AAs a young girl, I used to check the weather by looking out the window of my fifth floor apartment. We lived in a congested section of Cairo, and some days were what I called “orange weather,” when sandstorms fogged the streets below.
In those days, I knew I couldn’t go to school. I had asthma and needed to avoid attacks that could leave me breathless and was in desperate need of an inhaler. I always wondered: Was I the only one skipping school that day to protect my lungs?
It was only when I moved to Dubai a decade later that I began to understand how a changing climate might affect my life.
I recently woke up to another sandstorm. This time from my ninth floor flat on the west side of Dubai. The misty blur from my window was familiar, but this time I didn’t hesitate to step out my front door to meet my friend.
Asthma is quite common in Egypt, affecting about 8% of children and 6% of adults, according to Egypt’s health ministry. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rates are between 2.8% and 8%.
The Middle East has always been affected by dust and sandstorms and is considered one of the dustiest regions in the world. The frequency of these storms is said to be increasing, causing financial losses of $13 billion annually, according to the World Bank.
Polluted air and dust storms can have a serious impact on public health, causing respiratory diseases in addition to environmental damage. But, if the whole region is affected by these storms, is it more bearable in some cities than in others?
I’ve been back and forth between these two cities and they are different in many ways. Greater Cairo is home to over 25 million people, making it the most populated city in the Middle East. The country has been suffering from air pollution for decades, aggravated by exhaust from transport and industrial waste. Every year, according to Egypt’s health ministry, two million people seek medical treatment for respiratory health problems.
Just a three-hour flight away is Dubai, home to 3.5 million people. Being one of the fastest growing economies has given the UAE government more opportunities to invest in building cleaner infrastructure. However, the air is still polluted as the PM2.5 concentration in Dubai is 116 times higher than the WHO recommended air quality value.
The difference is in the resources. Cairo wants to fix it. Egypt is hosting COP27, the United Nations climate conference, and is making efforts to reduce the frequency of dust storms. But social media in the country reported a number of downed trees in eastern Cairo, something the former environment minister confirmed and called vital to prevent “problems” with underground cables and pipes.
Sometimes it seems that the dust storms are out of control as they hit the Middle East region where many parts are desert. In the UAE, authorities usually advise against driving during sandstorms. But how will people fare, given that there will be more and more of these storms, with hotter summers by 2050, according to a 2017 report by the Emirates Wildlife Society? This is expected to affect outdoor workers and increase health risks.
In Cairo, the authorities are also issuing warnings to people with respiratory diseases, the elderly and children during sandstorms to avoid leaving their homes.
Both countries are bound to face this inevitable condition from time to time, but it is difficult to compare the infrastructure available to a developing nation with the resources afforded to a wealthy oil-rich Gulf state.
Cairo is charming, but hectic. The buildings hug each other tightly, almost to the point of suffocation. Walking its streets is one of my favorite activities. I’d rather spend my commute time outdoors than in a stuffy vehicle. Strolling through the evening beauties of the city is best accompanied by a soundtrack from Umm Kulthum to the electro shaabi. But, even though I love it, the air is anything but fresh.
Dubai doesn’t have the same rich and ramshackle street life. The air is more humid and the boardwalks aren’t always designed for casual strolls. My commute consists of walking from my building to a car, then to another air-conditioned tower in a city perfectly equipped to deal with dust storms. All buildings, towers, premises, shopping malls and offices are air-conditioned. When we socialize in the evening, we meet indoors at covered entertainment venues or chilly malls. In the UAE, I have never seen life stop when a storm hits the way it does in Cairo. The office work goes on. It’s business as usual.
Both countries are working to improve air quality. The UAE, which is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate crisis risks, is working with the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Group on Air Pollution and Health to find solutions.
And in May, Egypt launched a 2050 strategy to tackle the climate crisis by reducing emissions, improving infrastructure to finance climate projects and preparing for global warming adaptability. The country also announced plans in August to plant 100 million trees in more than 9,000 locations to double green spaces and reduce greenhouse gases.
The threat of climate collapse is facing every country. Yet, Cairo and Dubai experience it so differently. It’s surprising how the economic strength of countries, even if in the same region, can influence efforts to prepare for a warmer climate. World governments are making promises, but are it the actions that made a sandstorm in one city more bearable than the other? And while the scale of the necessary action can be different – comparing a city of 25 million inhabitants with another of 3.5 million – I keep asking myself: what is the main factor, the economic capacity or the adaptation of the country to the its climate?