Land of Smoke


Diving near Sharm is a respite from polluted skies.

The Aswan Dam in southern Egypt is enormous. On one side sits the 300-mile long Lake Nasser. The lake is teeming with crocodiles and Nile perch, but the Sahara comes right up to its shores. The dam itself is over two miles long and provides hydroelectric power for about 40% of the nation. North of the monolithic structure is the tamed Nile, a series of croc-free lakes created by the dam and the 10 locks between Aswan and Cairo. Like California, agriculture controls the fate of the Nile with wildlife as the loser.

After leaving the enormous Aswan Dam, we went to the city of Sharm El-Sheikh. Sharm, located on the tip of the Sinai, is only about 22 years old and it is sort of Palm Springs by the Red Sea. From the air, there is no visible vegetation near Sharm nor in the Sinai mountains. When you land, and go to your hotel, you are immediately struck by the lush vegetation at the hotels, most of which are gated and patrolled by machine gun-toting Egyptian military.

I had always dreamed of snorkeling or diving in the Red Sea and I was not disappointed. The variety of species of fish is overwhelming. I spent a full day on a boat with Russian scuba divers, my wife Lisette, and an amazingly wise dive master named Sayed Aly. Even more amazing than the fish are the corals, in particular a lime green species called salad coral that looks like a giant green rose.

After the last snorkel of the day, I had the opportunity to talk to Sayed about how Sharm had changed in the 21 years since he first arrived. After the cruise down the Nile and a day of snorkeling, I didn’t need Sayed to tell me that plastic water bottles were now ubiquitous in all waters of Egypt. In addition he told me that the reef was in 10 times better shape 20 years ago, when Sharm had only one hotel.

Despite the creation of Ras Mohammed National Park (a reef park with no marine life take allowed), the reef has been suffering degradation by a million tourists, so many of whom wanted just one small piece of coral as a memento of this magical place. I saw some dead coral and a few dead giant clams, but not enough to think that the reef is in trouble. Another case of shifting baselines. Sayed knew what the reef was like 20 years ago. I did not.

I also asked Sayed about Sharm’s water supply. How could the city grow from one hotel to over 100 in just two decades on one of the driest spots on the planet?  The answer was eerily familiar for L.A. locals.

First, Sharm got all the water it needed from groundwater supplies 60 miles away. Then, as tourism demand grew, a 250-mile pipeline from the Nile delta to Sharm was built. Still no golf courses in Sharm, but 100 hotels and a growing condo market use a lot of water for flushing and bathing. Drinking water comes out of a bottle. At least the sewage isn’t dumped in the Red Sea. Instead, land disposal is the preferred option. And why not, there is plenty of sandy soil with no vegetation, but it is only a matter of time before Sharm’s growth outgrows the region’s treatment capacity.

After leaving Sharm, we flew back to Cairo and I was struck again by the desolate wilderness of the Sinai peninsula and the desert east of the capital. Not a cloud in the sky and visibility of 50 miles or more. As we approached Cairo, a haze started to appear over the hilly desert east of the city. Soon that haze became thick brown smoke that made the ground difficult to make out, even in our descent. About 30 miles from the city, I saw a row of at least 50 fires spewing smoke into the air. It was unclear whether this was garbage disposal or more sugarcane burning. It definitely was not Egypt’s other combustible crop, rice.  Imagine the air in Sacramento a few years ago after a rice burn. Now multiply by 100.

Some 20 million people live in Cairo, making it the most populous city in Africa. I was told by numerous locals that burning crops and garbage was illegal, yet their air quality gives Beijing a run for its money. With the rampant smoking and hellacious air quality, there is no question that asthma and lung cancer rates in Egypt must be on the rise.

I can’t say I find it amazing that a country that relies extensively on tourism dollars is allowing its environment to degrade so dramatically in the name of agriculture and waste disposal.

Egypt is the cradle of civilization. But California — with its dysfunctional water supply policies, addiction to convenience at all costs and insatiable consumption habits — continues to make many of the same mistakes.

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