Water is a prominent topic in discussions about the Middle East. Yet media coverage, policy reports and scholarly works often fall into simplistic accounts of scarcity, imminent crisis and potential water wars. “Water in the Middle East,” a primer in PDF format by Jessica Barnes, offers a valuable introduction to the topic that challenges these dominant narratives.
A campaign opposing coal imports would seem unlikely to attract much attention given the political upheavals and deepening social polarization that Egyptians have witnessed over the past three years. Yet since 2012, a loose coalition of environmental and human rights activists, government officials and voluntary organizations have led a sustained campaign to contest the government’s decision to import coal to supply Egypt’s cement plants. Making use of new and old media, and drawing upon the “Tahrir networks” forged in street protest, the anti-coal coalition challenged government and business assertions that importing coal was the only way to meet Egypt’s energy needs.
Alan Mikhail, ed., Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
This fascinating volume provides an excellent overview of how environmental perspectives can enrich Middle East studies, thanks to contributions from leading scholars in the fields of global environmental and Middle East history. Chapters range in time from the medieval to the contemporary periods and in space from the French and Ottoman empires to the borderlands of the Eurasian steppe.
Cairo — a city home to upwards of 14 million inhabitants — is known to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. Although measures of pollutants in some places in Cairo exceed internationally recognized standards, popular collective action organized around environmental issues is rare. The case of ‘Izbat Makkawi, an industrial area in northern Cairo, and the successful struggle of the residents there to close local lead smelting factories is a reference point regarding possible forms of popular organizing in response to environmental pollution and sheds light on the limits and merits of community participation as experienced within the wider political context in Egypt.
In a 1994 assesment of environmental health risks prepared for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), American and Egyptian experts identified three leading environmental health risks for residents of Cairo: particulate matter air pollution, lead and microbiological diseases from environmental causes. The report also identified a number of less serious threats to human health, grouping them as middle, middle/lower, lower and uncertain risks. Ozone air pollution was one of two health risks in the “middle” category. The material presented below is drawn almost exclusively from this report.
An increase in media attention paid to environmental pollution, and a 1994 USAID report on environmental risk assessment in Cairo,  reflect and have engendered a growing concern for the environment in Cairo. While grassroots political action is rare,  there is an awareness among the general population of issues of environmental pollution. While responses to environmental pollution have ranged from the creation of ad hoc social movements and voluntary associations to individual actions in cooperation with neighbors or fellow workers, these techniques have yet to have much impact.
Miryam lives with her family in Manshiyat Nasir, originally a squatter settlement at the foot of Cairo’s Muqattam hills, now largely a brick-built community of small apartment buildings and box-like single family homes. Most now have piped-in water and electricity. Her family is one of the thousands of zabbalin (garbage collector) families comprising a large Christian minority among Manshiyat Nasir’s mostly Muslim residents. They live in a two-story, warehouse-like structure perhaps 25 feet high and about 20 feet square. Off to the side of the main living space, a narrow room has just enough space for a loom; a walled-in area behind the house is home to the family’s 18 pigs.