Sunday, December 20, 2009

Pollution in the Gardens of Papyrus

Back in Cairo again dealing with the dust in the air and on every surface; time to think about the amazing degree of air, water and noise pollution in this city, which has to be seen to be believed. Literally it is mind-boggling.

The message is brought home to me in the back streets as I sit in a taxi trapped in smoke-choked air behind a refuse truck for ten to fifteen minutes. Through the haze we watch collectors struggling, trying to clean garbage from back alleys. The task is Herculean with dumpsters small and large full to overflowing. Some line the narrow lanes where the truck cannot go, some have been overturned into the gutters and there is obviously more to come. Lacking the intervention of Hercules, local residents are left with the only thing remaining, hope.
This generates in me a feeling that one must be optimistic and I sympathize with those who have to cope. Despite the fact that the problem seems enormous, the message should come through that it can be done, cleaning up an old city is possible and the payoff is worth it, even if one only looks at the tourist potential.

Models exist now in many parts of the world of city rejuvenation. For example, who ever thought that the Glasgow of the 1980’s would win a prize, but it has. Improvements in the physical environment, quality of life, economic investment and numbers of jobs in that city now brings millions of tourists there. Turning around the local environment in Cairo starts with small changes not obvious on a day-to-day basis.

In this way I note things are starting already. Years ago I dreaded trips to Cairo because the air pollution and the winter-time inversion layer in the city were so strong that it brought tears to my eyes. But this past week I was surprised to find the air is nothing like what it used to be. Although air pollution is still here it’s obvious that something has changed. The first sign is that noted by the cab driver, who points out to me that the old black taxis, clunkers in the real sense, are being replaced by new, more efficient white taxis. He tells me also about improvements in cooking fuels and the use of natural gas, all of which have had an effect. Even though there are more cars, buildings and people, my eyes are less red and breathing is easier.

Still there is a long way to go. To get relief from the daily grime I see Egyptians flocking to open areas. Parks and gardens here are well used. One such is in the middle of the city, the Pharaonic Village on the banks of the Nile. This was supposed be Egypt’s answer to Williamsburg. The plan was to transport tourists through a series of papyrus-lined canals on the banks of which would be models and scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt. The Village now employs over 300 people and shuttles local and foreign tourists through a funky set of displays. They serve as a quick overview of all of Egyptian history, but the scope is too much, to get through 11 mini-museums that cover every aspect of history in Egypt from modern times to Tutankhamen, all in one day, or less, is not possible.

By all accounts it provides locals with a day’s outing along the banks of the river and Jacob Island on the Nile and in many ways resembles the Victorian concept of providing history in a nutshell. In those days one full day in London’s Egyptian Hall or Covent Garden would last you a lifetime. There is also a smattering of village industry and handicrafts, a restaurant and a large gift shop.

One of the major attractions of the Village was supposed to be the papyrus plants started from cuttings that would generate the feeling of being back in old Egypt traveling through the papyrus swamps that were so common in those days. But this has not happened. Despite the drawing of papyrus on the cover page of the map and brochure handed out to visitors, papyrus has not done well along the banks of the canals.

The very dilute, sweet water of ancient times that was common to the Nile until the early 1800’s, when one could still dip a glass from the River and drink it straight, are gone. The Nile now contains concentrated water that borders on being salty. Evaporation, a restriction of flow by the Aswan High Dam, agricultural, urban and sewage drainage have all had the effect of making it worse. The River is now polluted to the point that it is more like estuarine water with higher chloride and so favors the aggressive aquatic grass Phragmites, a tall, slim reed with plume-like flowering head that loves this kind of water. But Phragmites though picturesque in its own way is not the same as papyrus.

This leaves developers of the Village stuck with a problem, how to encourage the growth of papyrus? While they work out a solution, I suggested to them that they set up an ecological garden in which they purposely fed sewage into a small papyrus swamp. The goal would be to show visitors how papyrus could perhaps be encouraged by higher nutrients from sewage, which might allow it to outgrow the chloride effect. If it does thrive, grow bigger, faster or becomes more robust, it will attract bird life and demonstrate the value of pollution filtration by wetlands as well as recreate the ancient habitat.

This would be a small effort, almost nothing in the face of the larger pollution problems here, but it would at least be more in keeping with the new interest in ecology by modern travelers. It would also provide a model to the public and the government as to how small sustainable efforts can be of value, the kind of effort that can be scaled up if it works. At the least it will show people what can be done by thinking globally and acting locally.

My next posts will be catch-up as I head back to snow-bound country in time for Christmas in the USA, brrrrrr.

No comments:

Post a Comment