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Egypt's 'garbage police' look to clamp down on pollution

The Egyptian Ministry of Environment is now using garbage patrols in an effort to prevent citizens from burning rice straw and household waste, yet some question their effectiveness.

CAIRO — In August, the Ministry of Environment declared a state of emergency to deal with a thick layer of air pollution — referred to by locals as the "black cloud" — that forms and hangs over Egypt at the end of every year as a result of farmers’ burning rice straw that accumulates and remains after the harvest. The ministry launched several campaigns to discourage this activity.

On Sept. 17, Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy announced the hiring of garbage guards to monitor the burning of refuse, another source of the black cloud. The garbage guard positions are the latest addition to the Ministry of Environment's efforts, which include imposing fines, to control these sources of air pollution.

Fahmy’s statement was met by a barrage of sarcastic criticism on social media and citizen complaints about the suffocating air and environmental pollution in several regions, including Cairo's Abu Rgeila slums, Minya al-Qamh in Al-Sharqiyah governorate and El Marg in the Cairo governorate, among others. On Sept. 19, the new prime minister, Sherif Ismail, ordered his ministers to find a radical solution to the problem of garbage collection to prevent the waste from being burned.

The garbage crisis moved toward critical mass after the Jan. 25 revolution, with waste piling up due to state neglect. People were left with no other option than to burn their garbage, negatively affecting the environment and contributing to the black cloud. On Aug. 9, the Ministry of Environment pointed out to Egyptians that their garbage burning was raising the atmospheric temperature

On Aug. 23, Fahmy announced the launch of a coordinated effort involving civil protection units to control the open sites where garbage was being burned. The same day, his ministry announced that 70% of the black cloud had dissipated. In Beheira governorate alone, 29 fires were reported extinguished, and 23 fines were issued for burning rice straw. 

Amid the public sarcasm surrounding the creation of the garbage guard positions, Fahmy defended his decision on al-Hayah al-Youm TV Sept. 17, reiterating, “One of the main reasons behind pollution and the black cloud in Cairo is burning garbage. This is why we are trying to control the fires through the sporadic patrols of garbage guards. Their mission is to monitor garbage and address any fires using special equipment.”

Mohammed Farouk, head of the department of residues and toxins at the Ministry of Environment, told Al-Monitor, “The ministry is using satellites to detect the burning of rice straw and garbage. If such an incident is detected, the search patrols take action and prevent the fire from spreading. These patrols have branches in all the governorates.” He further stated, “Each administration has search patrols with experienced and specialized members who know how to deal with garbage fires. They are skilled in using tools and enclosures to contain the fire.

“The search patrols can deal with all sorts of garbage fires, whether they result from municipal waste, which includes household garbage and items discarded by citizens, or medical waste, which is very harmful to the environment. They work 24/7, and they coordinate with the relevant parties, like the environmental police and the Egyptian Meteorological Authority, to deal with garbage fires.” Farouk also explained, “The ministry hires the members of the patrols that protect the environment from burning garbage and rice straw. They should have certain competencies, like experience in the environmental sector, and they should have special training on how to deal with open-air fires.”

Maj. Gen. Hamed al-Akili, head of the environmental police, told Al-Monitor, “The environment law imposes sanctions on open-air fires and punishes those who commit this crime with a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds [$127] minimum and 20,000 Egyptian pounds [$2,554] maximum.” Akili emphasized, “The administration is constantly launching campaigns, in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, through search patrols that work day and night to address any garbage or rice straw fires in order to eliminate the black cloud. These measures were taken last year as well, and the most recent campaign was launched in Gharbia and Zafti governorates.

“The percentage of garbage and rice hay burning violations reported to the administration range between 15 and 20 cases a day,” Akili said. “More than 80% of the cause of the black cloud has been eliminated through the efforts of the search patrols.”

Ahmad Abdel Wahab, who teaches environmental sciences at Banha University, criticized Fahmy's performance in dealing with garbage burning. He told Al-Monitor that the minister’s statements are false and that the garbage guard patrols are mere propaganda. He claims that they have no real effect and have not produced tangible results. Garbage burning persists.

Abdel Wahab commented, “The government is not benefitting from the garbage produced or municipal waste from households like in countries that have adopted recycling. These countries have succeeded in preventing the accumulation of garbage and its incineration. Egypt, however, is behind in recycling, and all its attempts in this regard remain primitive and have not contributed to solving much of the crisis.”

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