A year in review: The ups and downs of environment news

The past year saw an unprecedented number of environmental catastrophes worldwide, starting with the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, which claimed 20,000 lives, making it the worst since Chernobyl.

The year ended with the failure of the Durban climate talks in South Africa, with no agreement being reached and several countries, including the US and Canada, holding up negotiations.

The failure came despite the fact that 2011 ranked among the ten warmest years since 1850. The Kyoto Protocol goal of limiting global warming by two degrees Celsius will not be met, and we are moving towards a 3.5 degree increase in temperatures.

The past year also witnessed countless devastating oil spills: first in China’s Bohai Sea in June, then in New Zealand, where an oil tanker was caught on a coral reef, causing oil to pour out into an area considered a sanctuary for whales and dolphins. Recently, Brazil and Nigeria were also hit by dramatic oil spills.

Egypt’s environment was not spared in the past 12 months either, with the ongoing degradation of land, air and water quality continuing at a rapid pace. Looking back on 2011, we highlight five key areas of environmental interest, focussing firstly on the damage done, but also identifying some creative green initiatives.

Industrial pollution

Egyptian factories have always been the main source of pollution in the country, due to a lack of implementation of environmental laws and little consideration for the health of those in neighboring communities. The lives of residents are greatly impacted by all types of toxic emissions, including wastewater seeping into the soil and destroying the agriculture or poisoning fresh water sources.

In Damietta, locals organized large demonstrations and blocked access to the city’s port to protest against pollution caused by the MOPCO fertilizer plant, located in the nearby free zone. Similar events took place in 2008 involving the same factory, which locals accuse of discharging ammonia-filled wastewater directly into the sea, thus killing fish and destroying farms.

In Fayoum, three army-owned factories provoked the anger of residents in nearby villages, who complain that the smoke emitted by the plants' chimneys has devastated olive and date harvests and sickened herds of cattle.

Many people have also developed cancer due to their exposure 20 years ago to asbestos fibers released from asbestos and concrete factories scattered all over Cairo. The form of cancer called mesothelioma cannot be cured, and the average life expectancy of sufferers is two years, sometimes a little more if surgery can be performed.

British Petroleum is also under fire in Idku, where the oil company's pipeline construction activities have faced strong opposition from locals, who launched a campaign against project, which they see as potentially catastrophic for the area’s environment.

Violations of protected areas

The lawlessness following the 25 January uprising gave way to all types of violations in Egypt's protected areas, supposedly protected by Environmental Law 102/1983, issued by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

Ras Mohamed, an impressive protectorate located at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, and which features Egypt's richest marine life and biodiversity, has been invaded by fishermen, despite strict legal limits on fishing in national parks.

Wadi Degla, a protected desert area located south of Maadi has been repeatedly excavated and violated for months now, provoking fury among environmentalists and nature conservationists. Earlier this year, the area surrounding Lake Qaroun in Fayoum was also violated, and a road was built on the fringe of Gebel Elba, where Egypt's oldest and most precious fossils are found.

Solar power

Discussions are ongoing regarding the development of comprehensive solar and wind energy programs in Egypt. Desertec, a German not-for-profit organization, has initiated discussions with Egyptian authorities to develop massive solar farms in the sun-drenched Egyptian deserts. If implemented, this project could provide Egypt with all the energy it needs, while also allocating a set percentage of solar energy for sun-deprived European countries.

In spite of the economic slump, Japan's cooperation agency JICA is pursuing two solar projects in Egypt. Although on a small scale, the photovoltaic power station in Borg al-Arab provides a nearby mall with all its electricity. JICA also cooperates with the Egyptian government on the Kuraymat solar hybrid plant, located 100km south of Cairo.

Population and expansion

The world’s population reached 7 billion this year. In Egypt, the population is growing at a rapid pace, and projections made by the Cairo Demographic Center forecast that Egypt’s population will hit 103 million by 2030. Population distribution has a strong impact on the environment in a country. In Egypt, 90 percent of the population is crammed onto six percent of the country’s land along the Nile Valley and in the Delta. This has led to widespread destruction of viable agricultural land lining the river for housing purposes. Plans to relocate populations to desert compounds have failed; according to a 2006 population census, these desert cities have absorbed only 3.7 percent of Cairo's population.

Ambitious national projects, claiming to solve Egypt’s problems, including its rising population, emerged in 2011. Egyptian-American scientist Farouk el-Baz once again put his “Corridor of Development” project to the government — a project that aims to build a 1200km superhighway across the Western Desert between Alamein and Aswan, making this land accessible for development, commerce, agriculture and industry. The project plans to develop towns along this corridor, which will be connected to the Nile Delta road by cross-cutting highways, in an effort to redistribute Egypt’s population.

The entire Egyptian scientific community criticized the project for its lack of feasability, considering that the corridor would be built on a high plateau, thus requiring huge and costly pumping stations to bring water from the Nile. They also critized the concept of "national projects", preferring instead to back smaller, integrated development projects.

Real estate tycoon Mansour Amer, the businessman behind the environmentally unfriendly resorts of Porto Sokhna and Porto Marina, also proposed a desert development project to tackle Egypt’s environmental ills, including the country’s rapidly increasing population. However, scientists agree that the desert could not accommodate a population of over 4 million people due to the lack of energy and water sources.

Green initiatives

Many environmentally-friendly initiatives emerged this year, mostly from grassroots organizations. There is a growing interest in developing rooftop gardens atop Cairo’s looming concrete buildings. Many meetings and workshops have been conducted to inform people of the benefits of growing their own food.

This year also witnessed the success of campaigns advocating the use of bicycles instead of cars in an attempt to reduce both traffic and toxic emissions while encouraging people to exercise more. To everyone’s surprise, the first governor to actually order the creation of bike lanes was Monufiya’s Ashraf Hilal, who said that bike lanes are the most viable solution for Egypt’s horrendous traffic problems.

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