Located at the meeting point of the Nile Valley of Upper Egypt and the Lower Egypt delta, Cairo has served as a major hub for water and land trade over five thousand years. Home to 23 million people in 2020, its population could rise to 38 million by 2050. It is already one of Africa’s biggest megacities and its second fastest growing city.
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Despite accounting for 33% of Egypt’s current GDP, its sustainable growth prospects are hampered by pollution from traffic congestion, slash and burn land clearing, industrial power and open waste burning. The annual nationwide average PM2.5 level in 2019 was 13.6 times greater than the WHO 2021 recommended levels – and it is concentrated in big cities. Increasing population density threatens to worsen poverty and exacerbate inequalities as the number of people in informal labour grows and the proportion of marginalised and vulnerable people in poor urban neighbourhoods increases.
Major sources of air pollution
The primary source of PM2.5 air pollution in the greater Cairo area is road transport, with ageing private cars and taxis accounting for 80% of an extreme congestion problem. Traffic volumes can reach 7,000 vehicles per hour per lane, far exceeding the maximum theoretical flow of 1900.
Mass transit options are among the poorest for a megacity, with only 4kms of metro per million population. Until recently, a 50% subsidy on gasoline and diesel and no traffic charges has created few options or incentives to shift away from dirty old cars.
The Egyptian government is taking steps to address the problem. It halved fuel subsidies but transport costs rose heavily, which disadvantaged low-income households.
Agricultural slash and burn
Agricultural slash and burn forms the second highest concentration of the city’s PM2.5. Growing demand for real estate on the agricultural land in the cities surrounding the Nile valley has increased this approach. Poor access to technology means that farmers burn rice straw following the harvest, creating an annual black cloud across the Nile Delta and Cairo.
In 2020, the government claimed to have collected 500,000 tons of the total straw produced that year, which is 90% of of the production. The government is also constructing a new recycling facility as alternatives. Alongside this, the World Bank project aims to support communities to adopt more safe disposal practices.
Industrial power and electricity generation
Industrial power contributes the third highest concentration of Cairo’s PM2.5, with the city hosting one third of the nation’s industry. Most of these industries are natural resource-based, such as iron and steel, brick and cement, power stations and fertilisers. Few industrial plants have adequate waste treatment facilities, despite pollution abatement projects.
The Ministry of Environment is engaged in the third phase of industrial pollution control, and creating eco-friendly industrial zones in the city under an agreement between the government and UNIDO in 2022.
Other sources of air pollution
The mismanagement of waste, desert dust, biomass burning, and domestic and commercial combustion amount to around a third of overall PM2.5 concentrations.
Government action, with donor support, has led to improvements in Cairo’s air quality in recent years. However, the true benefits that reduced air pollution would bring are not yet being realised.
Health and financial impact of air pollution in Cairo
Across the Middle East and north African region, air pollution is responsible for 270,000 premature deaths – more than road injuries, diabetes, TB, malaria, HIV/AIDS combined. According to the World Bank, the estimated economic cost of air pollution to the region is around 2% of GDP per year. In Cairo, air pollution causes around 18,000 premature deaths, or 16% of the annual total.
The graphic above shows the financial cost of air pollution-related premature mortality and absenteeism in 2019. It also shows the projected impacts under a business-as-usual scenario, then the benefits that could be achieved by the indicative clean air policies.
These efforts to reduce air pollution could unlock more than $0.8bn – around 16% of Cairo’s costs under a BAU scenario in 2040. More importantly, in that year, over 3,400 lives could be saved, and GHG emissions reduced by 16% (12.3 Mt of CO2 equivalent). The cumulative impact of the levers on air pollution in Cairo from 2023-2040 could generate $6.6bn, save over 52,000 lives, and abate GHG emissions by 173 Mt of CO2 equivalent.
Improving air quality is essential on its own terms, and more funding is urgently needed. While Egypt received 54% of a modest $403.6 million total from international development funders between 2015-21 for African air quality, virtually all of that ($200 million) was committed to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (IBRD) greater Cairo air pollution management and climate change project. This is dwarfed by the $6.3 billion that went to fossil fuel-prolonging projects in Egypt over the period, mainly for oil and gas extraction or production.
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