Using research for a sustainable tomorrow

Pakistan contains diverse natural places and ecosystems and is home to incredibly diverse wildlife. Over the last century, a lack of understanding and awareness has led to human practices that have exploited the country’s natural resources without replenishing them.

A growing population and increasing infrastructure needs have also led to the decimation of animal habitats and forests, and resulted in loss and endangerment of animal and plant species only found in the country.

One of the ways in which WWF-Pakistan carries out its mission is by collaborating with local civil society organizations.

Gul Bahao is one such small grassroots organization with whom WWF-Pakistan has collaborated on training workshops on recycling.

Here in Pakistan, we as a society are not very research oriented; our education system in general has not really helped in developing a knack for it either. Those who decide to venture into this ‘odyssey’ mostly do so because of a natural inclination.

Nargis Latif, in her signature lab coat and black Peshawari chappals, fits the bill.

Looking around her ‘office’ or ‘research centre’, while waiting for her, my team and I silently search for any signs of research equipment. Around us is an unpaved mud floor with scrap material of all varieties piled around, and a structure with water in it accompanied by another structure in which a couple of employees are seated!

Gul Bahao is Pakistan’s first research centre on waste management, with a focus on environmental issues, and their solutions are based on simple and cheap technologies.

Nargis says: “The purpose of research is to come up with stuff that is beneficial for the people. This is the most satisfactory thing for any scientist. I have always been interested in research, as long as I can remember.”

Nargis Latif sits in a shelter made from recycled materials. © Gul Bahao

When she was younger, her primary interest was in agriculture and she wanted to attend the Agriculture University in Faisalabad. This, however, didn’t happen as in the past, sending girls to a different city alone, even for their education, was not a common practice in Pakistan. As an alternative she therefore enrolled in her home city of Karachi for a degree in botany.

Research is a key factor for the progress of education, invention and innovation. Nargis has dedicated her life to this and has a body of work going back two decades to show for it. Gul Bahao, which literally means ‘flow flowers’, was founded by her to fulfill a promise that she made with the Almighty.

Suffering complications related to childbirth, she was hanging between life and death. Despite being under the care of a reputable hospital in Karachi, the doctors were not able to help ease her pain. At the end of her strength, she prayed for either life or death and to be relieved of hanging in-between. Her prayers were answered in the form of her miraculous recovery. This is when she committed to do something for the betterment of the society.

It all started when Nargis took charge of her neighbourhood’s water pollution problem and got it resolved. The neighbours then asked her to take the lead on tackling the area’s mounting heaps of garbage and, as they say, the rest is history.

Karachi is the sixth most populated metropolis in the world with approximately 20 million people. On average the city generates more than 12,000 tons of garbage per day. Its economic wealth, as well as its rapid industrialization, make it an ideal case study in waste management and this is exactly what Gul Bahao has been doing.

In a period spanning over two decades, the research and experimentation efforts supported by a budget of more than $90,000 have covered several aspects of waste management. This has produced some highly effective products, ranging from mobile toilets to sophisticated futuristic concepts like the Garbage n Gold Bank.

The Garbage n Gold Bank was one of Gul Bahao’s most effective earlier campaigns, with the slogan ‘You give us garbage, we give you Gold’. This successfully motivated junk dealers, cottage industry and the informal economy to separate their garbage at source. The philosophy at play here is to exploit the close-knit link between our environment and economy.

Another example of Gul Bahao’s sustainable thinking has come with its use of plastic packing material, a significant source of inorganic waste, to design daily use products. Sadly, the usual practice is to burn this waste. This results in toxic fumes, adding to the already staggering issue of air pollution. However, if used sustainably, it can serve as a raw material for many products and in doing so be recycled.

Gul Bahao’s ‘Chandi Technology’ product uses this waste material to form various products ranging from furniture and carpets to water reservoirs, mobile home structures and even a small dam.

So far the highlight has been a mobile home called ‘Chandi Ghar’. This structure can be fully erected in approximately two hours with a few people only.

Three basic needs of people that have been overly sloganized but have not materialized for many in Pakistan are: roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothes and a house).

Pakistan’s markets are flooded with clothes and, despite all the inequalities, food is available in some form (the shrines of Sufi saints coming to the rescue of the marginalized). But a proper shelter is a glaring issue, both in urban and rural areas.

The ‘Chandi Ghar’ can come to the rescue with this issue. In the urban centres where it is becoming difficult for the majority to own land, these structures can provide shelter to tenants and serve as workers’ colonies, examination halls, entertainment units, etc.

In the rural areas, it is a sustainable alternative to mud houses ‒ a source of mounting health bills, which add to the already strained finances of the families, and also a soft target in any sort of natural calamity, another frequent occurrence these days.

With these structures as their homes, the rural population will have healthier living conditions and adequate protection from nature’s wrath as the homes can be easily dismantled and later reconstructed with ease.

Given the frequency of natural calamities all over the world due to which many lose their homes, this can truly be a gift of Karachi to the world.

A long-term benefit is that this development will help discourage the mass rural-to-urban migrations, which mainly occur due to lack of basic necessities. This in turn will help reduce the burden on large cities like Karachi that are already struggling to be sustainable.

So far some 150 to 200 ‘Chandi Ghar’ structures, with a lifespan of a decade, depending on the upkeep level, have been successfully installed all over Pakistan, from post-2005 earthquake installations to an entertainment unit for foreign dignitaries.

Driving force

Looking back at where it all started, Nargis recalls how she started off with a team of 70 rag pickers with whom she herself used to go out with a small caravan to collect the garbage. She repeatedly emphasizes that the input of all those, who were once part of the organization, needs to be acknowledged.

With tears in her eyes, she tells me how one employee who on a factory manager’s demand had not only to build 80 to 100 kg blocks out of the material Gul Bahao was selling him but had to transport it on his back, walking on a unsteady ramp to dump at the demanded spot.

From the outside this may look like easy and low-skill work, but in reality it is the complete opposite. In order to make practical end products, it has required intellect and patience from this social entrepreneur.

Her driving force is her undeterred faith in God, who has put her on this path and has blessed her with an intuitive mind that is constantly searching for solutions to problems caused by people.

Fatima Arif is a Senior Digital Media Officer from WWF-Pakistan.

Photos : © Gul Bahao

Building a future in which people live in harmony with nature.