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Cairo is covered daily by a blanket of dust and smog that causes respiratory infections, asthma and thousands of premature deaths each year, but authorities have made large gains in reducing pollution in the past decade.
© Asmaa Waguih / Reuters
Cairo is covered daily by a blanket of dust and smog that causes respiratory infections, asthma and thousands of premature deaths each year, but authorities have made large gains in reducing pollution in the past decade.

Egypt tackles population's passion for old cars

Egypt has introduced a raft of measures to reduce the pollution that plagues Cairo, but persuading the city's drivers to dump their beloved ancient motors will be no easy task.

CAIRO // "Shek Shek", a beloved 37-year-old Volkswagen Beetle, is older than its driver but still chugs down city streets every day, joining hundreds of thousands of ageing cars that are holding back government efforts to clean up the Egyptian capital's notoriously polluted skies.

The car's owner, Mahmoud Nasr, 29, laughed off new government plans to crack down on older vehicles such as his own that lack modern pollution-control technology and make up a third of the country's fleet of private cars.

"I'm still at the beginning of my career and I cannot afford to buy a new car," said Mr Nasr, who works in the advertising industry and said his name for the car - Shek Shek - reflected his love for it. "No one can prevent old cars from running in this country; everyone has the right to drive the car he likes."

Cairo, covered daily by a blanket of dust and smog that causes respiratory infections, asthma and thousands of premature deaths each year, has made large gains in reducing pollution in the past decade. The average air concentration of particulates, tiny grains of pollution and dirt, declined 36 per cent between 1999 and 2009, according to this year's official report by the Environmental Affairs Agency (EAA).

The harvest season of the past few months, which usually witnesses the year's worst air pollution as farmers near Cairo burn agricultural waste, saw 78 per cent fewer days in which the particulate level exceeded government standards, said Ahmed Abu Seoud, the agency's top air quality official.

The improved indicators are the result of a raft of government programmes that offered financial incentives to owners of large sources of pollution, such as cement factories, buses, taxi fleets and sprawling farms, to upgrade their technology, Mr Abu Seoud said.

Now comes the more difficult second stage: a more grassroots effort to convince individual owners of old cars to either swap out their vehicle for a newer model or switch to public transportation. The 2.1 million registered private vehicles in this car-dependent city, plus taxis and buses, are the source of over half of major pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

"The law doesn't prohibit people from having these old cars, you have to change the law, that's the problem," Mr Abu Seoud said. "Most of the new development now, either with industry or with traffic, is with modern technologies. The problem now is not in the new, it's in the old facilities."

About 11 per cent of Egypt's cars were older than 35 years, while 32 per cent were older than 25 years, Mr Abu Seoud said.

According to this year's EAA report, only seven per cent of a sample of vehicles built before 1980 passed an emissions test.

The government plans to implement more such tests and link them to a car owner's ability to renew the vehicle licence, Mr Abu Seoud said. Separate programmes will continue to create incentives for car and taxi owners to reconfigure their engines to burn cleaner natural gas instead of petrol, he added.

"We are working hard on the taxis, and we are working hard to improve the public transport, the metro lines, all this, and then we can ... ask the people not to use their private cars," he said.

But critics said that with different priorities, the government could achieve faster reductions in air pollution.

Government policy should dedicate more resources towards improving public transport service and less on efforts to modernise the country's fleet of cars, said Yasser Sherif, a former EAA official, who is now the general manager of Environics, an environmental consultancy.

Cairo has an extensive bus system, but routes remain under-serviced and slowed by chronic traffic on the city's streets. The metro system is widely used but comprises only two lines, with a third slated for a first stage of completion in two years.

"It's hard to believe that with 20 million people, [Cairo's] transport system could rely on small cars," Mr Sherif said. "The balance, as the numbers show, has been positive, but it could have been much greater."

After decades of relying on private cars, Cairenes have to be coached back into buses and metro cars, he said, to "overcome a cultural barrier".

Efforts to reduce pollution were also limited by Cairo's dry, dusty climate, he said.

"There's a limit to improving air quality in Cairo," he said. "We're starting from a disadvantage."


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