Thursday, June 21, 2007

Time To Take Out The Trash

I love riding along the canals. I enjoy the water birds, the fishermen, the trees along the edge. When you mention "canals" to most people here they talk about how dirty they are, about the trash in them, and wonder why people dump dead animals in them. The fact is that the not all the canals in the countryside are dirty...just the ones with a lot of people around them. Odd, that. I was reading the news online the other day and found quite a lot of coverage of the west Pacific Gyre. What is that? The west Pacific Gyre is an area in the western Pacific where the ocean currents move in a circle and there is little wind. In the days of sailing vessels, they called them the "doldrums" and the captains avoided these areas for fear of being becalmed. Not long ago a sailor on his way back to California to Hawaii decided to cut through the Gyre and discovered that the area had been collecting floating trash and plastic in its pool. He's gone back to check again and found that the area of the trash is now twice the size of Texas. If you do a Google news search you can read all about the Gyre...and the five others in the world's oceans. Pretty scary reading.

Trash is a problem everywhere. We make jokes that the plastic bag is Egypt's national bird because there are so many of them blowing across the desert. The Giza dump is just over the hill and when the wind is blowing the right way there are literally hundreds and thousands of inflated plastic bags blowing in battalions across the desert. What good does it do to collect them, dump them and let them blow across the landscape again? They hang up in trees, against fences and then blow into canals. The ones on the fences can be collected yet again and carted back to the dump or sold to the recycling plant to make garden chairs.

But one of the questions that needs asking is whether these plastic things ever really go away. The research being done in the Gyre suggests that plastic never goes away. They've found microscopic shreds of plastic floating in the sea where sea birds fish for plankton and krill. The baby albatross on Midway Island are having a very tough time on a diet that sometimes is more than half plastic and many of them are dying from starvation. The fish that feed on the plastic/plankton mix end up in our food chain, maybe in our restaurants or tuna sandwiches. Many of the components of plastic might leach chemicals into the fish and birds, mimicking hormones and causing chaos. Ugly stuff, plastic.

I used to be bothered by seeing dead animals in canals until I learned how it actually made some sense. The ground water in the Nile Valley is so high that there isn't room underground to bury a large animal without it just soaking in water. If it soaks in the water a meter or so underground, it releases so many nutrients that it can poison the plants all around. It is next to impossible for most farmers to be able to move a dead water buffalo or donkey or cow up into the desert to bury and there are legal problems as well. The antiquities authorities don't like people digging holes whether it is to look for something or to bury something. That more or less leaves the canals which are full of fish, crayfish, water birds and wild dogs. These creatures can strip a carcass to bone within 2 weeks. When you think about decomposition, think about what is decomposing and what it is decomposing to. Animals are made up of the same elements as the soil. They go back to their components. Plastics are made up of polymers created from oil products. If and when they break down or decompose are they ever going to be natural? I don't think so.

copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


Cairogal said...

Great post...I do worry about the fact that the decomposing animal is often not far enough downstream from where families are washing clothes, collecting water, etc.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

I recall reading an article by some scientists during the flooding after Katrina. People were worried about dead animals in the water (there were lots) and contamination. The answer that was given was that unless the animal died of an infectious disease, the decomposition itself, while unsavoury, was not a hazard strictly speaking. After all, fish die, frogs die, and plants die all the time in rivers and lakes. No one gets upset about them decomposing in our water, do they?

Cairogal said...

That's interesting...I would still wonder about the quality. I can hear the conversation now, "Mmm....this water has lovely overtones of rotting ox...and what else do I taste? Is that Aerial?" :)

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

LOL. I seriously doubt that anyone was advocating the drinking of water with dead animals in it, but I still think that it's funny no one gets upset about dead fish or swimming in oceans with dead whales, seals, and heaven knows what in them...

Cairogal said...

Well, I guess it makes me squeemish. I think about them washing clothes in there, carrying the water back for cooking, etc.

Martyn said...

I have to admit that I have always been a "stay away from the canals" type. I pass the canals in small towns in Egypt and they just seem incredibly foul.. You rehabilitate them a bit for me. I wonder to what extent this is the way these canals have always been. Maybe it is a case of a system that once worked being overtaken by detritus from the modern world that it wasn't meant to handle..

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

It took me years of canal watching to get a sense of what they were all about. The whole area is like one huge organism, granted one that is sorely tried by overpopulation. The area around Abu Sir/Sakkara has probably over 50 thousand people in it. It's only the contrast between something green and Cairo that makes it rural. Most of the people out here rely on well water, hopefully from wells that are deeper than 25 metres because above that the water still has an excess of nitrates and phosphates from agricultural use. Nitrates and phosphates are the natural result of decomposition and any fertiliser contains them, but they aren't good for people to ingest. Canal water is mostly used to wash down the plastic matting that cover the floors. When you see the women sitting and doing wash by hand, the vast majority of the time they are using pump water. They usually give the animals well water to drink as well. I have a well that I test regularly. Its water is as clean as Siwa, but it does have a faint sulphurish smell, so I filter. The smell isn't toxic and as a grad student in Canada I lived in a farm house in Ontario where the shower smelled like bad eggs. Much much worse, but not unhealthy.

The canals gradually fill with plants that die, sand that blows in, and whatever else gets in, so there is a dredge that basically works 24/7 in an area traveling around dredging out the canals constantly. As this very rich soil is deposited on the side of the canal, the locals come and pick through it for stones and bricks that can be used in building, plastic that can be sold to recyclers, and soil that can be put on the fields with the animal manure to enrich the soil. The dredges also tend to undercut the bank, so to maintain the trails that are so necessary to get around, sometimes people will dump sand and old building rubble along the canals, or even loads of unused vegetable matter (straw, old zucchini plants, okra stalks, etc) along the canal to help shore up the path. The organic goes into the soup and the inorganic like the bricks go into the grab bag for the next dredging.

The main thing that I've noticed is that the canals are a recycling system and the trash that you see today is usually not the trash that you see tomorrow. They aren't all that pretty sometimes, but the canals are fascinating to watch and try to understand. A big part of the ride when I take people out is to talk to them about how the canals work and their part in life out here.

But on a summer night just after sunset when you are riding by quicksilver with black palms and mulberry trees silhouetted in the water, they are breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

I used to breed tropical fish in aquaria. My experience has been that dead fish rotting in a tank (even in a 120 gallon tank with filtration) will contribute so much toxicity to the water than sensitive species will die. The fish in those canals must be hellishly tough species. Goldfish, for example, can and often do live in absolutely filthy water. When the concentration of pollutants increases gradually over time, the animals develop a tolerance and they adapt. Oddly enough, change the water quickly to pure clean water and these fish can and do die from shock. Maybe the Egyptians should just keep dumping animal corpses into the canals or risk having mass fish deaths from clean water. ;)


Noor said...

Hi Maryanne,

I'm currently doing my Masters at the University of Southampton in England. I'm putting together an e-book for one of my projects. The main issue i'm focusing on is upcycling plastic bags to try and decrease the amount of waste that exists in Egypt at the moment. It will also feature two young Egyptian designers that take plastic bags and create some beautiful looking bags, and electronic accessories with them.

I was wondering if I could get your permission to use the article you published above in my e-book. Proper credits will go to you as the author of course.

Thanks :)