CAIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In this fast-growing city of 6.7 million people, roads littered with garbage are a common sight. Cairo’s poor drainage systems produce contaminated pools of stagnant water, and the main thoroughfares are jammed with cars emitting thick, black clouds of diesel exhaust.
The Egyptian capital even has a slum nicknamed Manshiyat Naser (Garbage City), located at its highest point, in the suburb of Moqattam. Here, impoverished residents build their homes atop waste, and recycle rubbish to earn a living.
Even as concern over the environment and climate change mounts at a global level, many Egyptians feel they face more pressing political woes.
For the past two years, they have been preoccupied with the political turmoil sparked by the 2011 overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak and his repressive government.
“We are still trying to figure out our own revolution. People don’t know what laws to follow. How can we believe that picking up…garbage is going to help with our problems?” asks Ahmed Hassan, an accountant who lives in the central Cairo neighborhood of Dokki.
Critics blame decades of neglect by the government for Egypt’s high levels of pollution and environmental degradation, which they fear are contributing to climate change.
Egypt’s geography makes it vulnerable to sea-level rise linked to global warming, with a large part of its population and industry - including tourism - located in the Nile Delta, where land is subsiding.
The North African country is also expected to suffer from water scarcity in the future, as regional demand increases for the waters of the Nile River. Food security could come under threat too, if more extreme temperatures and soil salinity hurt grain yields.
CLIMATE COALITION LAUNCHED
Some young activists have decided it is time to shift attitudes and galvanise action to tackle these serious but little-understood climate risks.
A group of them teamed up to form the Egypt National Climate Change Coalition last November. Like many popular social campaigns that have sprung up in Egypt in the past few years, they have used Facebook as a platform to broadcast their work and events.
Waleed Mahmoud Mansour, a young environmentalist in the climate coalition, says Egypt must overcome three main obstacles to achieving a more environmentally sound future.
First is the problem of semantics. “(There is) no legal stand for sustainable development in our new constitution since the word ‘sustainable’ was replaced by ‘exponential development’,” Mansour explains. This weakens the basis for any future environmental legislation, he says.
Second, the government lacks knowledge and expertise on environmental protection, as well as money to finance it, Mansour says.
Third, there is a wider problem of “societal ignorance” when it comes to climate change and environmental reform. This could be a major barrier to the fledgling coalition’s ambitions, the young activist warns.
For Lama El Hatow, one of the group’s founders, the key to overcoming legal and social barriers is to link up with others tackling the same issues.
“Some of us have been working in the field of climate change for years…but independent of one another and often clueless of what the other is doing,” she says. Climate change affects many sectors including water, agriculture, transport, energy, urban development and biodiversity, she adds.
To help bring civil society groups, businesses and others working in the field together, El Hatow arranged for the coalition to host jointly with the German Embassy the Cairo Climate Talks (CCT), a monthly forum that explores solutions to climate problems.
At each session, an environmental initiative is presented to the CCT panel, ranging from urban recycling to marine preservation. The aim is to build a springboard for national reform.
The coalition eventually plans to start pushing for policy and reform across the Middle East and North Africa, in the hope that the region will strengthen its influence in global climate change discussions.
GOVERNMENT COMMITMENT SHAKY?
Coalition members know they face an uphill climb, as Egypt continues to wrestle with a volatile political transition.
The initial wave of protests in January 2011 did lead to rallying efforts to clean up the streets, among many other reforms. But this early surge of environmental fervour seems to have dwindled.
Soraya El Hag, a 26-year-old studying public policy at the American University in Cairo, says there is a lot of advertising on national TV encouraging Egyptians to be thrifty with energy. But in a country where most people are poorly served by outdated power supply networks, enthusiasm for environmental reforms remains limited, she admits.
Climate change and renewable energy are rarely a top priority for the quarter of Egyptians who live below the poverty line and struggle with unemployment, hunger and a lack of education.
“There are clean-up campaigns…but it is mainly young people who are interested in helping out,” says El Hag, who plans to take part in one such initiative in Sinai in September.
Like many others, she acknowledges there is a long way to go. “In terms of pollution, there are still more laws to be formed and implemented,” she says.
From 2008 to 2012, Egypt did have a national-level strategy on climate change: the Climate Change Risk Management Programme. It targeted issues related to water scarcity, agriculture, coastal zones and energy efficiency.
With a $4 million budget, ministries partnered with U.N. bodies on public awareness campaigns, initiatives to make farming more sustainable and a push to issue carbon market credits, for example.
Egyptian officials have also been working on a formal action plan for climate change mitigation, for submission to the United Nations.
But activists question the level of government commitment to tackling climate change, when policy makers have failed for years to provide basic environmental services such as garbage collection, clean water and regular electricity supplies.
Moving beyond household energy efficiency and neighborhood clean-ups will clearly take time.
But whether or not Egyptians know and care about climate change, it may become harder for them to ignore the impact of rising temperatures. Summers appear to be getting harsher, while Egypt’s winters are turning milder and wetter.
“In the past five years I have noticed [a] difference in climate,” says El Hag. “August is hotter than ever. The winter is now warmer and it rained twice in May last year, which usually doesn't happen in Egypt.”
Anecdotal evidence supports this. In the past year, there was a reported increase in the number of fires caused by cooling units overheating, for example.
The climate coalition hopes to launch a national initiative on which all its members can cooperate. One big idea is to launch a Zero Carbon Egypt campaign, but this is still under discussion.
Whatever the group decides to do, Mansour believes it must focus on raising public awareness of the need for environmental reform.
“The coalition…faces many challenges, particularly because of the societal perception of the notion of climate change. And that is the awareness component we are trying to tackle,” he says.
But founding member El Hatow believes that pressure from civil society groups is already starting to make a difference. “[We are] creating new avenues for change and essentially helping fill the gaps,” she says.
Clarissa Pharr is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.