Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Cairo Communique: People's Assembly Passes Landmark Environmental Law

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Cairo Communique: People's Assembly Passes Landmark Environmental Law

Article excerpt

Cairo Communique: People's Assembly Passes Landmark Environmental Law

By James J. Napoli

Many Cairo residents last fall went through what seemed an endless succession of colds, flus, allergies and general physical funks. They blamed the air, which, even to people inured to the city's normally high level of pollution, had become particularly foul.

Some days, you couldn't see the Egyptian Museum across Tahrir Square, the city's center, because of the rich, yellowish mix of smoke from burning garbage, industrial emissions, auto and bus exhausts and plain old desert dust that sat on the city. It was too hot and the air didn't move. People got sick.

In its preoccupation with development, Egypt has been slow to do anything to protect the quality of its air or any of its other physical resources. A clean environment seemed expendable, even a luxury, in its headlong effort to build its economy. As a result, the country is staggering under a burden of horrific pollution problems with serious repercussions on public health and the natural environment.

But the environmental movement, which goes back at least three decades in the United States and elsewhere in the West, now seems to have caught on in Egypt. There's light suddenly peeping through the smog.

After four years of debate, the People's Assembly in January overwhelmingly passed a sweeping, 103-article law intended to clean up Egypt's air, land, and water, as well as protect the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. It also affords greater protection for wildlife.

"I'm very happy," said Elmohamadi Eid, who has been working on environmental legislation since 1985, when he began his seven-year stint as chairman of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. "This is very, very important."

The former chairman, now a consultant on occupational safety and health problems, told the Washington Report that Egypt's new law is patterned after clean air acts and other environmental legislation in the United States. Most notably, it criminalizes and imposes stiff fines on polluters, and requires environmental impact statements for major government and private projects.

The biggest polluter in Egypt today is the government. Emissions from state industries in Helwan, for instance, have turned the once beautiful winter resort just outside Cairo into a noxious city, where residents are continuously covered in calcium and cement dust. Thousands of people in the area suffer from respiratory and other problems ranging from chronic bronchitis to eye infections, and rashes to emphysema.

A clean environment seemed expendable, even a luxury.

The catalog of environmental problems facing Egypt is imposing:

The Mediterranean Sea is heavily polluted, and the water in some coastal areas, such as Alexandria, is sometimes so contaminated with sewage that bathing is a major health risk. The water line at beaches in some seemingly clear areas, such as El Arish near the Gaza border, is caked with tar and oil. Many of the date palms that once made El Arish so lovely have been cut down to make way for development.

Development along the Mediterranean and Red Sea has run riot, cluttering previously pristine areas with ugly cement buildings and summer homes. The new law prohibits construction within 200 meters of the water.

The Nile River and various lakes have been damaged by industrial pollutants, pesticides, sewage and fertilizers dumped into them. …

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