Starting in Sinai, an area that has seen significant recent growth due to tourism, Sherif El Ghamrawy is introducing an effective approach to waste management that fosters cooperation among citizens, businesses, and local governments.
Sherif has designed an effective approach to waste management, a problem that bears down on communities across Egypt, vexes the government, siphons resources from other important initiatives, and adversely impacts people’s immediate environment and health. The locally-managed garbage disposal system he is introducing creates jobs for under- and unemployed people and takes advantage of opportunities afforded by collection and resale of recyclable materials. Local and intermediate transfer points make the approach feasible and scalable, and draw neighbors together in a coordinated effort to rid their communities of trash. Sherif has begun to show that local management means low-cost, culturally-sensitive alternatives to contracting foreign companies. Having established a citizen organization—Hemaya or “protection”—in 1997 to demonstrate the viability of the approach in Sinai, Sherif plans to spread his idea and methodology by attracting motivated university students and graduates to his center and offering them technical expertise and advice that will allow them to start their own waste management-focused citizen groups or small businesses.
According to the Ministry of Local Administration, Egypt’s twenty-six governorates produce 25,000 tons of garbage every day. One-quarter comes from Cairo. Giza is the next largest contributor, producing an estimated 3,000 tons daily. Alexandria and Qalubiya governorates offer up another 2,000 tons each, every day.
Waste management has become an urgent and vexing issue for Egyptian authorities grappling with the task of introducing environmentally and fiscally responsible methods of garbage collection and disposal. With no centralized system for the disposal, inappropriate disposal methods, like burning of unsorted trash, are common.
In recent years, the government has contracted foreign companies to deal with the trash burden. A contract signed last year with the French company Onyx, which is part of the international conglomerate Vivendi Environment, surrendered Alexandria’s garbage to foreign expertise. In the agreement, Onyx receives $446 million for the treatment of one million tons of waste per year for each of the next fifteen years. By these figures, the governorate is paying LE 100 for every one ton of waste disposed, roughly ten times what it was paying previously. Despite the escalating cost, many problems remain and new problems have been created. Garbage collection is restricted to main streets only. In the absence of a strong commitment to recycling, landfills are filling up at an alarming rate. Jobs that belonged to Egyptians, including the thousands of
zabaleen people who earn their living garbage-picking, have been assumed by foreign-owned companies. Local initiative directed at reducing and disposing trash is slipping away.
In some areas of the country, rapid development is applying more pressure to existing already-strained, inefficient waste management. For example, in 1995 and 1996, tourist development of the Aqaba Gulf began. Construction of massive hotels along the southern shores caused an environmental catastrophe, including a huge amount of waste that someone needs to find a way to deal with. The development caused other problems as well, as it effectively erected a barrier between the Bedouin communities and the seaside towns and cities to which they had access previously. These communities have no system for disposing or recycling solid waste, which piles up along the roadsides.
Sherif began by establishing a complete recycling and garbage disposing system in the area of Sinai where he had earlier built and shown the viability of Egypt’s first ecolodge. He agreed with the City Council and the hotels that he and his team would collect and transport the garbage. The garbage was later sorted into solid waste and organic matter. The Bedouins, who live in the area in which Sherif has begun his work, use the organic waste with their animals.
The solid waste gets transferred to a transfer station that Sherif and two colleagues, Leila Iskandar and engineer Rami El Dahan designed and built using local, available, appropriate and environmentally-safe materials. The station is an important staging ground for further sorting of glass, plastic, paper. Plastic bottles are collected and pressed and exported to China. The remaining solid waste is shipped to industrial cities and factories in Egypt. Arranging partners and creating demand has been easier than one might expect primarily because Sherif’s citizen organization, called Hemaya (“Protection”), has developed a reputation for high-quality products, due to its attention to timeliness and expert handling of customer orders. Fees earned provide a revenue base to support the operation and allow for expansion. Initial funding came from the Social Fund for Development; Sherif designed and built the intermediate transfer station in 1998 with no outside help.
Revenue from clients has not always covered operation costs for Sherif’s nonprofit. For example, in the area in which Sherif has begun his effort, tourism is a primary industry, and has seen significant growth since 1995. During intifida, no Israelis ventured to south Sinai or Taba for vacation and most hotels were making very little money. During this time, Sherif and his team continued to collect garbage from the hotels and from other clients, demonstrating the effectiveness of the approach and establishing customer loyalty that has paid off after tourism picked up. Now the businesses are reimbursing him for the work performed years ago. He decided not to stop in spite of lack of funds at one point because his main goal was to preserve the natural environment in southern Sinai through a waste management system that worked and involved the local people.
Sherif has created demand not only for his services, but for his model as well. The head official of Saint Catherine, a neighboring protectorate, approached him to erect a smaller intermediate transfer station in Saint Catherine as well, using the same model and design he had shown to be effective in Sinai. He showed the citizens of Saint Catherine how to build the station using simple, appropriate, local material. They are negotiating with Hemada the best way to take over and expand the waste management and recycling activities to Saint Catherine as well.
Sherif’s next step is to move further north closer to Taba, and establish another station there to cover the northern spheres. So now he has one station in Nuweiba, one in Saint Catherine and the third one will be in Taba. Recently a delegation from Al Qusair, a town on the Red Sea, went to visit him, see the station and its related activities, which include an ecolodge. He asked for Sherif’s assistance.
While Sherif can aid advance one directorate at a time, he wants to introduce more effective spread methods. Thus, in a parallel effort, he is building his organization into a center of excellence and is reaching out to young people who may start similar efforts, either as citizen groups or as small businesses, in Cairo, Alexandria, and along the many desert roads which are now lined with hotels, summer resorts, homes, and piles of trash. To these motivated young people he and his team offer the know-how they need to get started: he shows them how to build transfer stations, involve local people, work with officials and businesses to cover costs or, in the case of the business model, turn a profit through contracts with businesses and residents, and through the sale of recyclable materials. Sherif freely shares his organization’s lessons learned and best practices in inspiring local support and involving and training a local workforce, as his aim, at the end, is this: communities involved in maintaining a clean environment of which they play the role of stewards.
So far, he has gained visibility, and his group won first place in Egypt in solid waste management, a title offered by Arab youth and environment office. Sherif also received an acknowledgement certificate last year from the Ministry of Tourism due to his efforts for supporting tourism in Egypt.
Sherif was born in Agouza in 1956, one of four children of an upper middle class family. At age three, he learned to swim, later becoming a serious athlete, taking national awards in swimming and other sports. Having attended the German school in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, he took several internships in Germany, and through these experiences, gained early exposure to the world outside Egypt. He studied engineering at university and upon graduating, confronted job offers in Cairo and Germany.
But Sherif had begun to turn his attention to problems very few Egyptians were talking about in the early eighties: pollution and, more broadly, environmental degradation. Thus in 1982, he left behind lucrative career opportunities in the private sector and set out for Sinai, armed with little money and a vision of promoting environmentally-responsible tourism by building Egypt’s first ecolodge. To paying guests, the lodge would offer a tourist destination and something new and, Sherif felt, important: an appreciation of the natural world and an understanding of pressing environmental threats. To the tourist industry, which was just taking off, the idea would set new patterns and standards.
For four years, Sherif visited government offices, pleading for the license to build the lodge’s first bamboo-style huts, constructed by the community and from local materials. Friends and colleagues laughed at him, but he pushed ahead and in 1986, the lodge opened for guests. In the years since its founding, Basata has become the model from which many Egyptians have drawn to promote environmentally-friendly tourism. At Sherif’s bidding, the Ministry appointed a committee to devise criteria and specifications for ecolodges to include use of local materials, development of energy-efficient models, and promotion of cultural knowledge. Sherif has helped to guide the development of ecolodges elsewhere and to ensure that local communities of Bedouins are involved. In doing so, he established a network of contacts that he now uses to advance local management of waste disposal and recycling.