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Sustainability reaches Cairo's slums through solar heaters

CAIRO: Copenhagen is in an international hot seat. Countless spaces in newspapers and magazines have been dedicated to melting glaciers, sinking islands and an unavoidable refugee problem, all in anticipation of the UN’s Climate Change summit scheduled to take place in the Danish capital next week. But while local publications have not played part in …

CAIRO: Copenhagen is in an international hot seat. Countless spaces in newspapers and magazines have been dedicated to melting glaciers, sinking islands and an unavoidable refugee problem, all in anticipation of the UN’s Climate Change summit scheduled to take place in the Danish capital next week.

But while local publications have not played part in this frenzy, Egyptians buried under mounts of garbage, poverty and social isolation have been doing their share as global citizens long before world leaders meet.

In the Zabaleen community on the outskirts of Cairo, Hanna Fathy, his wife Sabah and their three-month old son Christiano live in a three-room household with almost zero emissions; their roof houses a solar heater and the area’s first bio gas unit.

For the last two years, Fathy worked with Solar C.I.T.I.E.S (Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Solutions), an NGO brought to Egypt by American environmentalist Thomas Henry Culhane in 2007.

“I grew up here. I was part of a service in the church . there’s a group that come from America every year. I started to take them to the places where they want to help. And once they said they want to go to the recycling school because they wanted to teach kids how to use the computer, how to speak English and play with them football games . by accident I met Thomas, Fathy recalled.

It was in the spring of 2006 when Culhane first visited the Zabaleen area. The garbage-ravaged area, its toxic air and shortages in electricity and running water was what inspired Culhane to share his knowledge about cleaner modes of energy with the people who know most about waste.

“He wanted to build a solar panel and connect it to a bathroom in the [recycling] school, but he said we need money and we need some people to do it, Fathy said.

Working for a local metal shop at the time, Fathy told him, “I could help you in connecting the pipes and fixing the system.

Back then, Fathy knew nothing about solar heaters. “I told him I will help you [build one in the school] but I need one for myself. I will pay LE 3,000 for it.

Now, on Fathy’s roof, there are two tanks, one storing cold water and the other for hot water. The tanks are aided with a floater on the inside to ensure that the water is continuously refilling.

The mechanism is simple. The cold water comes from the bottom of the tank into the panels. It then spreads along the pipes, which are covered with aluminum and glass, and tightened with silicone, creating sufficient insulation. When the water heats up, it will then feed into the tank through the side pipe.

The tanks amount for 100 liters, providing around 10 warm showers a day, according to Fathy.

The average monthly electricity bill in the Zabaleen area is between LE 25-30, according to Sabah, Fathy’s wife.

“When you take out the heater you take out around LE 15-20 [a month], she said.

Fathy dedicated the following two years to Solar Cities. In 2007, he quit his job at the metal shop, where he had reached LE 50 in daily pay. That’s almost double his monthly salary when he started working for Solar Cities.

“It was good… [but] I wanted to start my own business, something, anything, even small; I will grow in the future, he said. Fathy later joined a bigger corporation as an expert on solar heaters.

Solar Cities and bio gas

In November 2007, Solar Cities received a grant from the United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID). This made it possible to build 30 solar units in both the Zabaleen and the neighboring El-Darb El-Ahmar, an equally impoverished area that is predominantly Muslim.

Fathy was responsible for installing the heaters in the Zabaleen area. He would often get help from the students at the recycling school, but because the pay was too little, many of them would soon stop coming for help.

While Fathy became the area’s solar guru, his counterpart in El-Darb was having difficulty keeping up since he was not originally from the area and had to commute long distances. Being the natural helper, Fathy started splitting his time between both areas.

He was still engaged to Sabah at the time. “You should go to prove to your fiancée that you can do it everywhere and that you can take responsibility, Culhane, who lives between Egypt, Germany and the US, told him.

And so he went.

After the completion of 30 solar units, Culhane introduced the communities to the idea of bio gas.

Bio gas is produced when bacteria are fed with organic waste. The result is cooking-type gas and fertilizers. While the fertilizer is used as additional nutrients for plants, bio gas is typically used for cooking, producing electricity through a generator and operating cars.

Operating a traditional stove in his kitchen, Hanna relies on two hours of bio gas a day, generated by a 1,000-liter tank, producing zero emissions.

In Egypt, natural gas is hugely subsidized, with the cost of one tank ranging between LE 7 and LE 10.

“People think that two hours [of gas supply] is nothing, but when the government removes the subsidies, two hours will be a lot, said Fathy.

“With the pigs gone, there is a lot of organic [waste] but people here don’t have many animals to feed on these huge amounts of garbage. Sometimes they feed some goats and cows but they can never eat the whole [amount] like the pigs, he added, referring to the nationwide pig-cull that the government carried out as a precaution against swine flu last April.

With no current funds to continue their projects, Solar Cities has now come to a halt as its few members divert their efforts to applying for grants.

Reactions to the project

Egypt, like all industrial countries, is heavily dependent on fossil fuels as its primary energy resource. Yet, unlike most industrial nations, the average Egyptian is hardly aware of the hammering effects of climate change.

“People here are very simple. A lot of people haven’t had an education and all their life they’ve been living in this area. They don’t have this kind of awareness, said Sabah, Fathy’s wife.

When asked about how people in the Zabaleen area have reacted to the project, she listed three reasons why the concept is favored.

“A lot of these people do not even have electric heaters in their homes, so to give them that option for no money was something new that they wanted, she explained.

“Other people have a different reason; the electric heater could electrocute me and the gas heater requires a tank that can explode while I am cooking, she said.

In fact, when Fathy’s former employer heard about a couple who got electrocuted only one week after their wedding in Ezbet El-Nakhl, another neighborhood, he was determined to have a solar heater of his own.

And lastly, “Some people look at the sun as something God has given us for free, it’s natural to use it and it won’t harm, said Sabah, who used to teach in an illiterate local school, among several other local activities she took part in.

On the other hand, Fathy says that some neighbors still do not want to touch his tanks, thinking they might explode. “People who come to my roof from the area think I am crazy, he laughed.

Now, Fathy works at Sekem, an Egyptian establishment that works in the field of sustainable human development, as a renewable energy expert, maintaining that he never thought of his work at Solar Cities as a money-earner.

“For me, I’d like to help the poor people… If you want to learn, come and I’ll teach you… It’s from God, it’s for free; I don’t like to sell it to the people.

Topics: Aboul Fotouh

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