As lockdown clears the air, Cairo looks to keep pollution low

The minarets of Sultan Hassan Mosque and the Al-Rifa'i Mosque are seen as a traffic jam forms during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt, on January 6, 2019. [Reuters]

 It is a Thursday evening in downtown Cairo, usually a crowded and noisy time as the weekend gets underway. But today the streets are quiet, and the air is noticeably clean.

"It has been a long time since I breathed such fresh air here and saw the sky clean like that," observed Fathi Ibrahim, a 52-year-old resident of downtown Cairo.

Thick pollution - from vehicles, factories and power plants - usually makes breathing a suffocating effort in the heart of the city, he said. But a lockdown to slow the coronavirus pandemic has helped cleared the smog.

"We even started to listen to the sounds of birds early in the morning and the weather is also getting much better," Ibrahim told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since mid-March, Egypt has imposed a night curfew and a partial lockdown as a part of precautionary measures to protect public health in a nation with more than 16,000 cases of the virus and more than 700 deaths.

But the slowdown also has cut air pollution by more than a third in Cairo, a city once ranked as one of the world's 10 dirtiest.

Now Egyptian officials hope to hold onto those improvements by expanding clean transport networks - including using more electric buses - encouraging more cycling and potentially shifting business hours.

"We have already started plans to reduce air pollution in Egypt. But coronavirus is giving us an opportunity to accelerate these plans, expand them and think about other solutions," Egyptian Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.


The minister said that the government is moving forward with plans to expand the Greater Cairo subway network to accommodate 6 million passengers a day by 2025, up from 3.5 million today.

It also plans to give grants to private car owners to help them convert their vehicles to run on natural gas, which creates less pollution, Foad said.

"It is an opportunity to solve a decades-long problem that Cairo has been suffering from," the minister said.

However, she said that cutting economic activity to cut pollution - as has happened during the lockdown - could not be the answer.

"We have to continue production at factories and other industrial institutions while applying high environmental standards. That is the right message we have to deliver," she said.

According to data released by the Ministry of Environment, air quality has improved in Greater Cairo by 36% and in coastal cities and the Nile Delta by more than 40% since the lockdown and curfew went into effect.

Both climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants from cars, factories and machinery have fallen, ministry data showed.

Fouad said the government is now expanding to more areas a bicycle-sharing project that started in Fayoum city, north of Cairo, in February.

The project, backed by the U.N. Development Program, the Global Environment Facility and the Dutch government, so far gives students who commute to university classes access to a stand of a dozen shared bicycles at four locations in the city.

Over the next four years, the city will work towards providing a shared bicycle system accessible to every student in the country to encourage cycling and reduce traffic, Fouad said.


Cairo Traffic Department data indicates that more than three million cars, trucks and buses crowd the streets of Cairo each day.

Bassant Fahmi, an economist and a parliamentarian, said that turning to clean mass transit and encouraging more cycling would not only reduce traffic and air pollution but also boost the economy, which loses billions of dollars each year to traffic congestion and air-pollution-related health problems.

According to the health ministry, about two million Egyptians end up in chest and respiratory clinics each year, often because of air-pollution-related ailments.

About 90% of Egyptians breathe air dirty air, most of them in Greater Cairo and other cities, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Cairo costs the economy up to 50 billion Egyptian pounds, or $8 billion, each year - about 4% of Egypt's Gross Domestic Product, according to a 2012 World Bank study.

"That is a lot of money that can be used instead in developmental projects or even ... on health and education," Fahmi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fahmi suggested that reviving legislation from the 1970s that obliged owners of shops, workshops and commercial centers to close early to limit traffic and pollution could also help preserve air quality gains made during the pandemic lockdown.

"That would reduce a lot of energy used by those shops as well as reduce traffic in night hours, therefore lessening the harmful effect on the environment," she said.