the soil, and Egyptian society relies on the Nile River’s cleanliness.

There is a famous Egyptian saying/myth that “Whoever drinks from the Nile, is bound to return to Egypt.” Unfortunately, drinking from the Nile River today will only lead to serious health concerns. The dumping of ‘hazardous’ material in the Nile River is an insult to the treasure that Egyptians have been lucky enough to have. It shows a significant lack of respect for the only lifeline of Egypt. There’s another saying in Egypt “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” I’m not sure how this applies anymore considering the appalling way in which Egyptians treat the Nile.

Egyptians, the government, the media – everyone – has come to passively accept this reality: a reality where the Nile River has turned into a landfill, and a reality where Egyptians are happy that instead of trees on every corner of their streets, there are garbage piles. Everyday, I see Egyptians throwing used candy wrappers into the Nile. The government has generally never done anything to protect our ‘gift’. This is happening in front of us, yet the media is instead focusing on politics 24/7.

The selfishness, the politics, the carelessness – all of it will not matter when our country becomes unlivable due to the ‘death’ of the Nile and excruciating environmental conditions.


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  • Jacques Djan

    It seems that most of my old countrymen now want to commit suicide by poisoning themselves and their loved ones. President Nasser thought by ex pulsing all the foreigners (ie: English , Italians, French, Armenian, Jews, Greeks etc and distributing their wealth by nationalization to the ignorant officers of the army at the time of his revolution, he will achieve an Arab empire. All Egypt achieved to day is a heap of Garbage. In Arabic we say “YA HARAM YA MASR EL HABIB”. I write this regretfully, as an Egyptian from far away, I grieve for you my Egypt.! It is not too late to love and care about our Egypt. .

  • Anonymous

    I lived & worked in Cairo for three years from 2009-2012 and these photos really do show how it is there. When I arrived they had just killed all the swine because of swine flu and I literally had to wade through mountains of trash to get to a bus stop. There was no incentive for the Coptic Christians to pick up the trash because all of their swine had been killed. As time progressed, the unrest increased as did the deterioration of everything in the city. During the revolution, the young people were so hopeful for democracy and I watched the hopeful and beautiful art painted on the walls around Victoria field in Maadi depicting Coptic and Christian unity. After the revolution the wall art was gradually painted over as the Brotherhood took over.

    I had a friend who had worked in Beijing where the pollution is off the charts where a person could not see across the street. There were days I remember riding on the bus to work and literally could not see on the other side of the autostrad. Trash fires would burn off the Autostrad over the desert throughout the day. Feral cats and dogs roam the city like wild animals eating all the trash.

    Cairo is such a beautiful city with some of the warmest and kindest people in the world. It is sad that the infrastructure has broken down so much. The rift between the rich and poor is so apparent every day. The opulence of huge villas next to tin or cardboard shacks. I experienced how the wealthy Egyptians and Saudi treat their own people who they see as beneath them…..very social status conscious.

    Of all the places I have worked, Egypt was my favorite place…..Cairo is magical and I pray for their people.

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  • Is it really in the last three years, though? The last time I was in Cairo was 2010, and it was pretty bad. Heading out toward Saqqara, all of the canals were clogged with garbage. I went out to Faiyoum and the amount of detritus in the villages on the way (we went via Dhahshur) was just unreal.

    I also remember the smog being so bad when I lived in Cairo in the mid 90s that there were mornings when, crossing the Kasr el Nil bridge, you’d be in the middle of the bridge and unable to see either bank of the river, nor the water beneath.

    Admittedly, it hasn’t gotten any better since then, but it’s almost impossible to imagine how it could get worse.

    • Problems such as the disposal of garbage in the Nile and just general proper garbage disposal existed for many years. However, garbage piles on every street corner (such as in picture 4 which was taken in Masr El Gedeeda – a fairly ‘middle-class’/high neighborhood) did not. The garbage problem was bad, but it has definitely increased since the last time I was here.

      The smog is something I wouldn’t have noticed 3 years ago because I was too young. It is an issue that has been building up considerably since the mid-2000s. Today, seeing a few meters in front of you without it being ‘blurry/foggish (I can’t really describe it)’ is rare.

      Moreover, when I mentioned ‘3 years ago’ that also included: traffic conditions, appalling care of our monuments/historic sites and other problems. These have worsened significantly because of the lack of security and order.

      • That’s sad to hear. I was in Tunisia last year and they’re having the same problem – the police have kind of given up because they were ‘insulted’ by the revolution. Now everyone has a big dog, and Tunis shuts down after dark.

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