The World Health Organization says just breathing the air in Cairo, Egypt, for one day is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes. Air pollution and waste management are major problems, but the city has been making some progress. Recently the city co-hosted an environmental awareness day at a new park, that was built over a former waste landfill. Aya Batrawy has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.
Eight-year-old Seif El Din Hisham drew a picture of the pollution problem in Cairo that was displayed among several other drawings at the World Environment Day held during the weekend in Egypt's capital.
Explaining his drawing, he said there is a car being burned and smoke coming out of the cars driving by. Then he pointed at the buildings he drew and said the stick figure is throwing trash out of the window and that is why the tree and sun have sad faces and a girl on the sidewalk is coughing.
Pollution levels in Cairo are so high that up to 25,000 people die each year from pollution-related diseases.
Many taxis and buses running on the streets of Cairo are old and emit dangerous levels of fumes into the air. On a rare clear night, one can look from the desert and see the large, black cloud of smoke that hangs permanently over the city and its nearly 20 million residents.
In an effort to raise awareness about the problem of pollution and its effects on the environment, local and international organizations celebrated World Environment Day at Al-Azhar park, located in the heart of Old Cairo. Surrounded by slums, this park once stood as a large landfill of waste and harmful debris, but was turned into one of the most beautiful natural sites in Egypt just a few years ago.
One of the many young volunteers at Egypt's environmental day, Sara Refaat, explained the importance of hosting the event at the park.
"It is an example of how you can turn something that was not pretty and was a source of pollution and mismanagement of waste and how it can be turned into something beautiful and environmentally friendly. At the same time it is a fun place and it is very healthy to be here, there are lots of greenery and open air so there is lots of fresh air," Refaat said.
The German Techno Corporation works in Egypt with nearly 60 local companies, encouraging them to find more ways to be environmentally friendly. Employee Mefat Zebut says in most cases firms are encouraged when they see how it is profitable to be environmentally responsible.
"We are not so much stressing about effects on environment, but talking about economic effects it can have as side effects. We also have a little about how to improve environmental issues within the firms and companies, but it is a second step. It is very important to talk about economic benefits; if not, they will not follow," he said.
But he said many people do not see how protecting the environment is each person's responsibility. "I think here the opinion of the common people is more that the environment is not really something that concerns me, it is more the government that has to find the solutions. So I think we have to change a little bit the attitude and bring this idea to the people that they are concerned."
Children from different provinces in Egypt were invited to the park to learn about the environment. One young girl from the poorer town of Beni Sweif shared what she discovered.
She said she learned that cleanliness is part of the Islamic religion and that anything she eats should not be thrown on the ground because it will pollute the area. Plus anyone coming from abroad will see it and then Egyptians look bad, she said.
One of the exhibits showed children and adults how to turn dry rice straw into naturally made and environmentally friendly paper instead of burning it into the atmosphere.
The woman showed curious visitors how to grind the rice debris, leave it in water then use a thin metal drainer to create a piece of paper that will be left to dry.
At another exhibit young scientist Ahmed Agrama, a student at Alexandria University, described his creation of a solar water heating device to use in homes.
He said his system heats water with the sun's natural heat. Ahmed said we are using plastic bottles that are not recycled or naturally biodegradable along with the abundant sun, which people are not benefiting enough from, to heat up water in the homes for free.
It may be difficult to change the habits of older generations about the need to be more environmentally friendly, but children may be the key to turning things around. Volunteers and sponsors say they hope the children visiting Al-Azhar park will be inspired by the greenery and beauty, and will help spread the word about how pollution can harm their city.