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Laila Iskandar, the interim government’s minister of environment, is rolling up her sleeves to try and find solutions to Egypt’s crippling environmental issues.

As a community development practitioner, solid waste management expert, and consultant, Iskandar’s portfolio and experience guarantee that she should be Egypt’s best environment minister to date, provided her efforts are not curtailed by other, more influential ministries. 

On Thursday morning, she presented her vision and priorities to a group of journalists during a press conference held at the Cairo House in Fustat.

“Egypt is turning a new page in its history, and I hope that alongside the country, the environment will change as well. I would like to open a new channel of discussion with journalists,” she declared as sighs of relief passed through the audience. Communication with the environment ministry, or any other ministry for that matter, often yields more frustration than results.

Of the ministry’s total budget for the year 2013-2014, which reaches LE292 million, the bulk—LE155 million—will be allocated to Iskandar’s priority projects, which are solid waste management and rice straw recycling.

Iskandar is convinced that the biggest challenge ahead is to solve solid waste management issues, and she insists that this cannot be done without an efficient collaboration between the government, private institutions, and civil society.

“We need to develop some basic waste sorting at home,” she said. “It’s very simple—really, it just involves throwing organic trash in one bag and solid waste in another.” Although she acknowledges that a change in mentality does not happen overnight, she is confident that people’s revolutionary expertise could be replicated in the way they handle garbage.

To succeed, solid waste management needs to be sustainable and provide job opportunities for young people. This is why the ministry pledges to support youth associations in charge of collecting garbage, sorting it, and sending it for recycling. It plans to send part of the waste to compost factories, another to feed cattle in Bedouin areas, and use the rest to produce an alternative source of energy.

Magdy Allam, an advisor to the minister, explained that part of the solid waste strategy currently discussed could involve the creation of ten garbage containers with 500-ton capacity throughout greater Cairo.

Instead of centralizing most of Cairo’s waste in six landfills where trash is burnt, these containers would allow methane gas to be trapped. “We will superpose layers of compacted garbage and layers of sand, to prevent simultaneous combustion that can happen when gas is in contact with moisture,” Allam said, adding that a network of pipelines would be integrated into the containers to collect the gas.

The ministry is also planning to set up a larger number of sorting stations to separate organic from solid waste.

The choice of rice husk management as the other biggest ministerial project may be a surprise, but in the context of Egypt, where a seasonal black cloud resulting from burning rice straw makes headlines every year, it makes perfect sense. The minister is hoping to collaborate with private companies to reuse the straw, and to convince farmers to use it as a main feedstock in their compost mix.

If this is quickly adopted on a wide scale, thwarting the black cloud could bring the new minister public support. On Sunday she meets Ayman Abou Hadid, the current head of the Agricultural Research Center, to discuss a strategy to encourage farmers to recycle rice waste.

Sustainable development and climate change are also fundamental aspects of Iskandar’s vision, are Egypt’s protected areas and the development of ecotourism.

Coal imports still under discussion

On the coal import issue, which was discussed in great detail by the previous government and the cement industry in light of a plummeting supply of natural gas, Iskandar said no decision had yet been taken. “The coal issue is by no means a responsibility of the environment ministry only, but we have set up a team of experts to participate in discussions to try to find an alternative to coal,” she said.

Samir al-Mowafi, a senior technical advisor in the ministry, leads this team of experts. “If shortages in natural gas stop, I believe that the discussions will cease and coal won’t be imported,” he said.

According to him, the cement industry wants to move very fast and transition to coal to ensure its energy supply. “The industry pays half price for its natural gas, and although the government would agree to let them import gas, they have no intention of purchasing gas at international prices,” he said, pointing out that coal is cheaper. Cement factories have to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment study to the EEAA before moving an inch.

For Mowafi, the most hazardous and environmentally detrimental factors if coal is imported will occur during the shipment and transportation phases. “Once in the kiln, the coal’s impact will be minimal, it’s the entire way to the kiln that is worrisome,” he said.

“We have pushed forward some alternative, like waste fuels,” he explained, “but since you need 20 tons of waste to fabricate just two tons of waste fuel, this could become a secondary fuel for the cement industry and not a primary one.”

Some companies are currently investing in Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) technology, which could provide them with 15 to 20% of their fuel needs. “But if coal import is given a green light, that investment will stop,” Mowafi said.

Finally, all previous environment ministers have done a bad job at enforcing Egypt’s environmental protection laws, and more than one journalist asked Iskandar what she planned to do to punish violators.

“It’s a really awful situation,” she responded, “when you are the authority that records and reports violations but has no power to enforce anything.” She agrees that the ministry has done badly on this front, but laments the fact that a different agency intervenes according to the type of violation committed. “But we are in a post-revolution era and hopefully everyone will get serious about doing their job,” she concluded hopefully.

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