Course:GEOG352/2019/Air Pollution in Cairo

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Cairo, Egypt

As the global South continues to develop and urbanize, pollution will become an increasingly escalating issue if not addressed properly. Rapid growth can lead to poor city planning practices in the global South which can exacerbate other problems within the urban realm. The massive growth of cities and neoliberalism in the global South gives them the potential to experiment with different kinds of mitigation strategies in these urban areas to create a more sustainable future.[1] Before implementing mitigation strategies, there is a need to understand the implications and consequences behind air pollution in order to provide solutions. Air pollution is an issue that affects everyone at a global scale, not just at localized sites. What happens in one area of the globe has the potential to translate to environmental issues on the other side of the world.

According to the World Bank, Cairo is the largest megacity in the Arab World and one of the largest cities in Africa and the global South with over 19.5 million inhabitants, and suffers from extremely high air pollution relative to other cities of similar size.[2][3] Its importance in the Arab World as a trading and cultural centre has led to its growth over the centuries into a sprawling metropolis. However, the city’s growth and size has led to wide scale problems, most notably air pollution. The air pollution in Cairo is due to unchecked expansion of heavy industry, extraordinarily high levels of traffic emissions, and supplementary smoke as a result of unsanctioned agricultural and trash burning, as well as an exceptionally high rate of cigarette usage and smoke byproducts.[2] This wiki will tackle the issues of air pollution and the contributing factors while providing solutions to reducing air pollution.


Traffic Jam in Cairo

Ecological urbanism, according to Miguel Ruano, is to use ecology to inspire an urbanism that is more socially inclusive and sensitive to the environment.[4] It remains a relevant aspect of urban life as without an urban environment that is planned to be both socially inclusive and sensitive to the environment, problems can arise within cities which in turn contribute to more problems, creating a feedback loop. Urban areas become sites that amplify existing issues such as air pollution, and other developmental challenges that can be mitigated through understanding and developing the city through ecological urbanism. The unprecedented rate of rural to urban migration in the global South and East introduces the challenge of emerging megacities, cities with over 10 million inhabitants, such as Cairo. As urban areas already amplify existing issues within a city, people living in megacities are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution and the health risks associated with it.[5][6]

Air pollution is the introduction of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects into the air. Substances can include particulate matter of both fine (PM 2.5) and coarse (PM 10) sizes, lead (Pb), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and ozone (O3), all of which are of very high concentrations in Cairo.[7][8] PM and Pb levels in Cairo exceed the recommended U.S. standard of 0.15 µg/m3, with levels exceeding 26 µg/m3, 200 times more than the standard.[8] Air pollution has a compounding negative effect on the health of a city’s residents, and the increasing levels of heavy emissions contribute significantly to global warming and climate change. In Cairo, many residents (specifically the young, elderly, infants, and those working outdoors) are susceptible to further health risks such as lead contamination. The importance of air pollution is that with the rapid urbanization of the global South, cities become densified very quickly, and this densification reveals the issues surrounding quality of life and sustainability.[9] While the scope of this issue is specific to Cairo due to certain factors such as geographic characteristics, air pollution itself is a global phenomenon that all urban areas face. The global South and East is set to account for 90% of the overall increase in urbanization rates while the global north is leveling out, making the global South and East a hotspot for developmental challenges that are associated with improperly planned rapid urbanization.[10]

Cairo currently faces an increasing amount of air pollution as the city continues to expand both in population and size. The combination of local factors including unchecked traffic congestion, heavily-polluting official and unofficial industrial sectors as well as local smoke, geographical location, poor dispersion and a warm dry climate, makes the problem here a unique challenge. The rate of development in Cairo combined with the mismanagement of urban planning contributes heavily to increased air pollution within the city. As air pollution rises, the health of the citizens of Cairo will become increasingly more affected. The lower the air quality, the higher the chances become of people getting air pollution-related illnesses. It is important to address the issues of air pollution now as the amount of outdoor air pollution-related deaths in Cairo is 66,300 in and the world mortality rate outdoor air pollution is expected to rise to around 6-9 million in 2060, up from 4.3 million currently.[11] Air pollution does not only affect the environment and public health but also translates into the socioeconomic development of cities where the estimated cost in tackling global air pollution is projected to be 176 billion dollars.[2][12]

Case Study of Cairo

Statistics on air pollution in Cairo

Cairo is one of the world’s largest megacities, and is one of the largest in Africa and the Middle East. Its rapidly growing population has also resulted in massive growth in the city’s formal and informal industrial sectors, and accordingly, transportation needs have surged. Greater Cairo has the largest number of vehicles in the country, with nearly 4.5 million automobiles on the road. The vast majority of these vehicles run on old diesel engines that lack catalytic converters, resulting in massive generation of vehicular carbon emissions.[2] Continued years of neglect and poor investment in infrastructure and public transport has resulted in a car-centric community, with the city’s severely under capacity metro system unable to adequately meet passenger demand.


Increasing levels of air pollution have had a continuing negative impact on the health of the citizens of the Greater Cairo Area, with effects felt more severely by the vulnerable members of the population such as infants, the elderly, as well as those working in outdoor occupations such as traffic police officers. The high levels of lead particulate matter in the air makes its way into the bloodstreams of people who are subjected to the poor air quality. In a study undertaken by researchers from the Cairo Ain Shams University, it was observed that the blood lead levels of Cairo traffic police officers was noticeably higher than those of the non-exposed urban population.[13]

Vehicular Emissions

High levels of unregulated vehicular emissions have continued to combine with similarly dangerous levels of industrial air pollution. With an ever increasing population, infrastructure and transportation options have not managed to keep up with the demands of commuters. As the number of vehicles increased, this has not been matched by a corresponding increase in the level of pollution control measures being utilized by the city. Currently, over 4.5 million vehicles fill the streets of Cairo, many of which are older trucks and large passenger vehicles that lack emission regulating equipment such as catalytic converters.[2][14] The lack of modern technologies that could curb the rate of carbon emission and pollutants that are being pumped into the air has resulted in a continually worsening health crisis for the citizens of Cairo.

Cairo also has a large number of older, privately owned minivans and minibuses roaming the streets transporting passengers to and from the outskirts. Research conducted by members of Cairo University’s Faculty of Urban and Regional Planning has indicated that nearly 70% of all vehicles in Egypt were greater than 15 years old, with over 64,000 minibuses exceeding 20 years of age.[15] These vehicles are part of the informal urban transportation sector, but are not regulated and contribute to the existing issue of high auto emissions that worsen Cairo’s air quality. This creates a positive feedback loop in which these vans will continue to roam the streets without regulation on their emissions, but while also being vital to bring workers in and out of the city. A potential way to mitigate this is to extend the Cairo Metro to the outskirts, or expand the city operated and regulated bus system, but this will take time, money, and resources to develop.

Agricultural field burning in the Nile Valley near the Greater Cairo Area

Industrial and Agricultural Pollution

In addition to formal industry, Cairo is home to many small scale unregulated smelters and manufacturers. These unregulated copper and metal smelters, among other unofficial industries, have contributed to the air pollution throughout the city. The city also has a large informal labour market of small scale, back alley manufacturing industries which contribute significantly to the poor air quality of Cairo. Officially, according to the Egypt Ministry of Environment, it is estimated that half of the factories in the country’s industrial cities are air polluting.[16] The informal sector contributes a great deal to pollution in ways that the government has difficulty tracking and regulating.  

At the end of every harvest season, farms on the Nile River in the Greater Cairo Area will burn rice husks other types of agricultural waste and trash.[17] Burning is also one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get rid of agricultural waste, grasses, and rice husks, which for Egyptian farmers is cost efficient and likely one of the few affordable ways available. This in turn creates a positive feedback loop as this means there is more agricultural waste that will be burnt as food production increases, so the waste generated therefore also increases, which adds to the air pollution. One way to mitigate this is to convert agricultural waste into fuel or bioproducts, but this is very expensive for most countries in the global South such as Egypt, and it has been only proven successful in countries like Canada.[18]

World Cigarette Consumption Per Person Per Year

Supplementary Smoke

The smoke and smog in Greater Cairo is further compounded from by-products of informal labour markets such as private trash burning, which, like agricultural burning, is a cheap and easy way to dispose of waste. In addition, an extremely high amount of second-hand smoke is present due to the high prevalence of cigarette and cigar smoking throughout the region. Many residents, such as the elderly, youth, infants, and outdoor workers like traffic officers are susceptible to elevated health risks due to their vulnerability to the highly polluted air conditions, as well as close proximity to sources of second hand smoke.[13]

'The Black Cloud of Cairo'

Every Autumn, primarily around September and October, an intense smog appears over the city of Cairo. This phenomenon is a human-caused ‘cloud’, colloquially known as the Black Cloud, and is a combination of emissions from the millions of motor vehicles within the city, the thousands of formal and informal factories, and the farmers from outside the city burning rice husks and agricultural waste at the end of the cultivation season. [17]

The geographic location of Cairo leaves the city and surrounding areas at a disadvantage for mitigating the growing air problems and the ‘Black Cloud’. The combination of a dry climate, lack of precipitation makes it hard for rain to cleanse the cloud due to the fact that Cairo farther down the Nile inland compared to the wetter Nile Delta and Mediterranean. The city’s position in a valley surrounded by hills makes the cloud hard to dissipate[19] as the valley acts as a bowl which holds the smog in. The Black Cloud can create unbearable conditions for people in Cairo to breathe; there have been records of increased levels of health issues whenever the Black Cloud appears and stays for an extended time. Hospitals in the city have recorded increased levels of lung disease and asthma attacks, and even longer term illnesses such as cancer.[20]

Effects and Consequences

In line with the Egyptian Parliament’s Energy and Environment Committee's goal of eliminating gas fuelled cars by 2040,[21] the city of Cairo and the government of Egypt have been working on legislation that would allow for greater usage of electric vehicles throughout the country and in its cities. This is in line with the targets of other countries such as the United Kingdom, which is aiming to only have electric cars on its roads by 2040, although the transition process for any country will be expensive and lengthy.

As a vital step towards reducing its emission rates and cutting levels of air pollution in its metro region, Cairo should invest in alternative forms of transportation, such as electric cars and buses. Currently, Greater Cairo has approximately 4.5 million vehicles on its roads. Given the high number of older motor vehicles emitting high levels of carbon emissions, a switch to electric cars would significantly decrease pollutants. An important first step that has been taken is to allow the import of used electric cars into the country to encourage their usage, as current policies nationwide do not generally permit for the import of any kind of used cars. Currently, there are several companies expressing interest to invest in Egypt's car industry as the Parliament’s Energy and Environment Committee discusses the spread of electric cars throughout Egypt.[21]

Lessons Learned

Among the plethora of reasons that contribute to pollution in Cairo, the main catalysts would be the lack of regulation for vehicle emissions, unregulated agricultural and manufacturing industries, and supplementary smoke from other sources such as the informal market and the ‘black cloud of Cairo’. Although the population of Cairo has been growing, pollution control measures for vehicles, smelters, and manufacturers have not been keeping pace. Burning of agricultural waste on the Nile River contributes heavily to air pollution as well..

To combat the air pollution in Cairo which has caused dangerous health problems, we suggest several courses of actions to mitigate pollution. In regards to stricter urban governance, there needs to be tighter pollution control measures and policies for vehicles and industries which currently emit unregulated pollutants. Cairo would also benefit significantly if they were to develop and utilize alternative forms of transportation such as electric cars and environmentally friendly buses and trains. An important step in this direction would be cooperating with the several companies that already express interest in investing in Egypt’s alternative auto industry. The huge amounts of agricultural waste being burned can also be re purposed for more productive uses such as biofuels.

Through this case study, we identified pollution problems that also appear prominently in other global South cities. As Cairo is one of the burgeoning megacities of the global South, the lessons learned in this case study could also be adapted and applied to many other southern cities as well. Pollution is a very real threat to the health of cities, whether it be their inhabitants or their environment. In considering harmony and balance between the environment and inhabitants, Cairo as a city has not yet widely implemented the ideals of ecological urbanism through their urban planning, which has led to an environment where air pollution is not controlled. In turn, this has caused widespread health issues within the city and beyond, and has had negative effects on the regional economy. With any future attempts to address air pollution in Cairo and the global South, there needs to be greater attention to ecological urbanism in developing a robust city plan that brings together the relationship of the environment and its inhabitants.


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