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Egyptians must prepare themselves for the “black cloud,” a thick layer of smog that is produced from burning straw, every year after the rice harvest. It spreads across the Nile valley and Cairo and lasts for many weeks. The capital already has toxic air, and environmentalists fault burning waste from the harvest for making the air even worse.
Farmers generate 30 million tons of waste every year, and what they burn contributes to 42 percent of the pollution in the air during the autumn season. Experts challenge the farmers’ definition of waste, however, and state that the rice straw has potential for other uses. Egypt’s economy took a hit after the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, and the country is faced with the challenge of stimulating their failing economy by developing lucrative technologies that are able to convert the waste into fertilizer, pulp for paper, and other useful things, instead of being burned.
“Developed countries don’t even have that term in their dictionary. There is no such thing as waste, anything they produce they use,” said Galal Nawwar, the head of the chemical industries research division of Egypt’s National Research Center. Nawwar is among the environmentalists and Egyptian scientists who contend that farmers are wasting a valuable commodity by burning their rice straw.
They say the rice straw could produce up to 300 Egyptian pounds per ton. However, many farms have not changed their cultivation techniques in decades, or sometimes even in centuries, so they continue to burn about four million tons worth of rice straw every autumn, which emits 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the air.
The impact is the worst in one of the world’s most polluted cities, Cairo, which contains a population of 17 million. Because the city is surrounded by high ground on either side, pollutants become ensnared in a layer that hovers 25 meters off the ground. Farmers are not conscious of the straw’s value. “Burning the rice straw is not good for us either, but I have to burn it anyway, there is no other solution,” said Mohamed Sabah, an Egyptian farmer.
Though the Environmental Ministry has attempted to contain pollution over the past ten years by buying rice straw for 45 pounds a ton from some farms, many farmers still continue to set their waste ablaze. Amr Helal, a board member of the Egyptian Chamber of Industry and Engineering, is trying to create an industry to turn rice straw into useful things.
This project, which is a joint effort made by the National Research Center, the Henri Poincare University, and the German institute of Polymer Technology, has completed its pilot phase. In regards to his firm studying options to create this new industry, Helal stated, “The difficult part is not the money, as we will find funding, but the technology and the know-how.”
He remains confident that it can be done, despite the turmoil in Egypt from Mubarak’s overthrowing. He said, “The most profitable investment is to invest in science.”