Observing Peshawar’s Syed Bilal Shah, a youth deeply concerned about the hazards of air pollution and the global threat of climate change is akin to witnessing a modern-day embodiment of the Legend of the Hoopoe (Hudhud).
Much like the legendary bird carrying a small drop of water to extinguish Nimrod’s raging fire, Shah strives to combat climate change, a peril more extensive and frightening than Nimrod’s inferno. This crisis imperils the survival of humanity and the planet itself, underscoring its man-made origins and the imperative for human intervention.
Bilal Shah, a BS student in the Department of Film and TV, initiated the “Sheen Pekhawar” (Green Peshawar) campaign. In its nascent stage, Shah was joined by two companions, Arooj and Uzair. Today, the campaign has burgeoned into a collective effort with the participation of 15 to 16 individuals. Shah envisions further growth as awareness spreads among the populace.
How did “Sheen Pekhawar” Emerge?
In a conversation with TNN, Bilal Shah expounded on the genesis of “Sheen Pekhawar.” As an art student with a profound appreciation for nature, Shah was motivated by the changing environmental landscape and escalating air pollution in Peshawar. The city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) soared to 266, and PM2.5 concentration peaked at 215.8µg/m³ on a Wednesday night, a staggering 43.2 times higher than the WHO’s annual air quality guideline value.
Disturbed by these alarming figures, Shah decided to take action. He pondered the unprecedented heat in Peshawar, the surge in diseases, and the deteriorating weather conditions. The revelation that residents were advised to wear masks 24/7 to shield themselves from airborne diseases intensified his quest for the root cause.
Shah’s research unveiled the necessity for green energy initiatives and electric vehicle infrastructure. Acknowledging the economic challenges, he discovered that planting trees could significantly alleviate the adverse effects of climate change.
Bilal drew inspiration from the West, observing how stringent laws and public awareness protected plants. Witnessing the respect accorded to trees, he noted that people would dismantle a wall near a plant but refrain from cutting down the plant itself. This heightened appreciation for greenery and environmental consciousness prompted Bilal to instill a similar awareness among his fellow Pashtuns.
Funding “Sheen Pekhawar”
As Bilal and his team venture into the city’s suburbs, including Chamkani, Phandu, Ghaz Chowk, and Pakha Ghulam, the financial sustenance for “Sheen Pekhawar” becomes pivotal. Bilal shares that the campaign, though relatively recent, originated with a unique approach. When a child was born in a family or village, they planted a tree in the child’s name, fostering an emotional connection.
Of the 1,100 distributed and planted trees, 200 were funded through grants, and relatives generously supported the remaining. Continuous efforts to secure grants and sponsorships keep the campaign alive.
In addition to distributing plants, including moringa and Copernicus, “Sheen Pekhawar” provides bio-degradable bags to communities, fostering awareness against plastic use. The campaign extends its impact by approaching owners of smoke-emitting vehicles, urging them to address the issue promptly.
Bilal Shah reflects on the mixed response from the communities visited thus far. While some individuals exhibit encouraging support, he acknowledges the challenges faced in Pakhtunkhwa.
Despite visits to numerous institutions, governmental and non-governmental alike, Bilal expresses gratitude to the fifteen to sixteen individuals who joined the cause. Undeterred by the limited support, Bilal emphasizes their determination to persevere. The campaign is open to collaboration with any organization, governmental or non-governmental, willing to finance, support, or contribute plants.
Bilal underscores the intrinsic satisfaction derived from working for the environment and the community, a profound sense of peace that cannot be substituted.
Invitation for Youth Participation
In a broad invitation, Syed Bilal Shah encourages the youth of the city and the province to join the collective effort. He extends an invitation to initiate campaigns like Green Mardan and Green Swabi, mirroring the success of the Green Peshawar campaign. Bilal emphasizes the need for collective action to foster a greener and healthier environment.
Effectiveness of “Sheen Pekhawar”
Abdul Rahman Khan, an environmentalist with 30 years of professional experience, lauds the Green Peshawar Campaign but suggests directing Bilal Shah & Co.’s efforts towards more impactful avenues.
While recognizing the importance of tree plantations and anti-plastic campaigns, Khan asserts that these initiatives alone cannot effectively combat Peshawar’s air pollution. Contrary to misconceptions, the region’s primary issue is not carbon, which is a global concern, but fine particulate matter. To address this, comprehensive measures are needed in the transport, industrial, agricultural, and energy sectors, including reforms in brick kilns. Road conditions and dust management are additional focal points.
Methane Challenge and Innovations in Waste Management
Identifying methane as a significant greenhouse gas originating from waste, Khan proposes innovative wastewater management as a solution. He emphasizes that not only can effective wastewater management tackle the methane problem, but it also has the potential to convert waste into valuable resources and energy. Khan and his team have prepared a comprehensive feasibility report and are actively engaging with relevant authorities to implement these solutions.
Native Plant Focus and Forest Growth Proposal
While Khan acknowledges the importance of tree plantations, he insists on prioritizing native plants and conserving existing greenery. Non-native or exotic plants, according to him, can be detrimental as they destroy surrounding vegetation and are prone to diseases. Khan introduces a transformative idea: establishing a forest of 8 million plants, primarily brass, in the southern dry and barren areas of the city, including Bara, Azakhel, Dara Adam Khel, and Zalozai. This ambitious endeavor aims not only to mitigate air pollution but also to trap greenhouse gases permanently. Furthermore, Khan envisions this forest fostering economic activities with financial benefits for landowners.
Urban Green Space Concerns
Expressing regret over the city’s loss of large, old trees, Khan highlights the destruction of green spaces due to construction projects, notably the BRT. He points out the alarming disparity in green space availability, stating that Peshawar’s 54% built-up area contrasts sharply with only 2% green spaces. The per capita availability of green spaces in Peshawar is a mere 1.5 m², falling significantly below both national and international standards set by WHO. Khan urges urgent action to improve this situation, considering the limited time and substantial work required.
Call for Practical Steps and Awareness
Fawad Ali, a senior journalist specializing in the environment and climate change, underscores the widespread impact of air pollution and climate change on every sector of life. He criticizes the prevalent ignorance among most of the population while accusing the government of criminal negligence.
Despite the formulation of climate policies and action plans, Ali laments their limited translation into practical actions. Urging swift, practical steps, he emphasizes the importance of spreading awareness at the local level.
In addition to the vital role played by professors, teachers, and students, Ali highlights the significance of media and community interest groups, citing Bilal’s efforts. He advocates a specific focus on engaging youth and women, asserting that everyone has a role in awakening collective environmental consciousness.
Note: The story is produced under the supervision of Mr. Tayyeb Afridi and in collaboration with Report for the World.