Sharqia, Lower Egypt: Until more than a month ago, sunset was the best time for Shawki Barkat to stroll along the lush farmland in his village in Sharqia, around 80 kilometres northeast of Cairo. The practice has now become a risk for the ex-school principal.
A smog, which engulfs Barakat’s village every autumn due to burning of rice straw by local farmers, makes it hard for him to venture out of his house unless necessary.
“From the start of September until mid-November, we cannot live in our houses because of this black cloud,” said the 64-year-old pensioner, using a popular term referring to the seasonal smog.
“We cannot breathe because of this cloud that covers the area and assaults us inside our houses. My son, who lives with me in the same house, had to leave with his wife and little children and go to stay with his in-laws outside the village until this affliction is over.”
Egypt has known this obnoxious smog since autumn 1999 when long-time president Hosni Mubarak was in power. Mubarak was deposed in a 2011 uprising.
For more than a decade, Egyptian authorities have vowed to fight the “black cloud”, but with little success so far.
The government has repeatedly blamed growers of rice for causing the pollution by setting their straw piles on fire.
Authorities have recently toughened penalties against offending farmers, promising fines of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh41,493) and one year in prison.
The Environment Ministry has launched an awareness campaign on official and private TV stations about the hazards of straw burning. The ministry has also called on the public to report about offenders.
“Farmers know how to escape penalties,” said Barkat. “They usually burn rice straw in the afternoon and during public holidays when government inspectors are off duty. However, we cannot report the violating farmers because they are our neighbours and this can cause trouble between us. And even if we did, by the time the inspector shows up in the morning, the traces of the crime in the field will have been obliterated. “
An estimated 1.8 million feddans (acres) have been cultivated with rice in Egypt this year, up from 600,000 feddans from the last season, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Each rice feddan produces around 2 tonnes of straw, which most growers find it a problem.
“I know that burning rice straw causes health problems, but we don’t have a choice,” said a rice grower, who declined to give his name for legal reasons.
“The government keeps saying that it has provided enough pressing machines to help benefit from the straw. But in our village where about 4,000 feddans were cultivated with rice, there is only one pressing machine. Of course, one machine is not sufficient,” he added. “Farmers are desperate to remove straw from their fields in order to prepare it for the winter crops such as alfalfa, beans and beetroot. Other farmers, who want to cultivate tomatoes, have to sow the seeds by October. So, they cannot leave rice straw lying in their fields long.”
Rice is mainly grown in six Egyptian Nile Delta provinces, namely, Sharkia, Gharbia, Beheira, Dakahlia and Qliubia
The smog is sometimes so intense in the evening that it reaches Cairo, already suffering from car traffic-caused pollution. In recent weeks, the Egyptian media reported several car crashes on roads in the Delta after they were shrouded in heavy smoke resulting from straw torching.
The Environment Ministry has said that some 6,000 straw-burning offences have been registered in the past 40 days. The ministry has repeatedly urged rice farmers to recycle the straw in making fertilisers and cattle fodder, pledging assistance to them.
An official in the ministry has called the task a “challenge”.
“The original estimate was that 1.2 million feddans were cultivated with rice. However, actual figures suggest that the rice-growing area has reached 1.8 million feddans, with each feddan producing two tonnes of rice. This means an increase of about 1.2 million tonnes of straw. This poses a big challenge to us,” head of the government Environmental Affairs Agency Ahmad Abul Saud, told private newspaper Al Watan.
The 17-year-old seasonal woe is attributed to the change in lifestyle in the Egyptian countryside.
“When I was a child, I saw my mother and her neighbours using rice straw and other agricultural material as firewood for cooking. Straw was also used for covering roofs for houses built of mud bricks,” said a farmer who gave his name only as Ali.
“But since the gas cooker and red brick houses appeared in the countryside, the straw has become unneeded and a burden,” added the 54-year-old farmer.
He accused authorities of lip service.
“The officials’ talk about availability of pressing machines is like smoke in the air,” Ali said sarcastically. “The people who own such machines charge the farmer 300 [Egyptian] pounds per feddan. We cannot afford this high sum of money.”
Ali said he and other peasants complained to the government agricultural department in Sharqia where an estimated 267,000 feddans were cultivated with rice this year.