The State of Egypt’s Sustainability Agenda

Karim Elgendy

Two weeks ago, The English version of a leading Egyptian daily published an opinion piece on entitled “Our local ‘green’ agenda.” In his article, the author made a number of intriguing arguments that suggest that Egypt has a unique environmental agenda and a set of sustainability priorities that are different from the predominant global ones.  He also suggests that imported ‘green’ concepts fail to take into consideration ingrained conservationist behaviors that already exist in Egypt.

While I agree that each country must develop a local approach to sustainability which responds to its specific socio-economic and environmental needs, I found many of the author’s arguments to lack sufficient context, and was therefore concerned that the article could potentially result in an inaccurate representation of the state of sustainability in Egypt.

Cairo's Old City. Copyrights: Karim Elgendy

Energy, Development, and Green House Gas Emissions

In his article, the author suggests that “Greenhouse gases .. are not a primary concern for our own environmental well-being”, and cites Egypt’s small share in global greenhouse gas emissions. Such a claim ignores the fact that Egypt’s total emissions from energy use have grown 8 times since 1971, with its per capita emissions growing 4 times during the same period, according to International Energy Agency statistics. Egypt’s share of global emissions has also risen substantially over the past few years, growing from 0.4 percent in 1998 to 0.63 percent in 2007, according to the World Resources Institute.

Egypt’s recent demographic and economic growth patterns make it a near certainty that its energy use and emissions will continue to grow rapidly if there is no change in course. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme forecasts that, based on current trends, energy demand in Egypt will increase threefold by 2030. Conservation measures are thus required, not only to reduce emissions, but also to avert potential energy shortages that may hinder economic development.

Steering Egypt’s much-needed development in a more sustainable direction is not only the right thing to do for the environment, but is also an economic necessity.

Moreover, Egypt’s environmental well-being is facing grave challenges as a result of global warming. The most conservative estimates of global sea-level rises project that 34 percent of the Nile Delta will be flooded, displacing approximately 7 million people and causing substantial economic damage due to the loss of the fertile soils, according to the Arab Environment Climate Change report. Surely, this threat posed by excessive carbon emissions must concern Egyptians as much as they concern everyone else, if not more.

Traditional Collection or Waste Management?

Secondly, the article suggests that restoring and developing the system of garbage collectors and sorters–or zabaleen–is environmentally friendly and sustainable. Egypt’s garbage collectors are often praised for sorting and exporting non-organic waste for reuse by foreign industries, and for reusing organic matter as compost and fodder for their livestock. However, the suggestion that the garbage collectors can be a solution for Egypt’s waste problems appears unrealistic due to scale limitations.

There are natural limits to how much waste the zabaleen can handle with their modest carts, how many pigs they can raise, and how large the waste-infested unsanitary urban dwellings they reside in can grow. These limits are already evident in the zabaleen’s limited share of waste collection, which is no more than a third of Cairo’s garbage. The uncollected garbage in the streets of Cairo is a reminder that Egypt’s current waste management policy is not viable, but this does not imply that the zabaleen are the future solution for waste management in Egypt. Alternative proposals that incorporate valuable components of the zabaleenʼs work, such as manual sorting and composting, together with modern technologies, can perhaps provide a workable and more sustainable solution.

Transportation vs Suburbanization

On a separate note, the author rightly cites low car ownership in Egypt (approximately 3 cars for each 100 people) and the use of alternative transportation as signs of the low environmental impact of the nation’s transportation sector. While these statistics might sound encouraging, the lack of a reliable public transportation system together with the increasing suburbanization of major cities mean that the current state of alternative transportation may not last for long.

Economical Development and Sustainability

Finally, I would like to take issue with the notion that Egyptians, en masse, are  “environmentally conscious in [their] own way”. While it is certainly encouraging to see that excessive consumerism and wasteful behavior have not yet found their way into the psyche of Egyptian society in comparison to other parts of the developed world, it would be a mistake to confuse economically-driven conservation with environmentally conscious practices. Economic pressures are responsible for much of Egypt’s energy and resource conservation; as these pressures subside conservation usually diminishes.

The assumption that the status quo reflects an environmental consciousness stands in stark contrast to the predominant apathy–and occasional abuse– one finds towards local environments, the unregulated urbanization which has accelerated over the past decades, and the depletion of Egyptian natural resources such as oil, whose production peaked in 1997 and is now in terminal decline.

Furthermore -and perhaps most disturbing- is the fact that the discourse regarding natural resources in Egypt rarely features any reference to protecting the environment or conserving natural resources for future generations.

Celebrating our “local green agenda” can quite easily slip into a call for inaction. In the face of serious global challenges, Egyptians simply cannot afford to do nothing let alone pat each other on the back for how little they waste today. Like much of the world, their task should be to help avoid a future environmental crisis, which has already begun unfolding before our eyes. This could only happen if sufficient global efforts are invested and if everyone makes a contribution.

Karim Elgendy is an architect and a sustainable design researcher based in San Francisco. He can be contacted at: Karim [at] Carboun [dot] com. A version of this article first appeared on the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al- Youm, under the title “On the state of the Egyptian ‘green’ agenda”

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