(Am Hussein's daughter and grandson demonstrate the way their family has been heating its water for the past 70 years, before they built their solar hot water system last month -- on a kerosene stove in the dark narrow stairwell, to avoid inhaling the toxic smoke and in an attempt to protect the children from getting burned. Now they must go back to this dangerous system because some park planners object to their solar roof.)
This is hardly Darfur, but the recent controversy in Cairo over the US AID Solar Roofs project is worthy of attention as yet another, albeit low-grade, African tragedy in the making.
(Of course it could get much worse if Egypt, at a fork in the road between pursuing large scale solar projects such as the 20 MW solar thermal plant being built in Kuraymat, and pursuing the government's recent announcement to counter Iran's move by pressing for their own nuclear power program, chooses the latter. Far from merely having the "threat" of warm water leaks to deal with, Cairo will have to deal with Chernobyl-like leaks of radiation (especially in a country where entire buildings collapse with alarming frequency because of inferior materials, workmanship and code inspections) and the possibility of terrorist appropriation of nuclear material!).
What is the issue now?
It appears that the Cairo urban solar roofs project in Darb Al Ahmar is stalled and under threat.
And there is something you can do about it by making your voice heard!
The issue at hand is the attempt by a group of obviously moneyed stakeholders who purport to align themselves with the "El Eskan Population Section" (probably acting on advice of foreign consultants) to block the building of solar hot water collectors on the roofs of houses in Darb Al Ahmar along the Ayyubid Wall, stating that they are "not good looking beside the garden" and will somehow "spoil the view from Al Azhar Park".
This is what was told to Solar CITIES green collar trainers Hanna Fathy and Mahmoud Dardir and their team of Solar technicians when they tried to continue the US AID funded project in Darb Al Ahmar!
The official excuse given out to the media, of course (sadly reported and distorted at the conclusion of the recent National Public Radio piece on the project) is that the locally made solar hot water systems are as yet "unproven" and "might leak", and that by halting the creation of more solar roofs officials can buy time to "work out the kinks" and "rectify problems" before disseminating solar energy further. They claim that otherwise residents will be "reluctant" to accept solar energy, as though the people whom we have arranged to work with on the first 15 experimental systems (who must currently boil water on the stove with danger to life and limb) are reluctant to receive a free solar hot water system and training in its construction and use, especially with the guarentee we've given that we will maintain it, if they aren't satisfied we will remove it at our expense. The whole point of the program was that the first 15 systems would be "experimental" systems and the residents know that. By stopping production of the remaining experimental systems you actually stop any ability to "rectify problems", and simply shut down the initiative altogether. Thus, in claiming they are committed to the project but halting it to help build acceptance, the officials are in fact eroding confidence in the project and breeding more reluctance (in a patron-client state like Egypt the attitude can often be "if the officials don't sanction it, or have put a temporary stop to it, there must be something wrong with it)!
The notion that the systems our team builds might somehow "not work" was unfelicitously reinforced by a satement that I was recorded making when we were dealing with a minor float valve/ flow rate issue on Am Hussein's system (the float valve was 5 cm too high, meaning that it stopped hot water flow to the house after a few minutes of use because the discharge rate was greater than the inflow rate. It was a truly minor problem that was easily corrected). NPR recorded me saying that we faced challenges building systems because there is no "standardization" in the materials we buy in Cairo. I did not mean to say that we hadn't or couldn't surmount every challenge! It was true that in the development phase of our project a year and a half ago we had two minor incidents of leaking tanks that actually helped us come up with the pioneering and innovative idea of using Zahran float valves and plastic tank nipples. It was useful because the entire community uses blue plastic tanks for cold water storage and face the same leakage problems (which doesn't stop them from using them!). By incorporating these same local tanks into our solar systems we came up with an innovation (using local inventor Magdy Zahran's special plastic parts instead of the standard rust prone metal parts) that solved the leaking problem for everybody, solar and non solar users alike!
Furthermore, since that time way back then, before we were even awarded the US AID grant for dissemination, there have been NO leaks. But THE FACTS have historically never stopped people from finding ways to attack discredit or stall the solar industry! So Cairo is just going through the same battle we wen't through in California in the 1970s and 80s, when similar issues were raised against solar heating that halted implementation for a good twenty years!
The "need for more testing" excuse is of course contradicted by the fantastic success of the same program in Manshiyat Nasser, where 10 well-functioning systems are currently in operation, and more are being built every day, increasing the capacity, understanding and acceptance of the whole community, and in Darb Al Ahmar itself, where the 3 systems we did install have been working well consistently, one of them for over a year.
Furthermore, stopping the solar builders from coming in and building more units stops any further testing and completely defies logic, since the only people who would be able to work out any kinks, if there still were any, are these same green collar Solar CITIES workers themselves, since nobody else works on solar hot water systems in the area or even cares to go and inspect them!
But the Solar CITIES team are being told not to do any more work, not even to go around "rectifying any possible problems" and the halt in building and possible experimentation thus puts them out of a job. Are they expected to sit at home and wait to see if they get a call saying "hey, a pipe is leaking" before resuming their work? Or would you think they could better keep on top of things by working with the community on a daily basis to build a larger experience base?
The official "wait and see" excuse would also not explain why there is pressure for the residents along the wall who have perfectly well functioning solar systems to remove them!
It seems the nascent Egyptian program in increasing the number of green jobs is having the same growth pains other countries went through when our Zeitgeist still favored the status quo. Aesthetics and perception, and the desire to Disneyfy Darb Al Ahmar, I argue, are more to blame for this controversy over solar roofs.
But we CAN accelerate Egypt's transition to a green economy if we pull together on this and make our voices heard.
Background and Importance of the Project:
Al Azhar Park, as some of you know, is the first "green space" built in Cairo in over a hundred years. Until 5 years ago it was a massive garbage dump, an eysore and a health hazard to the communities surrounding it. Today, thanks to the magnificent planners and architects of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, it is a glorious botanical garden filled with fountains, lakes, waterfalls and meandering streams that hosts 3 beautiful fine restaurants. It has also been the host to several World Environment Day festivals.
At the base of the park is the newly restored ancient Ayyubid Wall, and behind that are the recently renovated homes of the urban poor who have put their faith, trust and confidence in the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to help them improve their environment and their lives.
Most of the rooftops on the dwellings in this part of historic Cairo are now covered with garbage and broken furniture and create quite an eyesore, but on the roofs of the renovated houses the marvelous local Environmental NGO's have started building rooftop gardens and solar hot water systems.
(This expensive hi-tech professional "evacuated tube" solar hot water heater, purchased from RSD technologies by the Environmental NGO "Roh El Shabab" and donated as a gift to the AKTC restoration project, serves three families near the ancient Ayubbid Wall. It is also visible from the park and was intended as part of an awareness campaign for the potential of solar power in urban Cairo. Because there is often no water in the community, it requires an elevated cold water storage tank. One of the chief objections to rooftop water systems in old Cairo by the "aesthetic imperialists" is the look of the water storage barrels, but without them families in the area have to go for long periods without any water at all)
These systems and the families who own them now seem to be under threat by people who seem to believe that architectural "orientalism" (Edward Said's term for the western ideal of making Arabic speaking peoples play a Hollywood-style role as romantically conceived but backwards antitheticals to the modern European) is more important than the welfare of the people who live in historical communities. We call this a form of architectural imperialism.
When Liane Hansen from National Public Radio came out to do an NPR special on "Climate Change and Cairo" (airing this Sunday) the team was treated to a visit to one particular roof, that of local carpenter Am Hussein, who was born in and has occupied his building along the Ayyubid wall for 70 years. He was one of the first of those who had paid their 30% of the cost of renovating their ancient homes (the AKTC takes care of the other 70%) to actively request an experimental home-made solar hot water system built by the Roh El Shabab Solar CITIES team using the US AID small infrastructure funds. And he was proud to show it to the foreign visitors, who were equally delighted to come up on his roof see it in operation, and glad to know others who couldn't find the time to come into the ancient residential area could still see it in all its glory from the park.
Up until last month, when the "Do It Yourself Solar Hot Water System" was built and installed, Am Hussein and his family had been forced by economic circumstances to heat their water on a "babur" -- a traditional brass kerosene pump "camping stove". They had to light the stove and do their water heating in the narrow stair-well, because the stove gives off massive quantities of hazardous black smoke that fills the house and blackens ceilings and walls and the lungs of the children.
(Am Hussein's curious grandchildren approach the smokey fire while their mother runs in the house to get a water can to heat to prepare their baths -- an all too typical dangerous moment in the daily life of the urban poor)
The use of these stoves not only makes it impossible to keep paint on the walls (because of the layers of soot they create) but, according to an Ain Shams Hospital report in Burns magazine, caused over 300 burns to children and an average of 13 children's deaths over a 20 month period in their hospital alone. 56.7% of the children were victims of scalds from hot water and 38.6% of were victims of open flames, as shown in the pictures above.
These statistics, reported from Badawy and Mabrouk (1999) are reproduced below, and are particularly relevant to the Solar CITIES study, which showed that out of 463 families, 212, or 55.8% (66% of 232 Zabaleen families, and the 25.6% of 231 Darb Al Ahmar families), must heat their water on some kind of stove because they are unable to afford rising electricity and gas costs.
47.4% and 19.9%, respectively, heat their bath water in the kitchen, and, because many of the stoves are portable, many actually heat their water in the living room, or, as in the case of Am Hussein's family depicted above, on the stairwell! These, then become additional sites of accidents.
("The place of accident was the home in 223 cases. In 140 cases one of the parents or a guardian was present at the time. The kitchen was the commonest room followed by the bathroom especially in patients who lived in slum areas where water supply systems are deficient and kerosene stoves are used to boil water. This makes children more prone to stumble over the boiling water and suffer flame burns (Table 2)" Badawy and Mabrouk (1999)).
("Scalds were the commonest etiology of the burns in our population. 173 patients (56.7%) of the total childhood burns were due to scalds. Hot water was the commonest cause of scald. The study showed that 118 patients (38.6%) were due to flame burns with kerosene stove explosion as the most frequent agent. In 9 patients (3%) the cause of burn was electrical while chemical burns were the cause in 5 patients (1.6%) (Fig. 2) Badawy and Mabrouk (1999)).
(Badawy and Mabrouk (1999) report, "There was a much-increased incidence of childhood burns during wintertime (44.27%) and springtime (25.57%) rather than summer (18.36%) and autumn (11.8%). This is due to the boiling of water for baths or lighting the fire for warmth (Fig. 4").
Still, families like Am Hussein's can ill afford much else -- electricity costs are rising precipitously, as are gas costs, and both of those systems also carry grave risks, particularly in buildings with inadequate grounding, wiring and piping. One article in an Egyptian newspaper called the poorly manufactured gas canisters used to heat water in other homes "time bombs waiting to go off" and many local plumbers and residents talk of electrocutions from electric heaters.
The Egyptian poor, therefore, often risk paying for hot water with their lives.
For Am Hussein's family, when interviewed by NPR, it was clear that the solar hot water system donated by Roh El Shabab ("Spirit of Youth") was a life changer, and possibly a life saver. Solar hot water is, of course, 100% safe, providing flame-less, smokeless, 40- 50 degree bath water in the winter, yet never reaching scalding temperatures at point-of-use.
For the first time in their lives (in the case of Am Hussein himself that means over 70 years of struggling to get hot water!) this large family could simply turn the faucet and take a hot shower. No more lighting up the kerosene stove, shooing the children away from the flames and smoke, tending the fire until the small water can boiled and carrying it to the bathroom to ladle precious scoops of hot water onto one's back. For the first time they could enjoy a steady stream of relaxing hot water, with no wait time to bathe each of the many family members.
The solar hot water systems (built by Roh El Shabab and field tested successfully in homes throughout the Zabaleen Garbage Recycling Community), not only provide 200 liters of hot water per day to Am Hussein's family (this amount can serve up to 10 family members comfortably) but also provide 200 liters of rooftop cold water storage to help them get through the many days when water is cut in the community.
A dream come true, providing dignity and comfort to Cairo's urban poor.
But this week that dream was shattered when a group claiming to represent the interests of the Al Azhar Park Residents told Roh El Shabab's solar technicians they could no longer build any solar hot water systems on any roof visible from the park, and that they must remove Am Hussein's coveted family system.
Because solar hot water systems allegedly "spoil the view" for tourists visiting the Al Azhar Park, who want to look down upon a Disneyland version of "Medieval Cairo".
(Moussa and Hanna inspect one of Roh El Shabab's successful solar hot water systems under the pigeon coop of their solar-tech-colleague Imad's house in the Zabaleen community. Nobody has complained about the aesthetics of solar hot water systems in the garbage recyclers neighborhood, mainly because tourists don't go there. The solar roofs project of the urban poor of Darb El Ahmar is being targeted because what used to be a garbage dump towering over their community is now a playground that caters to rich tourists. Gentrification of historic Cairo is soon to follow if planners are not careful).
According to the individuals who claim to speak on behalf of El Eskan and who apparently have considerable influence over the community restoration project, rooftops along the Ayyubid Wall and visible from the park should not have any technologies on them that were not present in the area hundreds of years ago! These people appear to be either anti-environmental technology or unwilling to embrace win-win postmodern solutions to conquering underdevelopment.
(Roh El Shabab ("Spirit of Youth") solar technicians Romani, Moussa and Hanna, assemble their do-it-yourself solar hot water system on Am Hussein's roof in the cool evenings after the sun has gone down. In the background you see the lights of one of the posh Al Azhar park restaurants, from which the solar hot water system is visible. Apparently what stakeholders in this participatory community development project thought would demonstrate to rich visitors and tourists the entrepreneurial and progressive nature of Cairo's civil society fighting poverty and global climate change is now being challenged by the the scourge of "Orientalism" -- the desire by some people to remake historic parts of Arab countries into never-never-land "theme park" attractions).
The Disneyfication of Darb Al Ahmar demands a certain fantasyland aesthetic, and some European architects I have met in Cairo (a few who were associated with the park project) have defended the idea that, no matter what the poor think they want or need, they should be prohibited from having satellite dishes, rooftop water storage tanks, solar hot water systems and other "unsightly" technologies that conflict with the aesthetics of the elite who look down on them, figuratively and literally, from Al Azhar Park.
This is especially sad for Am Hussein and his family, who recently paid long saved money to have a small satellite dish installed on the roof while Roh El Shabab's Solar CITIES team was at work on his solar hot water system. The family was excited to be on the cutting edge of the best technologies that globalization and environmental stewardship have to offer. They were excited to finally be connected to the world in a meaningful way, and thought their location, adjacent to and visible from the now famous park, would be a good thing for everyone.
They were proud to show off their systems to the NPR folks from Washington D.C., and hoped many more people would come and visit so they could explain how the poor can help fight climate change and poverty at the same time if given an initial helping hand and if connected to the outside world (almost all poor families we surveyed used their limited savings for cell phones and satellite dishes, telling us that "to be cut off from the world and unable to participate in the global conversation is the worst nightmare -- how does one move ahead in isolation and ignorance?" This is also the message of Hernando DeSoto's "The Mystery of Capital").
But now those dreams are threatened and the fate of the entire Solar CITIES project hangs in the balance.
The moratorium on building more solar hot water systems has created a devastating period of unemployment for the newly trained Roh El Shabab solar technicians, who have been laid off this month while architects, engineers and local stakeholders try to work out a compromise. Given that they are also from a poor community, this standoff is unfortunately forcing them to find other jobs and is dampening their enthusiasm for working in what now appears to be a politically volatile renewable energy field. They are feeling discouraged, wondering how to proceed if such projects don't have support from the elites who control domestic affairs. As one contact from an Egyptian Environmental NGO recently reported, "the environment no longer seems like it is a priority for the AKTC or Al Azhar Park". The lack of activity, in turn, has created doubts in funding agencies whether to continue putting money into environmental projects in the inner city where the slightest political controversy can shut everything down.
And for what? All for the aesthetics of some romantic "variations on a theme-park" notion of what "the Eastern other" should look like to Western eyes (whether in the eye sockets of foreign or local heads). Edward Said, may he rest in peace, would be appalled, for it was just this sort of intense "othering" he detested.
You can travel north and cross the border to Israel and Palestine and see how the architecture of these beautiful countries celebrates solar energy and other brilliant technologies, and how the cultures deftly blend the ancient and the modern in a delightful post-modern pastiche. In fact, looking across the venerated wailing wall of Jerusalem to the holy Al-Aqsa mosque at the Dome of the Rock one counts at least 10 solar hot water systems and as many as 30 water tanks blessing this sacred architecture.
You can cross the Mediterranean to Spain and Greece and see countries awash in solar panels, where the selling point of many visits today is how they are fighting climate change and inflation and making their countries the most advanced environmentally friendly nations "under the sun", while preserving their ancient heritages. Spain actually has a law that all buildings being built or renovated will have solar panels installed.
(Solar thermal panels line the roof of "Hotel Playa de La Luz", an appropriately named luxury getaway on the southern coast at Rota, Spain).
Only the Middle East, Edward Said argued, is forced to "stay backward" as it moves forward, in order to satisfy some fetish that outsiders have with "the orient". That is what "Orientalism" is all about.
But other Arab countries are actually taking the bull by the horns and resisting such Orientalism. Tunisia, working with UNEP and the Italian government and a consortium of energy and utility companies, recently switched its subsidies from gas, oil and electricity to solar energy, providing solar roofs for its citizens (see "PROSOL, the Solar Water Heating Loan Facility, investing in a climate of change").
And Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with their "Masdar" ("source") Clean Energy Initiative, are vying to become solar leaders for the 21st century.
Ironic and sad, then, that Cairo, the former cultural capital of the Arab World, is now caught in a vise grip between radical fundamentalism and radical orientalism, neither of which are any good for our Arab or North African identities.
To sadly quote Dwight D. Eisenhower (via William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition") Cairo is "more the way it is now than it has ever been."
This could, however, be a pivotal moment for increased awareness, global solidarity and community participatory development. As Dr. Laila Iskander, founder of the Spirit of Youth NGO that runs the Solar CITIES project in Cairo pointed out in her article in Al-Ahram Weekly,"Advocating for the poor does not mean taking an adversarial stance. Rather, it is the act of presenting viewpoints seen through a lens that might differ from the one used by policymakers -- one that is more connected to the reality of people living in informal settlements."
If you feel moved by this sad turn of events, and would like to get involved, please write to and support the wonderful and visionary architects on the ground at the AKTC, Kareem Ibrahim and Naveen Akl, and Urban Planner Seif Rashidi, who have been supporting our effort to bring clean, low cost and safe environmental technologies to "medieval Cairo" for the past two years. Address an email to the Aga Khan Development Network by using and cc:ing the following email addresses:
In Switzerland at:
at the Aga Khan Project for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University at:
and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design:
at the Aga Khan Project for Islamic Architecture at MIT at:
and of course in Egypt at:
If you care about a clean solar powered Egypt, tell them how you, as a potential visitor to Cairo and Al Azhar park, would feel if you could have a lunch at the lakeside cafe and look down to see rooftops gleaming with solar panels that help the urban poor living on the other side of the wall to lead dignified lives without fearing injury or inflation.
Share with them the idea that besides helping the poor, you feel that such solar roof projects can help reduce Egypt's domestic consumption of gas and electricity so that the government can safely and harmlessly remove the energy subsidies that are crippling the economy (over LE 50 Billion per year) and export gas and electricity at full market value for much needed hard currency. To stall such efforts for what amount to "orientalist aesthetics" is criminal.
As it is the supposed values of the hypothetical foreign or rich, elite visitor to the Al Azhar park that is driving this battle for the rooftops of old Cairo your voice is important in the debate.
Perhaps if the AKDN project leaders in Geneva, Switzerland could hear enough voices defending the right of the poor to access the benefits of globalization and the technologies that can protect us all from devastating climatic and economic changes, they will put a stop to those who have put a stop to the Solar CITIES initiative!
And perhaps, if the leaders in Geneva, and the local leaders, all see that a million solar roofs in this city of near 20 million would actually ATTRACT tourists and make their very laudable renovation project really shine, they too will be moved to invest in environmental technologies in their restorations, and move Egypt closer to a future that shines brighter because it relies on sunshine!
(Spirit of Youth (Roh El Shabab) NGO staff member Amal Nabil sits with Solar Energy consultant Thomas "Taha" Culhane planning the location of Solar CITIES hot water systems using Google Earth. The irony is that before placement and construction, Darb Al Ahmar community members, AKTC architects, planners and environmental NGO members all had extensive meetings and decided that locations on renovated buildings near the Ayyubid wall were the best location for the US AID infrastructure initiative precisely because of their visibility. Only now that they are installed and operating and the awareness and demand from neighbors is rising are the "aesthetic imperialists", who were never interested in being part of the community participatory planning process, demanding their removal and halting further construction.)
(In this picture, Roh El Shabab NGO staff explore the placement not only of solar roofs, but of rooftop biogas facilities that can run on city garbage and pig waste, for homes that don't get enough sunshine. Solar panels already built are indicated by the orange "sunshine icons" on the map, which can be downloaded for Google Earth on your own computer here. The use of architectural models generously provided by the AKTC, modeled in Google Sketchup and 3D Game Engines like "Elder Scrolls Oblivion Construction Set" enable good planning: local NGOs can now model angles of the sun and needed pipe lengths from the computer. Local Proctor and Gamble officials have offered to help find funding for the effort in Manshiyat Nasser; the jury is still out whether such innovative projects can be extended to historic Cairo, where environmental priorities are currently taking a back seat to cosmetic changes.)
(Spain has also built the world's largest "solar power towers", using world-class architects to design veritable "cathedrals of solar energy" that beautify the landscape, literally glowing in beams of reflected sunshine.)
This one solar power tower in Islamic or "Moorish" Spain near Seville produces 11 Megawatts of power, enough for 6,000 homes. When we visited we saw several other solar power towers under construction which will soon provide 300 Megawatts, enough clean energy for 180,000 homes. The power plants were beautiful, smokeless and eerily silent, letting us appreciate the songbirds and other wildlife that surrounded them. There is nothing but aesthetic imperialism and orientalist ideas stopping Cairo from creating similar "Bourg Al-Shams" fields. We at Solar CITIES feel that, using carbon offset funds, a reverent celebration of Islamic architecture blended with post-modern environmental technologies would easily allow the creation of beautiful mosque-like towers throughout the city that could completely clean up the Cairo skyline!)