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El Kharga: What do we know about the first environmentally friendly Egyptian city?

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  • BBC – Cairo

In the heart of the Egyptian Western Desert lies a city far from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Palm trees and green spaces greet you as you approach its entrance, and the purity of the air prompts you to turn off the car air conditioner and open the windows. A city entitled “No Pollution Here.. Welcome to Kharga.”

Last June, the Egyptian Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad, announced the city of Kharga, in the New Valley Governorate, as the first environmentally friendly city in Egypt, stressing the government’s desire to present Al-Kharga as a successful model during the COP27 Sharm El-Sheikh Climate Summit.

The BBC team traveled to Kharga to see closely the elements that qualified the city for this title and the possibility of applying the “Kharga Model” to larger and more polluted cities such as Cairo.

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The tree belt surrounding the city of Kharga

Why Kharga?

The city of Kharga is the capital of the New Valley Governorate in southern Egypt. It spans an area of ​​85,000 square kilometers, with a population of not more than 96,000.

The city has a strong green belt and started relying on solar energy during the last decade. Despite its small population, you sense a collective awareness as you walk through its streets that “this city is ours…let’s preserve it”.

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Solar panels on the roof of Al Kharga Secondary School for Boys

First, rely on clean energy

Al-Kharga enjoys bright sunshine throughout the year and temperatures may exceed 40 degrees Celsius in the summer, prompting the start of a project to rely almost entirely on solar energy in the city.

I met Asaad Farah, the director of Al-Kharga Secondary School for Boys, which is one of the first buildings to introduce solar energy in the city in 2019. Farah says: “We used to pay 2,000 pounds (about $100) per month to provide the school with electricity, and because of the increased pressure, the electricity sometimes ran out and we had to either To rationalize or charge electricity twice a month.

He adds: “Now the school saves about 80,000 pounds (3,000 dollars) annually, which used to pay for electricity and is now spent on student activities.” .

Farah says that the students are the most prominent beneficiaries of solar energy, as fans are now working inside the classrooms throughout the school day, especially in the summer. In addition to the teacher’s electronic whiteboard. “We are no longer afraid of power outages or are forced to rationalize against our will, as solar energy has saved a lot.”

Second, reduce pollution

Last year, Al-Kharga opened the first station to convert cars to run on natural gas instead of fossil fuels. According to the plan, about 50% of the cars on its streets are now powered by gas, especially taxis and mass transit buses.

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Mahmoud Atef, taxi driver in Kharga city

I met Mahmoud Atef, one of the taxi drivers outside. He tells me that converting his car to natural gas about 11 months ago saved him two-thirds of what he had previously paid to fuel his car.

“I used to pay 250 Egyptian pounds ($10) a day for petrol, now I only pay about 70 Egyptian pounds ($3).” Gas encouraged many of my colleagues to work as taxi drivers, as the profit became greater, and converting the car to gas is not expensive.

Mahmoud continues that there is one station for charging cars with gas in the city despite the decrease in the number of cars that run on gasoline, adding that there is a collective demand for taxi drivers to provide a second station for gas filling in the city.

Natural gas is a derivative of fossil fuels. It is not 100% green, but it is less polluting to the environment than gasoline, diesel and diesel by up to 20%. Natural gas produces fewer exhaust emissions than fuel, according to a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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Public transit vehicle station in Kharga city

Third: Increasing green spaces

Kharga is known as the palm oasis in Egypt, where there are about 700,000 fruitful palm trees, which made the production of dates the most prominent in the city.

Mohammed Ragab, Director of Environmental Affairs in the New Valley Governorate, explains that the per capita share of green spaces in Kharga reaches 2,000 square meters, compared to the global average, which ranges between 1-2 square metres. While the per capita share in other governorates of Egypt is only 120 square centimeters.

The government official explains that the amount of oxygen generated by the green spaces in Kharga exceeds 111 million liters of oxygen, while it consumes about 1,850 tons of carbon dioxide, which makes the city’s air very clean.

Fourth, waste recycling

While wandering the streets of El-Kharga, you do not notice garbage bags collected on the ground, a view that you usually find in other Egyptian governorates.

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Neovali Garbage Recycling Factory in Kharga

I escorted one of the city’s garbage collection trucks, which starts work at five in the morning every day, to transport the waste to a factory located a few kilometers from the residential area.

The factory started operating in Kharga in 2002, and its manager, Mustafa Abbas, tells me that about 50 tons of rubbish are brought here every day. “The waste is separated in the factory into three sections: organic waste, which is converted into natural fertilizer, which is transferred to nearby farms, or plastic cans and transported to recycling factories, and thirdly, metal cans are transferred to workshops to be dissolved and reused.”

An achievement for the government or green in nature?

Rajab says that the government has planned the Kharga “well”, which has helped to consider it environmentally friendly. “The industrial area was built outside the population blocks, and the green spaces were distributed among the buildings, and the residential building was prevented from rising above a certain number of floors to maintain a comfortable aesthetic view.”

But Mohamed Younes, a researcher in environmental justice at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, believes that Kharga was not a big challenge, as it is an example of a city that is by nature green with available resources and a small population, but the problem lies in the largest and most overcrowded cities and governorates such as Cairo and Alexandria, he said.

Yunus believes that the current government’s strategy makes it difficult to replicate the Kharga model in major cities for two reasons, poor planning and concern for the economic return rather than the environmental dimension.

“For example, in Cairo, metro lines were expanded and mass transit fleets of buses and trains increased, and this is good to encourage residents to use them instead of their cars and reduce emissions, but at the same time we expanded roads within cities and this encouraged cars to walk in them and we also cut down trees.”

The environmental researcher adds that the government’s priorities are often economic and not environmental in its projects, “We are interested in a project like the metro because it will generate revenue, but the green spaces are usually free. The best evidence for this is deducting a large part of the green spaces to convert it to service places such as restaurants and cafes, and this is The pattern followed in most Egyptian governorates.

Yunus’ talk is consistent with reports by environmental organizations and human rights associations criticizing what they describe as the “semi-systematic” cutting of trees in several Egyptian cities over the past years, especially in crowded Cairo neighborhoods, at the expense of developing infrastructure and establishing a new road network in the country.

And the World Health Organization announced, in a report in 2018, that the city of Cairo has the second highest rate of air pollution among the countries of the world. At the time, the organization warned of the health effects of fine particles in polluted air, as they can affect the work of the lungs, the cardiovascular system and may cause death.

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