Taking a breath of fresh air is often is quite difficult in the bustling Cairene metropolis, specifically in fall when the seasonal black cloud caused by the burning of rice straw starts hovering over the city.
It is so thick that it is possible to spot it from an airplane, where it announces to passengers the proximity to their final destination. To thicken the cloud, Egypt’s 4.2 million vehicles and thousands of factories produce toxic fumes that contribute to the black cloud’s persistence.
During the harvesting months of October and November, the smog can become unbearable at times, even for residents who have become accustomed to the polluted air.
The burning of rice straw is responsible for around six percent of the total air pollution on a yearly basis, but the figure skyrockets to 45 percent during those two months.
Breathing this polluted air is obviously extremely unhealthy for humans, and it seems that it can also severely impact animals. As of last Friday, 80,000 chickens had died of suffocation and further tests conducted on the deceased animals proved the suffocation theory, Mohamed Agour, director of the Institute of Animal Health Research, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
However the governor of Daqahlia, Salah al-Meddawy, said the reasons behind their death remain unknown and tests are still being carried out.
State-owned and independent newspapers have been flooded for the past month with officials’ statements on controlling the burning of rice straw and implementing strict restrictions to prevent the infamous black cloud from thickening.
Last week, Sharqiya Governor Hassan al-Naggar issued a decree banning the burning of rice straw and enforcing an immediate fine of LE2,000 per acre of rice straw burnt.
Egypt already has Law 4/1999, which was amended in 2009, against the burning of rice straw, “But these laws have never been implemented and that's the problem,” explains Osama al-Beheiry, professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Ain Shams University
Afaf Mahmoud, a farm owner in the Senbellawein district in Daqahlia Governorate says the farmers can't afford to pay any fines and they don’t know what to do with the rice straw except burn it.
Decades ago, farmers used to spontaneously recycle rice straw to light the furnace, to bake homemade bread or put on their rooftops to prevent rain from leaking into their homes during the winter.
“But now farmers buy bread from the bakery and use bricks to build their homes like everyone else,” Mahmoud tells Egypt Independent
According to Mahmoud, the solution to this seasonal pollution could lie in the government’s hands. The rice straw could be collected by the government and recycled by its own means, “because fining the farmers won't change anything. They can't afford to either pay the fine or move the rice straw to another location,” she says.
Raafat Lotfy, from the Association for the Protection of the Environment says the government and farmers, must have a dialogue to end the practice of burning the straw without harming farmers’ livelihoods.
Last month, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, a government research agency, said rice production in the country rose by 31.2 percent in 2010-2011, reaching 5.6 million tons, compared with 4.3 million tons in 2009-2010.
This increases the amount of rice straw burnt each year, and thickens the black cloud.
Industry and Foreign Trade Minister Hatem Salah, said in statements last month that the local market consumes 3.5 million tons of rice a year.
Beheiry explains that farmers resort to planting rice because it is more profitable than other crops, as each ton can be sold for LE2,000.
“Rice crops are usually smuggled outside of the country because of the revenues farmers get from it,” he added.
The Ministry announced in September that it would allow over 1 million ton of excess rice to be exported.