Egyptians are bracing themselves for the next season of smog that has come to visit the skies of Cairo and the surrounding cities every year for nearly two decades.
Known in Egypt as the black cloud, the dense smoke first appeared over Nile Delta cities and Cairo in 1997. It spread rapidly and now it accounts for 42% of the country’s air pollution, according to the Egyptian Environment Ministry.
The smog is partially caused by farmers piling up rice straw and burning it, because they lack the means to transfer the rice straw from their fields to recycling centres.
Over the years, there have been several attempts to tackle the problem.
Amal Taha, head of the environmental awareness department, says the ministry has struck a deal with a local company to use rice straw in cement production.
In a video produced by the ministry, it said that 1.7 million feddans were planted with rice in six governorates that left 3.4 million tonnes of straw. A feddan is an Egyptian unit of area equivalent to 1.038 acres (0.42 hectares). In at least four regions, the ministry is collecting the waste and recycling it into fertiliser and fodder.
“We teach farmers how to deal with the waste to make sure the solutions will be sustainable,” Taha says.
The ministry is now also using satellites to locate the spots where the farmers burn the straw. It has increased its ability to receive complaints and information about violations through a host of platforms including WhatsApp, Facebook, its website and a hotline.
Farmers who break the law could face a fine ranging from 5,000-100,000 Egyptian pounds ($316-6,300) and could be jailed in the case of a repeated violation.
But other more creative solutions are yet to be picked up.
An Egyptian teenager who won first place in 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is currently developing her project to utilise the massive amounts of agricultural waste.
“I am trying to put an end to the black cloud and to benefit from it at the same time,” Yasmeen Moustafa told the BBC. “I believe that the only way to get rid of the massive amounts of rice straw that we produce is to burn it; this is the fastest and the cheapest way. But the problem is in the polluting gases. So I found a way to use these gases to produce biodiesel, fertilisers, vitamin B and hydropower.”
In recognition of her project “Rice Straw Power”, Nasa named an asteroid belt discovered in 2000 after her.
Yasmeen says her project began as an inquiry into low-cost techniques for water purification. Along the way, she found that the main material used in the biological filtration process was rice straw.
“We burn the waste with heat levels reaching 1,200 degrees Celsius, with which we can distillate water,” she explains. “The emitted gases are then treated separately.”
Yasmeen says all the materials needed, like rice straw and algae from stagnant water, are considered natural waste and are cheap. But one limitation to the project’s success is the cost of building a plant where the process can take place.
“I am working now on a design to shrink its size so it could be easily used by farmers,” she says.
Yasmeen is developing her project to sell it to private companies, and she hopes the government will also adopt her idea.
“I am sure there are several new and creative initiatives. If the government works on the execution of one per year, they would save effort and money and would encourage young inventors,” she adds.
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