This investigation was published in cooperation between “Afaq” magazine and ARIJ Network (Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism)
It is a hazy and cloudy morning, and the smell of smoke fills the air as it reaches sixty-two-year-old Ijlal Ibrahim* in Imbaba, in the Giza governorate. The smoke infiltrated her house from the fire that was started in a garbage landfill in the empty land adjacent to her house. As a result, Ijlal had a bout of severe coughing and suffocation.
What made that morning harder for Ijlal was the fact that more than half of her domestic birds perished from smoke inhalation, when she rushed to check on them, the rest were struggling to survive right before her eyes.
Ijlal failed to rescue the birds that are her only source of income. With the birds that have perished, Ijlal has lost 70 percent of the capital left for her after the death of her husband which she used to trade in domestic birds.
Wastelands are empty plots that people use to dispose of waste in Egypt, and Ijlal’s birds were not the only victims of wasteland fires. There has been an increase in the number of these fires in most Egyptian governorates between 2011 and 2020, due to the increase in solid waste, which is not transported or disposed of properly for lack of enough garbage collection trucks, or enough fire engines that would be ready to intervene. This causes damage not only to the health of inhabitants living close to those garbage dump sites, but also creates a health hazard for all living creatures, and increases environmental pollution.
The annual report on fire incidents registered in Egypt issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics lists a total of 40,894 fires in 2011. More than half of these started in landfills and wastelands. In 2020, the total number of fires reached 51,779 in general. Of these, 25,355 fires were caused by burning garbage.
The analysis of the data on landfills and wastelands where the fires started reveals that the Cairo governorate occupies the first place in landfill and wasteland fires, with a total of 34,836 fires between 2011 and 2020, at a rate of 16.9 percent of the total number of wasteland fires in the governorates in that period. This is followed by the Giza governorate with a rate of 8.2 percent, that is 17,007 fire incidents. The Menofia governorate came in third place with a rate of 7.5 percent or 15,320 fire incidents in the same period.
The number of garbage and waste fires in wastelands
The Egyptian Ministry of Environment has elected to publish data regularly to highlight its plans and efforts to reduce environmental pollution resulting from fires. These efforts, however, did not bear fruit, and the pollution levels have not been controlled.
In a report on the state of the environment published at the end of 2020, the ministry announced its endorsement of the first integrated legislation or law, aimed to regulate waste management, and the setting up of the country’s first national program for solid waste management too.
The Ministry of Environment also announced the adoption of a national strategy for the integrated management of waste through the application of the best techniques and environmental practices, including efforts to raise awareness and building capacities in the field of waste management across the country. The strategy’s objective was to increase the total waste collection and transportation operations to gather 88 percent of total waste, and to boost recycling rates to reach 60 percent of the total waste collected.
The Egyptian ministry also announced its determination to raise levels of energy production from waste to 20 percent of the total volume of garbage collected, and for landfills not to receive more than 20 percent of the total garbage collected by 2025.
The 2014 annual report of the Ministry of Environment stated that the rates of garbage treatment and recycling operations in Egypt reached 9.5 percent of the total municipal solid waste.
The waste crisis has remained unresolved though, despite all these plans and hopes, and starting fires to burn waste remained the go to option always.
Ijlal says, “Fires are frequent, especially in the summer because of the heat. A fire breaks out in the landfill nearby once every four days, either because of the heat or by those in charge of the landfill, who want to get rid of the garbage sometimes.” She explains that the landfill near her home serves more than 35 main streets besides her street, and she adds, “there are other landfills and lots of wastelands in the area where I live.”
As the fires are lit repeatedly near her home, doctors have diagnosed her with chronic chest allergy, due to severe and repeated suffocation incidents, which has impacted her life negatively.
Locals control garbage sites
According to the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the estimated population of the country has reached around 100 million and 617 thousand people in mid-2020, which is an increase of around 20 million inhabitants since 2011. With the increase in the population size in the governorates of Egypt, many residents are forced to dispose of their waste in landfills and wastelands close to their homes. This opened the way for a new type of unofficial business carried out by individuals who control those landfills and charge a fee for allowing citizens to dump their waste in their plots.
Forty-nine-year-old Abdullah Mansour* is an employee in a private sector company, and has been living in a poor neighbourhood in the Warraq area of Giza governorate for three years. He has been paying a monthly fee to one of the neighbouring families that controls a waste landfill on the same street where he lives.
This family prevent anyone from dumping their rubbish there unless they paid ten Egyptian pounds ($0.32) per rubbish bag.
Abdullah says that he now pays fifty Egyptian pounds ($1,60) a month to dump his waste in the landfill, since he has never seen any garbage trucks in his neighbourhood. Therefore, he dumps the waste into the landfill at night and wakes up in the morning to the smell of smoke resulting from burning it. He and all his neighbours got used to this.
He adds, that there are no cleaners or garbage collectors who serve the neighbourhood, and the only way for the residents to dispose of their waste, is through paying a fee to those who control of the landfill.
Data issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics announced an increase in the number of firefighting stations and garbage collecting trucks between 2011 and 2020. But these figures are misleading, since the increase is insufficient and is not commensurate with the size of the fires or with the aforementioned increase in the size of the population.
At the end of 2011, there were 920 fire extinguishing stations, and the number has increased to 968 stations at the end of 2020. In other words, only 48 extra firefighting stations were added over ten years, compared to an estimated population increase of 20 million people during the same period, with an extra 10,885 fire incidents recorded between 2011 and 2020.
At the end of 2011, the total number of refuse collection trucks was 3,918 vehicles, in 2020, their number grew to reach 4,361 vehicles, that is, an increase of 443 trucks only.
There were huge discrepancies in the distribution of these vehicles over the different governorates; for example, the Menofia governorate occupied the third place in the republic in the number of landfill and wasteland fires. However, the number of waste collecting trucks decreased there significantly, from 1,303 vehicles in 2011, to only 244 vehicles in 2020. This explains the rise in the volume of garbage within the governorate, and the consequent rise in the number of fires as well.
Thirty-five-year-old Nour has been looking for a new home where she could live with her grandmother who has been suffering from chronic fourth-degree hypersensitivity pneumonitis since the end of 2021. Nour's father and grandfather died of the same disease which runs in the family. This is an autoimmune disease that requires avoiding dust and fumes as much as possible, but this is near impossible in Egypt. Nour and her grandmother pay 90 Egyptian pounds ($3) in rent per month, which is based on an old scale rental law. The house is located in the Shubra Al-Khaima area of the Qalyubia governorate, and a large rubbish landfill stands next to their home where fires are started once or twice a week.
Nour works in a doctor's clinic near her home, and earns a monthly salary of 2,800 Egyptian pounds. She says that this is not enough to provide her and her grandmother with the basic life necessities, including food, clothing, rent and treatment. Her grandmother's illness forced her to search for another residence and to work in a store instead in a downtown area.
The place Nour rented instead of her old home, is based on newer rental laws, but the frequency of fires around the new place has quickly increased, as did her rental cost, which complicated matters for Nour and her Grandmother.
Waste fires damage the electric power grid
Shubra Al-Khaima neighbourhood is part of Qalyubia governorate administratively, but sits in Greater Cairo geographically, has witnessed an increase in landfills fires. This has been confirmed by news archives published on fire incidents between 2011 and 2020, and by the people living in the area as well.
In September 2021, one such fire happened in a waste landfill in the Shubra Al-Khaima area, when a large mound of waste was lit up next to a “major electricity grid transformer” distribution point. Mohammad Sharaf, a resident in the area who witnessed the incident that was carried by local news services, said that it was between Canal Ismailia Street next to the Starch and Glucose Company in Shubra Al-Khaima, where another two electrical distribution posts in the vicinity caught fire too. Sharaf adds that the fire was so huge it engulfed the area that includes a number of factories and companies. Later the power was cut off from the residential and industrial areas in efforts to preserve lives and public and private property from imminent dangers, but black clouds of smoke still enveloped the homes.
The National Network for Monitoring Ambient Air Pollutants of the Environmental Affairs Agency in Egypt, collects and analyses data and information on air quality and provides a clear picture about the quality of the air in the selected places. It also evaluates pollution rates and compares them with the local and international permissible limits.
The network is the main entity tasked with preparing environmental indicators of air quality and provides the basis for examining the extent of change over previous years. It provides a general idea about air pollution rates in the monitored areas and follows up on these rates over time. It can also compare pollution rates in different places, evaluate and compare them with the locally and internationally permitted limits. Currently, there are 120 such monitoring stations in Egypt.
There are 20 stations in industrial areas; 63 in residential areas; 11 in traffic arteries; 2 in reference areas; and 22 stations in areas with overlapping activities. There are also two mobile units for monitoring air pollution.
The monitoring figures collected at the end of 2020, found that the open burning of waste causes a series of changes in the society and the environment. Solid particles under 10 and 2.5 micrometres are emitted with a rate of 17 percent and 14 percent respectively. In the autumn, this rises to about 39 and 42 percent, respectively.
The waste sector caused approximately 8.1 percent of sectoral emissions of greenhouse gases in 2015, besides emitting other very toxic and dangerous gases that are inhalable and can penetrate the human respiratory system.
Indicators between 2011 to 2020 exceeded their annual average in the Egyptian governorates, in general, and in Greater Cairo and the Delta region, in particular, as the percentage of solid particles that are less than 10 micrometres reached 118 micrograms per cubic metre in 2020.
At the same time, the standards as set by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment allowed a fixed limit of 70 micrograms per cubic meter, and 73 micrograms for particles less than 2.5 micrometres although the legal limit is 50 micrograms only.
Unsafe disposal of waste
A former advisor to the Minister of Environment, Dr Saleh Azab says, “Incinerating waste is the worst type of waste disposal and is more dangerous than leaving it unburned. The waste in landfills is known as “solid waste,” and it includes waste that comes out of homes, factories, crops, and other types of waste that are not liquid or gas. There are scientific methods for the disposal of solid waste because it often contains radioactive materials in the case of medical or hospital waste, or due to unstable atoms that emit radiation continuously, which is very dangerous.”
Azab explains, “The scientifically correct method for disposing of solid waste is to recycle it by separating its components and treating it as recyclable waste. This should never be burned because it emits fumes, which is more dangerous than letting the waste accumulate without burning it, since it impacts people’s health. Emissions could include carbon dioxides, sulphur dioxides, carbon monoxide and methane, which are all extremely dangerous gases.”
A disaster in villages and towns
Doctor Al-Hussein Hassan, an expert in urban and local development, says, “Burning waste in landfills located in residential areas is a major crisis that is spreading in villages and rural areas in all the governorates of Egypt. Almost all 4,742 villages in Egypt depend on incinerating waste as a primary means of disposing of all kinds of garbage. This is especially the case in villages that have not been developed and where fires abound.”
He adds, “Although there are many initiatives and projects to recycle garbage and solve the crisis of burning waste, unfortunately, none of them have been well implemented on the ground.”
The role of private companies
The official spokesperson for the Ministry of Local Development Doctor Khalid Qassim says, “Since 2019, the ministry has been implementing a new strategy by cooperating with private companies that play a major role in the recycling process. Twelve contracts have been awarded to several companies specialized in household rubbish collection, streets cleanliness, waste treatment, and recycling in the governorates.”
Violations of the constitution and the law
The Egyptian constitution and laws have emphasised the importance of preserving the environment and protecting it. Articles (45) and (46) of the constitution provide for political and social commitment to protecting the environment. Egypt was also among 171 other countries that signed the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2016, the Paris Accord, commits countries to reducing heat emissions and the need to develop plans, policies and programs to confront the threat of climate change. Despite all these laws and efforts, the number of fires in landfills and wastelands continues to rise across Egypt.