Environmental Voices: Egypt’s Progress towards Environmental Sustainability

The following article is part of Al-Masry Al Youm's weekly "Environmental Voices" series, in which issues related to the environment–whether local, regional or international in nature–will be discussed from the point of view of environmental experts.

In my previous article, I argued green politics is not a luxury, but a question of national survival. The Millennium Summit of 2000 established Environment as the seventh of seven anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Heads of state from across the globe, including President Mubarak, pledged to meet the MDGs. An eighth goal aiming to foster “a global partnership for development” between developed and developing nations was subsequently set up. 
Special yardsticks were designed to monitor progress in achieving the MDGs by 2015. But those requirements do not offer solutions to deal with the diverse problems affecting countries at different levels and in different ways.
The new Environment Strategy of the World Bank Group (WBG), due by spring 2011, intends to overcome that obstacle. The strategy will, the Bank declared, be mindful of countries’ specific problems and the interest of the different communities. As choices are controversial, World Bank officials have pledged to ensure respect for biodiversities and respect of indigenous rights and communities.  
In this context, Egyptians recall the case of the EAgrium fertilizer’s plant in 2008, intended to be constructed in Damietta. The local community mobilized in defense of its environment and won a fierce battle against the relevant pressure groups.
Though Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are now becoming pre-investment requirements, these EIAs need to be enforced as a rule of thumb. Furthermore, EIAs should not stop at project approval stages but should be incorporated in ongoing project monitoring. Often changes in direction, technology or handling are warranted during project implementation and these changes deserve environmental, economic and social scrutiny.
Such thoughts prompted me to read Egypt’s MDGs progress report launched in September 2010 with regards to Goal 7: Environment. This confirmed my concern that by following the MDGs reporting guidelines, which as mentioned earlier are not country-specific and targeting international reviewers, the report only provides a generic overview of Egypt’s progress in environmental affairs. The report also tends to be defensive.  
While recognizing some constraints, the report says Egypt is relatively well on-track with targets regarding environmental sustainability. These targets namely concern the natural environmental resources or the ecological system (land, air, water and biological diversity) as well as the environmental conditions and services in a specific country, such as water supply and sanitation in urban slums.
The disturbing factor is that, while it is true the government has pushed legislation and a national action plan to protect the environment (all of this occurred in the 1990s), as revealed by the report, little is being said about how poorly political commitment and legislation are translated into practice, despite a robust environmental machinery in place.
Environmental degradation is evidenced by the current level of water pollution caused by domestic and industrial waste, the ‘black cloud’ phenomenon still looming over Cairo, the continuous encroachment of urbanization over agricultural land, the wasteful consumption patterns of society, food and energy, the inadequate sanitation coverage, and garbage attacks (partly proof of waste mismanagement, and partly due to bad habits of citizens).
In Egypt, the MDG progress reports are launched in large ceremonies, eliciting wide media coverage. Normally, once the festivities are over, public interest wanes. It was, however, noted that raising awareness campaigns about MDGs have taken place in collaboration between UN agencies and state institutions. This included a spectacular boat sailing of MDG slogans through several governorates. Another celebration took place in Cairo University this last October for youth advocacy.
Though these are all welcome initiatives in their own right, MDGs will remain merely slogans if concerned parties will not help in the creation of platforms for action, with role assignments for each MDG and interactive plans.
While talking about our own sets of problems, we also need to be alert to external ones that may directly or indirectly affect us, and to learn how they are addressed. As an example, most readers may have learned through the media about the toxic red sludge that spilt from a Hungarian alumina plant and reached the Danube this autumn. They may have also learned that such an “unprecedented ecological catastrophe” (quoting the Hungarian Prime Minister), was greatly reduced to harmless levels (thanks to prompt action and technical handling). Hungary was especially keen to keep damages within the Hungarian boundaries as, downstream the disaster site, the Danube passes through several other countries.
Four lessons may be drawn from the above overview:
First, MDGs provide global rallying points on issues of common concern and are geared to encourage action by all countries. Egypt should, however, take a more pro-active role in dealing with them through adapting, fine-tuning and disaggregating targets to address its own sets of problems. In a figurative sense, Egypt needs to ‘nationalize’ MDGs. This would help in prioritizing action, and apportioning budgets to serve its environmental scenario, while remaining committed to strive for the global common good.
Second, environmental sustainability does not reside in MDG-7 alone; it should cross-cut all other goals. The environment needs to have a fair share of a ‘global partnership for development.' With the exception of a brief mention of water supply and sanitation as part of basic services to be supported under MDG-8, there is no mention of environment as part of the partnership targets.
Third, as environmental effects cross boundaries, respect of the environment is not only a national obligation but a collective obligation by all nations and all humanity.
Fourth, the country needs to upgrade its early warning system, risk management, technology and skills to meet emerging or unexpected sets of environmental problems (either natural or man-made).
The question is: Are we anywhere near achieving environmental sustainability?
My fear is that poor allocation of resources to scientific research–a dire requirement to deal with the consequences of climate change–needs a dramatic lift. Egypt’s current allocation to scientific research, according to Dr. Ayman al-Dessouky, head of Remote Sensing and Space Sciences Authority, is 0.03 percent–less than 1 percent of our national income. I have no further comment at this stage.

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