Making Cairo's Garbage City Green

Cairo's Garbage City would seem the last place for a green breakthrough.

June 12, 2009, 11:40 AM

CAIRO, June 12, 2009 — -- It's a few miles from Cairo's Great Pyramid of Giza -- the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World -- but most people have never heard of it, most tourists never see it.

The place is called Garbage City, and more than 20,000 people live there on trash recycling.

The smell is atrocious. Flies swarm feverishly around the dirt, and kids play on the rubbish bags; it is, sadly, their natural environment.

Garbage City surely comes across as an unlikely place for a green-technology breakthrough. But U.S. philanthropist Thomas Culhane chose this very slum to experiment with cutting-edge green technologies.

His charity, Solar Cities, set up solar-water panels and biogas systems that convert garbage into cooking gas.

"Families that have this," Culhane said, "are disaster proof, economic-recession proof. They always have at least two hours of gas on their roof from their garbage."

Hanna Fathy, 30, was one of the first to try.

Instead of chucking his kitchen waste, he pours it into a sealed and heated barrel. The bacteria inside the barrel digest the waste and produce methane gas, which Fathy lights to get as much as two hours of cooking gas every day.

"It makes me happy, because I made it," Fathy said, as he boiled water with homemade gas. "I like to use everything around me, like the garbage."

While many of his neighbors get their hot water by boiling it on kitchen stoves or even camp fires, Fathy makes his own, and it's free.

"I will not throw [away] my solar water," Fathy said. "I like it, for me it's precious."

The inhabitants of Garbage City are by no means environmentalists or green militants.

The reality is that most of them are too busy with meeting their basic needs, to think about protecting the planet. There were riots in Egypt last year over the rising cost of food, especially the price of bread. The riots reportedly claimed the lives of several protesters who clashed with police.

According to Culhane, however, the residents of Garbage City are gladly embracing the technologies because they understand that it is in their own interest.

"This is not about saving the environment," Culhane said. "This is about saving their environment, their children, their families. And they care so much about that that they are willing to invest everything they have, and take tremendous risks so that they can live a healthier life."

There is also a certain pride for the inhabitants of a slum to be chosen to experiment with the technologies.

"I like to connect things together," Fathy said. "I like to connect the kitchen, with the garbage, with the gas, with the weather, with the place, with the plants, so all is connected together."

But the devices are expensive. Each biogas systems costs as much as three months salary in the slum, each solar water panel, six months.

So, for now, Culhane's charity is paying for the equipment, betting that Garbage City will lead the way in green technologies.

"When we start sharing with each other solutions that are simple and effective and that are safe," Culhane said, "it will travel like a wave and spread over the entire planet.

"They build the devices with their own hands. That is their investment in the project."

Only a few houses there are equipped with solar water heaters and biogas systems, which means it could be many years before biogas systems pop up on every rooftop.

In the meantime, however, a humble beginning has shown the people of Garbage City that even they can dream of a greener future.

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