Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Egypt: The season of the Black Cloud as rice-growing farmers burn excess rice straw

Smoke rises from the early morning burning of rice straw on a farm in Qalyubia Governorate. The smoke will drift to the city and add to Cairo’s black cloud

The conversion of excess rice straw into fertilizer, rather than simply burning it off could be the solution to a problem that has plagued Cairo residents for the last 10 years: the “black cloud” that decends on the city every October and November.

Hundreds of thousands of rice-growing farmers burn their excess rice straw after harvest to prepare for a new farming season, but the government is making efforts - some say insufficient efforts - to tackle the problem.

“This is how we turn hay [rice straw] into useful fertilizer that farmers can use to enrich their land with natural nutrients,“ Sayed Eissa, a 25-year-old agricultural engineer, told IRIN, as he sprayed mounds of dried hay with a special liquid formula and then mixed the grass thoroughly to ensure it was fully moist.

With the help of an assistant in the small factory in Qalyubia Governorate - in Egypt’s Nile Delta, about 120km north of Cairo - he put the hay in a machine that minced it. It was then taken out and left in the open air to give the bacteria a chance to become active. “This way, we can benefit from the tons of hay that accumulate here without causing any harm to the environment,” he said.

Eissa and others who staff the scores of agricultural waste recycling factories are part of Egyptian government efforts to limit the smoke pollution.

Rice, a staple of the Egyptian diet, is normally grown on some 486,000 hectares of Egypt’s 3.2 million hectares of agricultural land. This year, farmers grew rice on an additional 162,000 hectares of land. Agriculture experts say that 0.404 hectares (one acre) of rice produces two tons of hay, meaning the country accumulated 3.2 million tons of hay this year.

Some of the hay is used as feed for livestock but experts say more than 60 percent is burned before the new planting season.

Respiratory problems

“The black cloud is behind most of the severe respiratory problems affecting thousands of Egyptians every year,” said Ahmed Abdel Wahab, an independent pollution consultant. “This problem is so persistent that no end appears to be in sight.”

“To get rid of the hay, I must burn it,” said Abdel Hamid Said, a farmer from the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqia, about 90km north of Cairo.

Farmers like Said say the mounds of hay that accumulate on their land become home to rats and snakes that eat their crops and can even destroy their harvest. “We also feel afraid that snakes might attack our children,” he added.

But this is not without cost to Egyptians who either live in the capital or around the farms. When rice straw burning occurs, millions of residents must travel in poor visibility on the roads and many use masks to reduce the effect of the smog.

A few kilometres from where Eissa was making rice hay fertilizer, specialists at the Benha General Hospital were counting the numbers of people being admitted with respiratory problems. Officials at the hospital said respiratory diseases increase by 150 percent in October and November because of the black cloud.

“My son fell ill a few days ago because of this massive burning of agricultural waste,” said Hesham Mashhour, a 40-year-old civil servant. “Farmers continue to burn the straw, while the government is silent.”


The Ministry of Environment said it has made progress in curbing the black cloud. “The cloud appeared only 40 hours this year instead of 190 hours last year,” Ahmed Abul Soud, chairman of the Air Quality Unit in the ministry, said. “We’re trying to end it, but it will take some time.”

Sceptics say the smog will never disappear if the government’s focus is only on limiting rice-straw burning and not on tackling other causes of pollution in the city, such as that from vehicles.

According to the UN Environment Programme, in normal times the average Cairo resident ingests more than 20 times the acceptable level of air pollution, and this year the problem is also being exacerbated by the incineration of mounds of rubbish abandoned in the streets - an indirect consequence of the May 2009 pig cull.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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