“If the Nile is Cairo’s ailing heart, then polluted skies are its black lungs,” read a new report published by the United Nations Environment Programme. The report says that dust covers the towering apartment blocks with smog and places the Great Pyramids in an impenetrable haze.
The report, published on Tuesday, pointed out that rates of respiratory disease have increased, adding to the burden on the state’s already-ailing hospitals. Citing the World Bank, the report mentions that the phenomenon is taking a toll on the Egyptian economy, with poor air quality knocking off at least 1% of gross domestic product every year.
“There is some hope that Egypt’s mega metropolis might be getting to grips with its bad breath. Public transport projects are progressing at their fastest pace in almost a decade, while authorities appear to be slowly reining in illegal agricultural waste fires,” read the report.
The black cloud, resulting from the annual burning of rice straw in the Nile Delta, was less noxious this year than in the past, according to the report.
Cairo is not the worst, at least. Only 12% of urban areas meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality standards. Yet at least one in nine deaths can be traced back to air pollution, or roughly seven million people a year, according to the report. It is also experiencing rapid urbanisation, weak enforcement of environmental regulations, and providing cheaper fuels that leave hundreds of millions of poorer urbanites vulnerable to bad air.
“There is increasing awareness, and more knowledge on the issue of air quality on a global scale, despite the lack of data in some regions. We also know a lot more about solutions now,” says Soraya Smaoun, a senior air quality specialist at UN Environment. “But I think a lot more pressure is needed to keep the momentum on.”
The report alerts that almost all of Cairo’s trees, its most effective dust sponges, have disappeared under concrete, as has much of the surrounding agricultural land. Up to 30,000 acres of greenery is lost to urban sprawl across the country every year, so there’s even less of a barrier when regular blobs of sand and occasional storms blow in off the nearby desert areas.
Despite the increasing numbers of vehicles in Egypt—from seven to eight million between 2013 and 2014 alone—neither Cairo’s roads nor its vehicle inspection standards have kept pace. School holidays, however, are a good chance for better air quality when there are fewer trips on the streets.
“There are some low-hanging fruits. It’s not necessary to always use sophisticated technologies to monitor air quality and have complicated policies if they are not enforced,” says Smaoun. “There are local solutions to monitor and manage air involving a wide range of stakeholders in sectors such as clean and sustainable transportation, waste management, [and] cleaner industries to name a few. This is something that cities like Cairo can work on.”