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Egypt Makes Strides Towards Improving Environmental Ecosystem

Despite poverty, overpopulation and a lack of education about environmental issues, Egypt is making some small strides towards improving its environmental ecosystem.

Earth day is being celebrated in Egypt by environmentalists Thursday amid attempts to raise public awareness about the consequences of pollution and damage to the country's fragile ecosystem with a growing population now estimated at 80 million people.

The daunting task of improving the quality of life for those people amid challenging circumstances is being tackled by government agencies and NGOs, and small strides are being made.

Egyptian authorities have tried to clamp down, with partial success, on the pall of black smoke hanging over Cairo every autumn, after farmers illegally burn off what is left of their rice crops.

Sa'id Sadek, who teaches political science at the American University of Cairo says the government is trying to solve the problem, but many bureaucracies make that effort complicated.

"They are working on the black smoke; there are laws, but the problem is that the enforcement of the law is dispersed among several institutions," said Sa'id Sadek. "It is the job of the governorate, the ministry of the interior, the ministry of irrigation, agriculture. Then, because you have a jungle of institutions and bureaucracies involved, it is a little difficult. What to do? There are laws. The problem is always enforcement and the people breaking the law are not aware of the consequences."

Sadek notes the government made a major improvement to the nation's air quality after it switched over to lead-free fuel, but that the quality of life for many is not ideal:

"All the fuel in Egypt today is lead free and that has improved the quality of the air," said Sadek. "But still, the heavy traffic, the overpopulation, the poverty, the lack of green space in the city of Cairo makes it still not an easy, environmental friendly city."

He also points out that the government is gradually trying to phase out Cairo's ancient fleet of black and white taxis, many of which date back to the 1960s and '70s, by giving taxi owners the chance to buy new vehicles at subsidized prices.

Mona Fadali of the NGO "Friends of the Environment" says her group concentrates much of its efforts on educating young people in Egyptian schools, so that they are more aware of their responsibilities as good citizens to protect the environment.

She also points to several specific projects that have been undertaken to raise public awareness, including one to save the environmentally damaged Lake Mariout, south of Cairo, which has attracted the attention of the Egyptian media:

"We had two projects related to Lake Mariout," said Fadali. "They were just building buildings on top of the lake and destroying the lake with all kinds of pollution: industrial pollution, agricultural pollution [were] being thrown into the lake. So, as an NGO, we made public hearing sessions, workshops, and a complaint in the newspapers about how to save the lake."

She also points to a campaign by her organization in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria to save the sea-turtle, which is increasingly threatened by garbage and the destruction of its habitat. "Each year, we work with other Mediterranean countries," she says, "to clean up the coastline and remove garbage that hurts the turtles."