Middle East

Air pollution: New attempts to tackle Cairo’s black cloud

An Egyptian farmer burns hay stubbles in the Nile delta village of Damerah near al-Mansura City, 130 kms north of Cairo, 20 October 2007 Image copyright KHALED DESOUKI/AFP
Image caption Farmers in Egypt traditionally pile up rice straw and burn it

Egyptians are bracing themselves for the next season of smog that has come to visit the skies of Cairo and the surrounding cities every year for nearly two decades.

Known in Egypt as the black cloud, the dense smoke first appeared over Nile Delta cities and Cairo in 1997. It spread rapidly and now it accounts for 42% of the country's air pollution, according to the Egyptian Environment Ministry.

Image copyright CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP
Image caption Cairo is badly affected by smog

The smog is partially caused by farmers piling up rice straw and burning it, because they lack the means to transfer the rice straw from their fields to recycling centres.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to tackle the problem.

Amal Taha, head of the environmental awareness department, says the ministry has struck a deal with a local company to use rice straw in cement production.

Image copyright Egypt Environment Ministry
Image caption The Egyptian Ministry of Environment says that it collects the waste and recycles it into fertiliser and fodder in some regions

In a video produced by the ministry, it said that 1.7 million feddans were planted with rice in six governorates that left 3.4 million tonnes of straw. A feddan is an Egyptian unit of area equivalent to 1.038 acres (0.42 hectares). In at least four regions, the ministry is collecting the waste and recycling it into fertiliser and fodder.

"We teach farmers how to deal with the waste to make sure the solutions will be sustainable," Taha says.

The ministry is now also using satellites to locate the spots where the farmers burn the straw. It has increased its ability to receive complaints and information about violations through a host of platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, its website and a hotline.

Image copyright Egypt Environment Ministry
Image caption The ministry's video tracks the burning of rice straw across Egypt

Farmers who break the law could face a fine ranging from 5,000-100,000 Egyptian pounds ($316-6,300) and could be jailed in the case of a repeated violation.

But other more creative solutions are yet to be picked up.

Image copyright Yasmeen Moustafa
Image caption Yasmeen Moustafa is developing her design to sell commercially

An Egyptian teenager who won first place in 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is currently developing her project to utilise the massive amounts of agricultural waste.

"I am trying to put an end to the black cloud and to benefit from it at the same time," Yasmeen Moustafa told the BBC. "I believe that the only way to get rid of the massive amounts of rice straw that we produce is to burn it; this is the fastest and the cheapest way. But the problem is in the polluting gases. So I found a way to use these gases to produce biodiesel, fertilisers, vitamin B and hydropower."

In recognition of her project "Rice Straw Power", Nasa named an asteroid belt discovered in 2000 after her.

Image copyright KHALED DESOUKI/AFP
Image caption Yasmeen sought a new way to combat the black cloud

Yasmeen says her project began as an inquiry into low-cost techniques for water purification. Along the way, she found that the main material used in the biological filtration process was rice straw.

"We burn the waste with heat levels reaching 1,200 degrees Celsius, with which we can distillate water," she explains. "The emitted gases are then treated separately."

Yasmeen says all the materials needed, like rice straw and algae from stagnant water, are considered natural waste and are cheap. But one limitation to the project's success is the cost of building a plant where the process can take place.

"I am working now on a design to shrink its size so it could be easily used by farmers," she says.

Image copyright Intel ISEF Egypt
Image caption Yasmeen (third from left, top row) at the Intel ISEF Egypt student science ceremony

Yasmeen is developing her project to sell it to private companies, and she hopes the government will also adopt her idea.

"I am sure there are several new and creative initiatives. If the government works on the execution of one per year, they would save effort and money and would encourage young inventors," she adds.

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

So I Can Breathe

A week of coverage by BBC News looking at ways to cut air pollution.

More on this story

Around the BBC