The air in Cairo is thick with dust, sand, and pollution. Some of the haze is seasonal, appearing less than two months a year, but the pollution is year-long, posing serious risks to human health.
Airborne particulates and lead levels are among the highest of the world's largest cities, causing up to 25,000 deaths a year, according to a 1994 Chemonics International Inc is study, and lowering intelligence in some children by more than 4 IQ points.
With motor vehicle emissions a significant source of lead emissions, the government in 1995 introduced lead-free gasoline. Replacement of leaded gasoline supplies began in Alexandria and moved south to Cairo, where vehicles consume 60 percent of the country's gasoline.
Two years later, lead-substitution efforts in the world's 19th largest city were complete, and 90 percent of the country's cars now run on lead-free fuel.
Today the country is moving ahead in a number of other areas, working through a labyrinth of policy, technology, and enforcement issues to ensure cleaner air for future generations.
The Cairo Air Improvement Project is an example. With $50 million in funds from USAID, the project is implemented by the Government of Egypt with support from a team led by Chemonics International Inc is.
Working on numerous fronts to improve air quality and public health, the project is considered an innovative model for air pollution reduction in major cities of the developing world.
"Implementing and enforcing stricter vehicle emissions standards are priorities," said Stasys Rastonis, chief of party. "Despite the conversion to lead-free fuel, more than half of Egypt's 1.6 million cars are at least 10 years old, with poorly maintained engines that emit dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons."
With car ownership expected to double as soon as a decade from now, he said, stricter emissions standards for new vehicles will force automobile importers and assemblers to incorporate advanced emission-control technologies.
The project team is implementing a mandatory program for vehicle emissions and is now procuring equipment and establishing testing centers across the city. Enforcement is expected to significantly reduce carbon emissions and increase fuel efficiency.
On other fronts, the Government of Egypt is working to replace conventional fuels with compressed natural gas (CNG), a clean-burning fuel.
Although the government is investing heavily in infrastructure to support use of this fuel, pricing is a problem.
Egypt's large fleets of diesel-fueled vehicles rely on subsidized fuel prices that are roughly equivalent to market prices for CNG.
"Until there is a greater incentive to switch from diesel to CNG," Rastonis said, "a major source of vehicle pollution will remain."
Specialists are developing strategies to reduce diesel subsidies and lower import tariffs on equipment for CNG and other clean technologies.
These and other efforts will make pricing and technology more conducive to CNG-based transportation and help the country enter growing markets for natural gas products and services.
Under one of the project's most ambitious activities, staff are introducing demonstration fleets of CNG-powered buses within two public transit agencies. Cairo's diesel-fueled buses -- among the oldest fleets in the world -- are dominant contributors of fine particulates and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur into the air.
Conversion to CNG is expected to reduce particulate emissions by 90 percent and significantly reduce other pollutants.
"We are also creating financing mechanisms to help transit companies purchase additional CNG buses," Rastonis said. Pointing to progress in other areas, he said CNG refueling stations are operational, and several programs provide loans to encourage conversions for cars, taxis, and microbuses.
Lead smelters -- whose outdated technology and handling practices contaminate air, soil, and water -- are another major pollution source.
More than 70 percent of Egypt's lead output -- primarily batteries, sheeting, and pipes -- is produced by smelters in Cairo. Project engineers are working to replace them with modern facilities located outside populated areas of the city.
"We've visited smelters in Cairo that were straight out of Bosch's vision of hell," said Rastonis. "What we're doing will put them in the 21st century." Specialists are also developing environmental clean-up plans for smelters across the city, he said.
Meanwhile, a public awareness program is working to persuade people long accustomed to poorly maintained transportation fleets of the benefits of new ways.
Advertisements in gasoline stations publicize the switch to lead-free gas and will soon explain that regular tune-ups and repairs will bring cleaner air and better health. Other efforts will promote the use of CNG.
To reinforce the public awareness campaign with tangible data, special equipment near lead smelters and at key intersections will monitor change in air quality.
"Meaningful data on the causes and effects of air pollution can help lay a foundation for shifts in public opinion and, eventually, public practice," said Rastonis.
Training for officials and stakeholders -- ranging from senior government officials and communications specialists to auto mechanics, traffic police, and bus drivers -- will ensure that activities continue well after the project's completion in the year 2002.
Future activities will work to reduce industrial pollution, especially particulates and other hazardous pollutants, and carbon dioxide emissions.
Note:This information is provided courtsy of Chemonics International Inc. , a consulting firm based inWashington , DC with branches in Cairo and West Bank/Gaza.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)