Visitors often gain their first impression of a city during the airplane’s descent. Many planes flying into Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. take the River Visual approach, during which passangers can be awed by terrific views of the Capitol, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, National Mall, White House, CIA Headquarters, Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon, and the United States Air Force Memorial. Coming into LaGuardia Airport in Queens, passengers can often see Manhattan’s tall skyscrapers and symbols, such as the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Alternatively, flights coming into Baghdad International Airport use the “corkscrew maneuver,” an uncomfortable, spiraling pattern of descent directly over the airport which avoids coming in range of small arms and missiles on the ground. This landing served as an ominous reminder of Baghdad’s precarious, albeit improving, security situation.
Even though my Lufthansa flight arrived just under one week ago at 4 p.m., as far as views are concerned, the flight might as well have come in at 4 a.m. Until we were hundreds of feet off the ground and less than a minute from landing, a massive haze prohibited any views of downtown Cairo. Although I first thought we were flying through clouds, the lack of bumps, differentation in color, and proximity to the ground soon make it clear we weren’t. Pollution and haze prevent the Cairo skyline from looking any more impressive than the picture above.
The pollution in Cairo would make any American city, even Los Angeles, blush out of shame. In fact, “haze” is a possible weather forecast for Cairo, which along with “sand,” are conditions unlikely to be predicted for virtually any other city. Only Dhaka, Bangladesh, Beijing, and Mexico City have multi-pollutant indeces rivalring Cairo. Authorities predict that 10,000-25,000 Cairo residents die every year due to air pollution-related diseases.
The causes of this pollution are several. First, 60 percent of the 2 million cars of the streets of Cairo are over 10 years old, and therefore lack modern emission cutting features like catalytic converters. The toxins emitted by these cars pale in comparison to the old, inexpensive buses many poor residents rely on for transportation around the city. These buses, which normally are so crowded that passengers hang out the sides of them, have a vintage 1970′s look, but have not aged gracefully. They belch out astonishing amounts of smoke and grime, which hang in the air a couple of feet off the ground for a couple of minutes before the wind disperses of the particles. If you are walking along the street get caught behind these behemoths enough, you will end you breathing in the toxins, resulting in a rather nasty headache along with crunchy grit stuck in-between your teeth.
In addition, 40 percent of the garbage produced in Cairo is not collected on a regular basis. Take a ride through the less affluent parts of Cairo around dusk, and you will find many residents burning their garbage in their yards or along the side of the road, releasing all kinds of unhealthy particles into the air. Recycling is a non-entity; I have not seen a single recycling bin or sign for recycling during my first two weeks in Cairo.
Spend most of the day outside in the central city, and you will feel the impact of pollution. I had almost constant headaches my first couple of days here and have found myself losing my voice more in two weeks here than I have during the past decade in America — though that might me also because of the dryness of the air. I certainly would not wish to exercise outside in Central Cairo and breathe in such dirty air. Venture to the AUC Campus in New Cairo, though, and smog and haze appear as sun and clouds. It seems as if many of those who can afford it have left gray skies for blue skies, leaving the poor to breathe in dirty, unhealthy air.
And for those who say that man has not harmed the environment and that such concerns are the product of a vast left wing conspiracy, the conditions in Cairo would indicate otherwise. The pollution and air quickly should serve as a solemn warning to those in America about what our air could look like if we do not change our ways.