Since September 2015, I have been working as a Lombard Public Service Fellow at the Research Institute for a Sustainable Environment (RISE) in Cairo, Egypt. RISE is a non-profit organization located on the campus of the American University in Cairo. We serve the Egyptian population in areas of education, research and sustainable development with the goal of benefiting the people and the earth through integrated resource management.
There is never a dull moment in the RISE office! We are working on so many interesting projects. My first day on the job, someone informed me about a “posters” meeting. I was confused as to what a meeting about “posters” meant. Would we discuss official RISE poster format? How boring! The meeting ended up lasting for two hours and was quite thrilling. We weren’t discussing how to make a poster; we were designing exhibits for the Water Education Center we are building in the village of El Heiz. I was assigned to translate the text from English to Arabic. The purpose of this education center is to raise awareness about the imminent water depletion problem facing Egypt, practical water conservation techniques, and better irrigation practices, namely drip irrigation. El Heiz is a small village located in the Baharya Oasis in the Egyptian Western Desert. The Western Desert is the easternmost part of the Sahara Desert, the most arid land in the world expanding across North Africa. The only source of fresh water for the people in the Baharya Oasis comes from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which is quickly depleting due to overuse and poor management. A common agricultural practice across Egypt is flood irrigation. Because of the country’s water scarcity and hot, dry weather, many farmers believe that flooding their crops with copious amounts of water each day ensures proper plant health. Unfortunately, this practice exhausts Egypt’s water reserves at a faster rate and destroys the crops. By making this Water Education Center, we hope to educate locals, community members, and tourists about these issues. This new project complements the earlier water-saving project RISE completed in the Oasis, installing water filtration systems made from clay pots. Water seeps through the walls of unglazed pots, ollas, to filter out the high concentration of metals to provide villagers access to clean, safe water.
In early November, members of the RISE team traveled to Shubra Qabala. Our project in this Nile Delta village involves creating a sustainable trash management system to combat the pollution problem facing Egypt. Within the capital, informal garbage collectors, called Zabaleen, pick up residents’ trash in certain affluent areas for personal income generation. Outside of the city, no collection system exists. In the past ten years, corner shops and supermarkets have popped up in rural villages, paving the way for an array of non-organic packaging materials, such as plastic, cans, and candy wrappers, to be dumped in and around villages. The lack of a standard trash removal system leads many Egyptians to either throw garbage on the streets and in the Nile or to burn it. Both of these trash removal methods are detrimental to the natural environment and the health of the population. Our task therefore involves raising awareness about the disadvantages of littering and burning trash, ensuring trucks collect garbage on a regular schedule, providing trash collection infrastructure, such as small bins on each street corner and a central site where the recyclable materials can be collected and sorted, and cleaning the polluted streets and canal. Because of the project’s success in Shubra Qabala, the neighboring village has requested our help in implementing their own similar trash management system. When we visited in November, we met some of the governing residents to discuss the details of implementation. It was fascinating to see that with some knowledge and awareness, people actually do want to make a difference in the world around them and become more sustainable. The two obstacles are the lack of information and the lack of infrastructure, which we try to provide.
Another project I am actively involved in is the “Green Roof” project. Because Cairo is an overpopulated, urban metropolis, there is very little space for agricultural production within the city limits. As a result, constructing rooftop gardens has become a growing trend. All of the apartments in Cairo have flat roofs, making them the perfect space for adding greenery. The weather is sunny almost every day out of the year, providing the perfect climate for these gardens. Also, in the dreadfully hot summer months, green roofs, through the process of photosynthesis, absorb most of the solar heat, which cools down the apartment and reduces the need for indoor air conditioning, one of the biggest energy drainers in Egypt. Many of the projects we carry out take into account not only environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability. Green roofs provide income generation, as city dwellers can now grow, produce and sell their homegrown products. Plus, these green roofs provide a socially sustainable opportunity for women to generate their own income, learn a new trade, and have a new, open space within the private sphere of their home. In rural societies in Egypt, generally women are forbidden from tending to the fields. Green roofs provide a working opportunity for women. Other benefits of installing green roofs include providing an educational opportunity and creating beautiful green space in a city devoid of open range, green spaces. These last two benefits are especially pertinent for school children. Our main “Green Roof” project right now involves building a rooftop garden on the top of “Mish Medrasa.” Mish Medrasa, which literally translates to “Not School,” is an afterschool program that provides a supplemental education to young children in the informal area of Cairo called Saft el-Laban, not too far from the Great Pyramids at Giza. Public education in Egypt is notoriously abysmal. Since the government does not pay teachers enough, there is a common practice amongst educators of teaching only half of a lesson during the normal school hours, and providing the other half of the lesson in a private tutoring sessions, thus making up for their lack in governmental salary. Of course, many of the families whose children attend these public schools cannot afford private tutoring. This ubiquitous custom renders children uneducated, or half-educated at the hands of the system. Mish Medrasa’s goal, therefore, is to provide a complete, parallel education to the one in the governmental system, free of charge, so the students in the area can receive a decent education. To strengthen their science curriculum, Mish Medrasa wants to install a green roof to teach students about ecosystems, planting, experiments, the beauty of nature, etc. RISE spearheaded this project, and we have just recently build hydroponic beds, vertical pallets, and rotating compost bins for Mish Medrasa’s roof. Each of these items turned out quite easy to make. After building two rotating compost machines last weekend, I was inspired to make my own personal compost bin for my apartment. I hope my roommates won’t mind the smell!
There are so many other projects that RISE undertakes and I love that every day in the office is different! We organized our First International Conference on Solar Energy and Water Systems early in October and invited speakers from all over the world to talk about their new technology and advances in the field. We are conducting an experiment on our own office’s Green Roof to test which combination of local materials, including wheat straw, crushed brick, and peanut shells, in which ratios proves best to grow lettuce. I led “How to Run a Sustainable Office” training in late September and early December for CEOs and the engineers, building off of my experience from the Office of Sustainability last year at the American University. I helped organize “Sustainable Campus Day” with the Sustainable Campus Committee where we raised awareness about the importance of saving water and held a Farmers Market, promoting local businesses. I received an “Introduction to Permaculture” training and helped build a small permaculture garden on campus, which included building trellises, measuring out swales in the land, digging holes to bury ollas, and eventually planting all local species of trees and herbs. I am currently involved in a project researching “The Sustainable City” in Dubai and seeing if living in a sustainable community can engender a “culture of sustainability”, or if residents need more than just the latest “green” technology to make them behave sustainably. This research will then be compared to sustainable communities in Egypt. Soon, we will restart KEEP, the Kids Environmental Education Program, one of my personal favorites of all the projects RISE undertakes, in which we bring public school children to the University to educate them on environmental issues. My love for this program makes me believe that there is a future for me as an environmental leader and educator. My experience at RISE has been life changing and I am forever grateful and indebted to the John Sloan Dickey Center and Tucker Foundation for providing me with such a phenomenal opportunity. I would also like to give a warm thank you to the Dartmouth Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures Department for ultimately providing me with the language skills to carry out such an amazing job.