The Green Pilgrim

People around the world are campaigning to transform the world’s largest religious gathering, the Arbaeen of Imam Hussain (A.S.), into a green event this year.

In less than a month, the world’s largest human gathering is about to take place in Karbala, Iraq. This, inevitably means a flood of plastic waste will follow! To raise awareness and to encourage pilgrims to carry reuseable bottles, The Green Pilgrim movement was initiated last January.

The Plastic Threat

Iraq, besides being historically and culturally valuable as the site of some of the earliest civilizations, is of particular significance for Muslims worldwide. It hosts the Holy Shrine of Imam Ali (A.S.) in Najaf and that of Imam Hussain (A.S.) in Karbala.

Both Najaf and Karbala are some of the world’s biggest religious tour attractions. The cities lie beside the great river Euphrates – where some of world’s first civilizations lived.

I was there in January 2019 and I saw how plastic waste is taking over the rivers, fields and even the historic sites themselves. The River Euphrates has suffered greatly during Iraq’s recent years of horrific warfare, when thousands of people were brutally murdered and the bodies floated in the rivers. Military waste was dumped, alongside other dangerous chemicals. But besides all this, plastic waste, the fourth largest pollutant, is continuing to afflict the river so much that the farmers are relocating their farms. Villages around the river are suffering greatly. Last year, much of the fish in the river were found dead, floating on the surface mysteriously.

A large amount of plastic trash currently comes from the cups offered to pilgrims.

I started collecting some facts and figures.

“We disposed off thousands of plastic cups each day,” says Sabah, an employee of the Holy Shrine of  Hazrat Abbas (A.S.). “During the Makhsoosi, or important days when the number of pilgrims increase, we use more than 30,000 plastics cups from this one Shrine.’’

The environmental impact of one pilgrim during their 10-day stay in Iraq is significant, if measured in plastic alone.

Plastic cups used: 100

Plastic spoons used: 40

Paper cups used: 40

Each week 3 million pilgrims visit Karbala and Najaf in Iraq. During their stay they are offered water in sealed water cups and on average more than 2,400,000 plastic cups are consumed weekly. More than 60 million pilgrims from 40 countries and 25 cities of Iraq visit Karbala and Najaf each year and waste more than 48,000,000 plastic cups. The number is rising each year.

I spoke to a religious tour operator, Masoom Ali, who was leading a group of 50 pilgrims from Karachi and asked how many plastic cups, paper cups for tea and plastic spoons does he use during his trip. He displayed his collection on the table and shared, “It is our fourth day here and so far we have consumed 1,000 plastic cups and spoons around 600 paper cups for tea.”

Once the video got viral the Holy Shrines got in touch with me and invited me to send a proposal. I shared my research and alternate solutions that I thought they can adopt and promote.

The proposal was accepted and people have started implementing some changes already. sex in zürich –

“When I reach the Shrine every morning, I drink water from the cooler and keep that glass in my pocket. It stays with me all day. My colleagues also make fun of me – that there are so many glasses and yet you carry this one glass!” shares Hassan from the media department of the Imam Hussain Shrine, “I reply to them that we are accountable for everything that we use unnecessarily.”

It was heartwarming to see how the media department of the Imam Hussain Shrine not only shared detailed information and made their team available for further documentation, but also committed to starting a series of initiatives to educate the local community on this.

Meanwhile, here in Pakistan, volunteers took responsibility for printing posters and reaching out to tour operators, educating them about the environmental aspect and getting pledges signed. Religious tour groups also included a segment in their pre-tour lectures about The Green Pilgrim Movement.

Iraqi volunteers at Karbala take part in the removal of plastic waste during the Arbaeen walk

The Green Solution

I understand that there are many stakeholders involved. Dialogue is in progress with all of them including the Holy Shrines themselves.

It is an immense task to turn the world’s largest pilgrimage green. But we hope that this initiative can eventually be realized once people begin seeing it as a service to Imam Hussain (A.S.).

And we believe it can begin with each pilgrim carrying 1 reusable bottle, 1 metal spoon and 1 reusable teacup.

It has been a great start already and it is heartwarming to see more and more individuals becoming eco-activists in this regard.

Fawad Rizvi, a passionate volunteer, made the effort to personally meet many tourism agencies to raise awareness.

Berak Hussain, an International Student Counsellor at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, and Asad Raza, a young community leader from London, UK, joined us. They hope to spread the message in their respective cities while activists around Pakistan volunteer to make a difference.

“We are trying our best to be eco-friendly during our inter-faith tours during Muharram.” shares Hunain Zaidi from Ideas 9 Lahore.

“The message is very important needs to be discussed from the pulpit.” notes Molana Nusrat Bukhari, a spiritual speaker based in Qom, Iran, and visiting Pakistan for Muharram.

“I talked about our role in being plastic free during pilgrimage from the pulpit this year,” shares Subeika Rizvi, senior lecturer at DHA Suffa University and public speaker.

“It is the jihad of the present age. The problem is huge. But we must keep trying!” adds Shuja Rizvi.

Zahra Ali is a sustainability educator, writer and environmentalist. This piece was published by The Friday Times.