Thursday, February 13, 2014

El Gouna: The Green Star Of Egypt

By: Nevine A. Abaza

Published in Identity Magazine. July 2011.

When I first heard about how “eco-friendly” and “green” El Gouna is, my honest first thought to myself was “what a typical cliché, its just another marketing scam”! But my thought was instantly corrected and changed during my interview with Sherife Abdel Messih, the Environmental Advisor of the Chairman of ‘Orascom Hotels and Development’ on renewable energy projects, and the founder and CEO of ‘Future Energy Corporation’, the leading company serving renewable energy industry in the Middle east and North Africa. El Gouna quite simply is an environmentally friendly, zero waste, energy saving, green, beachside resort, with no compromise on comfort or style.

El Gouna started as a few villas around a small hotel, and as it grew, its environmental consciousness grew with it. The echo-chique trend started in 2005 when the international magazines and media started shining light on environmentally friendliness, and we started seeing a lot of celebrities since then lead a green lifestyle, drive environmentally friendly cars. It became very fashionable to become environmentally conscious, not only in the circles of celebrities and public figures, but also in businesses; a lot of companies started to adopt an environmentally friendly image so they could stand out and match the trend. El Gouna on the other hand has been environmentally friendly before environmentally friendly even became fashionable. They started working on reducing their carbon footprint as early as 2002, and they committed to becoming one of the top environmental destinations in the world.

Zero Waste Program
El Gouna developed this recycling process that recycles and reuses everything that comes up from the waste. It’s a centralised process whereas all the waste is collected from the different houses, villas, hotels, into a central facility where the recycling takes place. The trash gets sorted out, the commodities such as aluminium and glass are taken out and they get crushed and transported to recycling factories. Plastic bags are recycled and turned into clothes hangers that are used in all of our rooms. Papers and cartons are turned into carton bags and other carton products that are used in supermarkets and gift shops. The organic waste is processed into compost and used as fertilisers for the gardens and the landscaping. And finally anything that’s left from all this that is non-recyclable or hasn’t been used, instead of being thrown away and causing litter, they take them and process them into other products, such as ground tiles, construction separators, manhole covers. 25% of the solid waste is recycled in El Gouna, whereas the remainder is sold via intermediaries of recycling plants all over Egypt. By the end of the day El Gouna has the ability to recycle 100% of their waste, a very efficient system by design as it doesn't exclude any type of waste like a lot of systems used around the globe. “How much of the waste can you recycle? For El Gouna it is 100%. How much of your waste are you applying this to? That is a smaller factor of 85%, and the reason for that is just like with any other town or factory, it is very hard to constantly keep up with your demand; Gouna is growing and the waste is growing, so its very hard at every single point to scale up and recycle 100% of the waste. So there is a point where we have enough capacity to meet 100% of all the trash, but a few months later suddenly the trash is increasing and we have to build more capacity, and to do that it takes more time. That’s easily correctable, it just takes some time to build up and wrap up your capacity. The innovation is really in developing a process that can recycle 100% of the waste, and that’s what Gouna has done.” explains Abdel Messih.

Waste Water Management Systems
El Gouna recognises the quality of the fresh water that would be really wasted if used to water the gardens, which is why they collect all of the waste water, treat it, and utilise it for the irrigation of the golf courses and greenery throughout the resort. The solid part of the waste water, the manure, is used as compost to fertilise the soil. To meet their landscaping needs, they take the waste water of Hurgada, treat it, and use it as well.

Creating a Fresh Water Source
“We see a huge untapped resource; the Red Sea” says Abdel Messih. Instead of using fresh water from the government, El Gouna supplies their own water by desalinating water from the red sea, turning it into fresh water that is used in all houses, hotels, and utilities in El Gouna.

Energy Saving
Efforts by El Gouna are implemented to conserve energy throughout the town. They encourage the use of energy saving lamps and solar water heaters at hotels, villas, and apartments. Energy saving cards are also used in Hotel guest rooms. 

Encouraging low energy mobility
To encourage low energy mobility, El Gouna is one of a few places in Egypt that developed a special lane for biking and walking. It encourages people to, instead of taking buses, limousines, and their own cars that burn fuel, to take a bike and to walk. Not only is it good for the environment, it is also good for our health!

El Gouna Farms
In an act of self-containment, El Gouna created a certified organic farm where they grow local organic products, as well as a fish farm that makes use of the rejected water from the desalinating units.

The Green Star Program
With the awareness of the grave risks tourism can have on the environment, El Gouna has voluntarily committed itself to sustainable development that maintains the natural beauty of their location. To raise awareness and highlight the importance of this, El Gouna developed The Green Star Program with the same concept of the regular hotel star ratings, except that it ranks hotels on how environmentally friendly they really are. Abdel Messih explained that “if a hotel is rated with one star, then you are providing limited environmental consciousness to your hotel, whereas if you take four or five stars you are on a much higher level than others. Gouna has developed this program and applied it to its hotels, and that program is ready to be applied to all hotels in Egypt”. The program is based upon internationally recognised criteria, including baseline criteria developed by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), and a range of other international organisations.

El Gouna’s Active Community
El Gouna aims to involve members of it’s community in the protection and preservation of their environment. They do this by applying a certain standards and environmentally friendly practices that involves the members of the community and benefits the town as a whole. Not only do the recycling bins installed in public areas involve the community, but also the recycling program itself; whether you’re a tourist or a worker, or an Egyptian visitor, at the end of the day your waste will make it into the centralised recycling program. Fencing mangrove trees as special preserves, clean-up campaigns, the enforcement of environmental standards and guidelines, and an annual ‘Earth Day’ help raise awareness and educate El Gouna community on the importance of  the environment, and brings them together to preserve it. 
One thing I was truly curious about was the effect of all this on the workers and how were they reacting to it. “I visited some of the workers of El Gouna who live on farms, and I saw solar water heaters on top of their buildings! it was something good to see” said Abdel Messih, further explaining that “The environment is not for the rich only, at the end of the day if you live in a bad environment, a polluted environment, the rich are not going to breathe nice air and the poor breathe bad air, everyone is going to breathe the same air, in the same way everyone should be environmentally conscious and do what’s within their scope. Adopting solar water heating technology pays back for itself because you don’t need to pay for electricity to heat your water”.

Baffled by the amazing work done in El Gouna and seeing that it works so well, one cannot help but wonder why are we living in an overly polluted and littered country?!
“You can have great initiatives from places like El Gouna, but it will never grow into a national industry unless the government acts positively. In 2004 Cairo was rated by the world bank as the second most polluted city in the world, how far can we go with that? We are already experiencing problems, such as water and energy shortages. We really have to seek out new and renewable technologies, especially that we’ve been blessed with the wealth of renewable energy reserves, solar energy, wind energy; we have some of the highest reserves in the world, if not the highest! This is really a competitive advantage and we really need to build an industry around it. It is something that will employ a lot of jobs, save the government a lot of money, and you could create a world class industry around it. The government doesn’t have to spend and create a multibillion dollar budget for it; they just have to create the right policies that would stimulate the growth and the adoption of renewable energy technologies. Egypt has the potential to become one of the largest renewable energy industry in the next 10-15 years!

El Gouna was the one who took the initiative, the risks, the financing. El Gouna took the hit, and the learning curve to driving something that is successful. Now we got it to that point, and we didn’t burden the government. It’s our gift to the Egyptian government, they can take what we’ve done so far and they replicate it, and we’d be very happy to work with them to help them replicate it.”- Sherif Abdel Messih.

Based on an interview with Sherife Abdel Messih, the Environmental Advisor of the Chairman of ‘Orascom Hotels and Development’ on renewable energy projects, and the founder and CEO of ‘Future Energy Corporation’, the leading company serving renewable energy industry in the Middle east and North Africa. Published in Identity Magazine, July 2011.

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