As it tries to address climate change and better preserve its environment, Egypt is turning to women, who make many household decisions
By Menna A. Farouk
GIZA, Egypt, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Suzan Mohamed recently opened her door to a surprise: a group of women volunteers intent on giving her tips on everything from proper trash disposal to how to cut water and energy consumption, plus a brief introduction to climate change.
"How do you get rid of your waste?" asked Saeeda Mahmoud, a government representative and rural leader trained by the Ministry of Environment.
The resident of Meet Shammas, a neighbourhood in the city of Giza, said she usually puts trash in the landfill near her home, or hands it to a garbage collector, without separating or sorting the items.
"I do what all people here have been doing for years," the 38-year-old said.
"Now there is a better way to get rid of the waste," Mahmoud replied, explaining about the need to sort recyclable waste into paper, plastic and cans, which could then be sold to dealers, earning the household cash while helping the environment.
Egypt has been stepping up efforts to preserve its environment and address climate change, through measures as diverse as introducing electric buses, boosting renewable energy and trying to ban plastic bags.
But it is also intensifying environmental awareness campaigns, and women, who make many household decisions, are a particular target.
The door-to-door visit to Mohamed's house in Giza is part of a one-year effort, launched this month by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and the state-run National Council for Women, to raise awareness about environmental issues in Egyptian families.
With a million Egyptian pounds ($63,000) in funding, the programme aims to reach a million women in three cities - greater Cairo, Giza and Fayoum - and could be expanded to other cities in coming years, officials say.
Carried out by 400 women leaders chosen from the three project areas, it relies on women who are visited at home sharing what they've learned with others in their communities, and with younger generations.
The effort is part of a broader "Go Green" push to combat desertification and climate change by raising awareness about environmental issues and encouraging citizens to adopt greener practices.
"We believe that women are the gateways to change any behavior inside the families. That is why we go to them and talk about the environment, believing that this information will get through the whole family," Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
What women do at home, and what they know, has "direct effect on the environment and climate change," she said.
Samah Saleh, head of the women's unit at the Ministry of Environment, said the visits to homes help relay tips on things like cutting waste of food, water and energy, as well as information about how such changes can curb climate threats.
There are also offers of direct benefits for those willing to make the changes.
Following initial visits, community volunteers working with the government go to the women's homes and collect recyclable plastics, cans and paper, offering a cash payment based on weight.
The government has arranged with commercial firms including Cairo-based company Go Clean to then recycle the materials.
Volunteers who visit homes also collect used cooking oil, offering bottles of fresh oil in return. The old oil is taken by a factory which turns it into green fuel.
The environment ministry also hopes to build biogas stations near some of the homes, to try to turn animal waste into energy that can help power homes cheaply and cleanly.
"We are now talking about that with them before we put that into effect," Saleh said.
The government already has had some success in using women to spur environmental change.
Starting in 2014, the environment ministry approached women in the Nile Delta in an effort to curb the practice of burning rice straw, which can cause air pollution.
"We educated women about the harmful effects of the phenomenon, who in their turn convinced their husbands to give the straw to the government, which turned it into fertilizers and animal fodder," Saleh said.
Dalia Kamal, 39, another woman living in Meet Shammas, said what the visitors to her home had to say on environmental issues was brand new to her.
"I have never heard about that before, either through television or from my surroundings," Kamal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
For instance, she said, "I never knew that I can use vinegar instead of detergent to wash our clothes, because excessive use of detergents can cause health problems as well as cause air and water pollution".
She said she was happy to try the suggested changes, particularly sorting her recycling and trading it for cash.
"I think it is a very good idea because we can get money in exchange for plastics and cans which we do not use and our homes will be cleaner and healthier," she said.
But she said she worried whether the changes suggested in the government-backed green push would genuinely take root.
"We have been accustomed to the fact that once projects are completed the practices start to get (abandoned)," she said.
She said any cleanup effort also had to focus not just within homes but on whole neighbourhoods like hers, where streets remain strewn with plastic rubbish and other waste.
Egypt has longstanding problems with waste disposal, with collection services and recycling still limited. "Illegal disposal of domestic and industrial waste remains a common practice", according to a 2019 paper by Egyptian researchers.
But Egypt is trying to take a greener turn.
In the southern city of Aswan, a large-scale solar park - the Benban Solar Complex - has begun providing what will be up to about 1,500 megawatts of clean power, according to the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy.
The government aims to have renewable energy provide 20% of total energy use by 2022, and 42% by 2035, according to August data from the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity.
Currently only about 10% of the country's energy comes from renewable sources, said Wafik Noseir, an environmental engineering consultant and founder of the Egyptian Modern Center, which works on environmental issues.
He said Egypt had made "great strides" on environmental protection and renewable energy but much still remained to be done, particularly to reduce pollution and sewage problems in poorer areas.
He pointed to garbage still scattered around Cairo and black clouds of smoke from burning rice straw blanketing cities like Alexandria at some times of year.
"It is still a long road ahead of the Egyptian government to fulfill its environmental goals and make our cities greener, cleaner and healthier," he said.
(Reporting by Menna A. Farouk ; editing by Laurie Goering: (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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