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Published on June 17, 2010

Welcome to an energy wonderland

Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ? Remember the inventiveness, ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity the golden ticket winners witnessed in Willie Wonka's world? Behind the gates of Al-Azhar Park, and with no need for a golden ticket, visitors who flocked to the World Environment Day (WED) celebration on 5 June also caught a glimpse of another reality, an alternative version of their daily lives should they finally choose to step where the grass is greener.
Picture a long queue that never seemed to dwindle over the course of seven hours, where children and adults alike awaited their turn for a one-minute bicycle ride that would take them absolutely nowhere. Nope, this is not a riddle, though one day it may well be. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the water-filtering bike: by employing the kinetic energy from the cycling motion of the rider, this device cleans and filters water -- and it was just one of the dozens of inventions presented to the public. Mind-blowing.
Shouldering the responsibility, for the third year, of organising the WED celebration held on 5 June at Al-Azhar Park, the Wadi Environmental Science Centre (WESC) faced a challenging task. On this UN-designated "Year of Biodiversity" -- and when words such as "environment", "sustainability", "renewable energy", "recycling" and the rest seem to be enjoying growing appeal, though without the necessary commensurate action on either the public's or the individual's part to back them up -- the mission of this reputable NGO was indeed formidable.
How do you shift people's attitudes towards the world they inhabit? From mere consciousness of the possibility of an alternative existence relying on methods that are as yet unfamiliar to the masses, to actual individual daily implementation, is a huge leap akin to preaching a new religion. It does not ultimately matter how lofty the goal is. Whether the aim is saving the planet, the global community or even the entire galaxy with all of its inhabitants, if the individual's curiosity and interest are not personally piqued, then good luck getting him or her to lift so much as a finger, as long as he or she continues to believe tomorrow is yet another day.
This WESC understands all too well, having confronted such a mass pattern of thinking, or of being, with unrelenting stamina for the eight years of its fruitful existence.
Joining efforts with the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, the WESC transformed Al-Azhar Park's lakeside ground into a fully-fledged amusement fair -- without the slightest harm to the environment, since this was the first Carbon Zero event to take place in Egypt. Now, a little bit about that. A "carbon footprint" is the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions -- accepted as being the cause of global warming threatening biodiversity, ecosystems and the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people -- caused by an event, organisation or product.
By calculating the WED 2010 celebration's Carbon Footprint -- which amounts to 27 tons of CO2 equivalent caused by transporting those estimated to attend the event -- the WESC joins international events, such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup currently underway, and organisations, such as the United Nations, that have also calculated their Carbon Footprints. Taking matters a step further, by offsetting the emissions from WED 2010, the WESC made the day the first Carbon Zero event in Egypt.
For many, the notion of "footprinting" is rather alien, for the biggest challenge facing the environment is in fact how blindly humanity takes the planet for granted -- and that is precisely why such a relatively novel concept as footprinting raises immense awareness in and of itself. The idea of calculating the damage immediately implies that damage is inflicted. With all of our technology, we have yet to begin to comprehend the wisdom of communities who continue to benefit from the bounty of the earth without depleting it.
A member of one such community was Am Jameel, who had come all the way from Saint Catherine's in Sinai to spend the day at Al-Azhar Park, upon the WESC's invitation, educating those who stopped by his "booth": a piece of cloth, extended on the grass, upon which medicinal herbs, handcrafted items, and hand-woven textiles were available for all to see, in all their simple and glorious beauty.
Throughout the day, adults and children streamed from one booth to another, their faces puzzled, surprised and enthralled at the discoveries presented to them under the four themes of the day: energy, waste, water and biodiversity. The crowds seemed to have stepped into wonderland. The simpler and, hence, more "naturally" logical, the invention on display, the wider their eyes opened and the brighter their smiles shone.
My eyes began to shut with soothing bliss as I entered the video room. It was not the films about Egypt's biodiversity, problems of pollution, the impact of climate change and the solutions to combat it that caused my muscles to relax and my head to tilt back with joy -- though judging by the audience's complete disregard of my entry as it focused on the screen, the films must have been quite gripping.
The video room was filled with cold air on a Cairo summer day, without the presence of an air conditioner. It was impossible to conclude that the fan in the room was responsible for the drastic temperature drop I gleefully experienced inside, and yet it was. For those, like me, who suffer from the unrelenting summer heat of Egypt, the "Desert Cooling Room" created by Tabreed is nothing short of a miracle. A spectacular innovation in the world of cooling systems, the cooling room relies on a fan and water trickling down corrugated cardboard panels on the walls to bring the temperature down by 10-15 degrees Celsius without using harmful chemicals or consuming much energy -- unlike traditional air conditioners.
Although I would have gladly spent the rest of the day in the cooling room, there was much more to be explored in each of the designated stations, all carefully and accurately mapped. I was advised by the WESC team to begin with the Technology Area, which even from a distance seemed to act like a magnet to the flocking crowds. One school trip after another paused at the various technological displays, their minds visibly working hard at assimilating each strange-looking design, their fascinating jobs and the ways in which they safeguard the environment while providing a similar -- if not better -- performance than their environmentally-unfriendly counterparts.
The reference here is not to solar water heaters -- though they, too, were exhibited though they have yet to break into Egyptian homes -- but to a number of simple mechanisms inspired by nature or invented by man. Lotus-effect paint, for example, is a self-cleaning paint inspired by the lotus plant. There was also a practical solar panel application that can be carried around to charge phones and laptops and a biogas digester that harnesses energy from household waste, simultaneously recycling refuse while creating additional energy.
Issues of space were addressed by vertical planting, a model contributed by AUC's Desert Development Centre, vertical wind turbines and window farming -- an alternative system of hydroponic farming that maximises growing space within the household.
Display booths were allocated to environmental NGOs and institutions aiming at presenting ideas, products or projects aligned with the purpose of sound living, educational awareness and environmental conservation. Among the bodies represented was Sekem, offering an array of its biodynamically-farmed natural pharmaceuticals and organic products. Founded in 1977, Sekem is a transliteration of a hieroglyph signifying "vitality", and it refers to the improvement of living conditions on earth.
The German Hans Seidel Foundation, host of a large- scale conference on sustainable development last month (see http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/201... ), was also present to plough further the path it set for itself in 1978 when its community development operations first began in Egypt.
The Danish multinational manufacturer of pumps and water application systems Grundfos, founded in 1945, was demonstrating respect for energy consumption and use of materials through its products, while AmidEast, the American education-geared NGO, was shedding light on the services and programmes employed in its efforts to foster development. Wadi Holdings, the largest producer of organic food in Egypt, was naturally not missing out on the festivities aligned with its philosophy.
And, suddenly, music. The crowds gathered to tunes wafting on the midday air. The Garbage Band was playing and visitors were enchanted: the instruments are all made from trash, granting a new and useful second life to items that would otherwise have made their way to yet another dumping site. A number of children, busy producing recycled paper under one tent, stepped outside to lend an ear. Thousands of people witnessed the reincarnation of rubbish into music; most of them now have something to reflect upon every time they head to the garbage bin in their own homes.
The WESC's impeccable reputation and successful history are the products of dedication, creativity and resilience built on conviction. Too wise to attempt to reinvent the wheel, the WESC simply took its own modus operandi to Al-Azhar Park, where the WED festivities were intended to raise awareness and enlighten visitors -- especially younger visitors.
The approach was to address the creative aspect of the challenge in order to ignite a personal conviction within each person, each child, fuelling his or her self-motivated dedication to walk the green path with resilience. A delighted child is a convinced child; and a convinced child has immense power within the family, especially when his parents know that he or she is right -- there are indeed other, better, ways of living.



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