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Fast growth buffets Cairo, Africa's largest urban area

The Greater Cairo-Giza urban region, with 13.1 million people, is the 13th largest metropolitan area of the world. Nonetheless, it is the largest urban area by far in either Africa or the Middle East. And Cairo's population is growing much faster than the rest of Egypt, with terrible results for life in this city.

Cairo is steadily getting more crowded and more difficult and frustrating for its inhabitants.

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Yet wherever one looks, there is new construction with high-rise buildings going up all along the banks of the Nile. Building cranes are sticking out above the skyline in every direction of this ancient city.

New luxury high-rise apartment buildings are under construction on the Giza bank of the river where the gentile walkups, many of them surrounded by gardens, are being replaced with glittering modern concrete apartment blocks.

One has to remember that in Egypt building takes time. The extension to the centrally located Hilton Hotel has been under construction for the past three years. Even though hotel rooms are badly needed in the city, progress is slow.

New hotels recently completed in favored downtown and river locations are booked many months ahead, despite prices that vie with the most expensive hotels in Europe. Their luxury restaurants are full -- and not only with tourists. Very often the visitors are not British and Americans as in the past, but from the countries of the Middle East.

The display of wealth and luxury, however, is limited to a small section of downtown.

Indeed, right on Tahir Square, the bus transportation center of Cairo, on which face the Hilton Hotel and Egypt's most famous museum, one gets a very different view of Cairo's life and problems.

Despite the pedestrian overpasses, which try to separate the people from the cars, and the newly built expressways, which are raised above the local traffic, the situation in the streets where people, cars, buses, donkey carts, trucks, motorcycles, and horse wagons compete is becoming more unmanageable all the time.

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What is more, Egypt clings to the traditional pattern of a long midday siesta , which results in double commuting --four times a day instead of two -- with terrible results in terms of traffic and an enormous waste of energy.

Immigration into Cairo from the rural areas continues unabated.

One reason is that there is just no more arable land. Yet rural families continue to have large numbers of children despite all family-planning programs heavily financed by the US.

The population is growing by a million a year, a study by the Egyptian Ministry of Planning shows. Since the area of land under cultivation has hardly increased, and the additional acreage irrigated by the Aswan High Dam has long since been absorbed, the people from the rural areas have nowhere to go but the towns, with the Cairo-Giza area preferred because it is believed it offers more jobs.

Besides, Cairo seems utterly glamorous to a villager.

Demographers predict -- incredibly -- that the population of Egypt will grow another 22 million to 25 million by the turn of the century; and it is a moot question how many of these people will come to live in and around Cairo.

Egypt is 40 percent urban and yet its population lives on only 4 percent of the land. Most of the country is sandy desert, as it has always been.Between 1966 and 1976, the population grew from 30.1 million to 36.8 million -- or by 6. 7 million in 10 years. Now the population is 42 million -- or 5.2 million more in less than half the time.

It is projected that the population of Egypt will swell to 69.5 million by the year 2000. The question arises: Where will those people go and on what will they live?

Food imports are heavily subsidized by the US. What every Egyptian eats -- all basic food items -- are rationed and in large part supported by the government, with the bill paid by the US.

Planning teams are asking the Ministry of Development and New Communities:

* How can this influx of people be channeled into manageable urban patterns?

* How can the valuable but extremely limited agricultural land be protected from becoming urbanized?

Farmland is scarce in Egypt, a country that is mostly desert except for a limited area along the Nile and the Mediterranean Coast. Yet it is precisely in the Nile Valley's fertile land where Cairo-Giza and other urban settlements were traditionally located.

Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, has a population of some 2.5 million. What once was a gracious cultural center, built for several hundred thousand people on a beautiful blue Mediterranean bay, has become hopelessly overcrowded.

During the late-afternoon shopping hours, one is propelled along through the downtown streets within a steady stream of people, interrupted only by the islands created by frequent street vendors.

Family planning clearly is at the root of Cairo's and Alexandria's problems, which will grow -- more than half the population is under 15 years old.

By now, squatters can be found in every unoccupied space between buildings in Cairo, and no one knows how many people crowd into the old sections of town near the Al Azhar Mosque or the ancient Citadel.

"The US aid program in Egypt, in existence since 1975, is the largest development effort in US history," according to Frontlines, the staff publication of the US Agency for International Development (AID). Some $3.8 billion has been committed for development activities during the past four years.

"A grant of $6.5 million will expand family-planning services to about 7 million persons in rural areas," says the publication. During the past two years, some $16.5 million went to family-planning services.

While family planning has become a government-supported activity, with many millions of dollars committed, one cannot help but wonder how this money was spent when one looks at Cairo's ever-more-crowded streets.

AID has spent $60 million on family planning in Egypt on programs developed under the guidance of Dr. Ray Ravenholt of AID's population bureau and the man who formulated all AID's population policies. Yet, according to government figures, only 15 percent of the urban population has been reached, and only 5 to 8 percent of the villagers know what family planning is.

Cairo's urban problems clearly cannot be settled without dealing with their causes.

Meanwhile, this once-beautiful city is rapidly deteriorating from overpopulation. Its services, despite recent investments in infrastructure, such as water and sewer systems, road construction, telephone lines, and other services, simply are unable to indefinitely expand.

The Egyptian Ministry of Development, which deals with housing, land, and new communities, has embarked on a new-town-building program. For the past 20 years of more, with limited success, the policy has been to develop satellite towns around Cairo.

Nasser City and Heliopolis are the two oldest "new towns," which by now have become part of Greater Cairo.

Other satellite towns are projected, such as "Sixth of October," "El Obour" north of Cairo, "El Amal," and more.

The new towns share two objectives:

* Keep people from streaming into overcrowded Cairo.

* Preserve agricultural land.

Much like Nasser City, which is entirely built on desert land, the planned satellite communities are to be built in areas where agricultural development is not possible and where urban development can spread without infringing on productive irrigated land.

In the rush to attract development, following the declaration of the open-door economic-development policy of President Sadat, a reversal from the past, all kinds of new development programs and plans were made with a view to attracting investors and industries from abroad.

Consultants were called in to make feasibility studies for projected development of all kinds related to urban and population growth. So far, these projects and programs have never been organized into a cohesive policy.

Recently, Tippets-Abbett-McCarley-Stratton (TAMS), a New York engineering and architectural firm, was called by the Ministry of Planning and New Communities to organize a team within the ministry to take charge of the situation and to coordinate the plans that were going ahead in different areas.

The TAMS team now is coordinating many activities and development plans.

It became apparent that what was needed most of all was a cohesive national urban policy.

It became apparent that what was needed most of all was a cohesive national urban policy.

Planning and Development Collaborative International (PADCO) of Washington, D.C., started the job last July with a completion date scheduled for the end of the year. The goal is to come up with an investment strategy for uran centers, both old and new, to channel population growth into productive, manageable development, and to keep Cairo and the old urban centers from strangling themselves.

Cities are the economic engines of each country, but to make them truly productive calls for discipline.

That is what urban planning must provide.

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