Published on Arab Voices

A green school in Egypt offers lessons on coping with climate change

With the region and the world in desperate need of innovative approaches to climate change, Egyptian social entrepreneur Mohamed Ashraf Abdel Samad discusses a project that is not only a boon to the environment but also addresses poverty—and is ready for export.

The Shagara project The Middle East is plagued by so many issues—severe economic problems, civil wars, and the threat of radical armed groups—that it is easy to push climate change to the bottom of everyone’s agenda. But the magnitude of the challenges brought about by man-made global warming to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could reverse this.

Besides, we appear to have started to witness climate change already. Since documenting global temperatures began 130 years ago, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have been very recent ones, from 2000–2015. No wonder, then, that extreme weather has increased significantly, too. In the year 2010, droughts and wildfires hit grain exporting regions of Russia and Eastern Europe; severe floods in Pakistan caused such damage to crops that food prices went up by 40%. In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organization released a report warning of the “catastrophic impact” of global warming, saying developing countries that relied on food imports would suffer most.

Rising seawater levels can increase the salinity of vital sources of fresh drinking water, as well as increasing the salinity of soil in farming land. Droughts, irregular seasons, higher temperatures, and the loss of fertile land, could reduce agricultural output by up to half. Human health is an additional concern: Malaria and bilharzia are expected to increase in Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco, while more sandstorms could make respiratory illnesses more common. Rising temperatures threaten to shrink the region’s scarce water resources even further. The volume and flow of water could decrease by up to 70% in the River Nile, 80% in the River Jordan, and 30% in the River Euphrates, before 2100—the end of this century.

The thought of impending catastrophe prompted me to start Shagara (‘tree’ in Arabic) back in 2011, mainly to offset my own carbon emissions! The idea of Shagara is to act by planting trees and plants inside cities to offset problems, increase environmental awareness, and—last but not least—help the economically disadvantaged. To do this, Shagara integrates vegetation into urban areas, blending design concepts with modern agricultural techniques and architecture.

Vegetation does wonders when it comes to environmental benefits: It lessens the effects of climate change by acting as a major “sponge” or reserve of carbon dioxide (C02). A healthy tree can absorb almost 5kg of CO2 a year.

With poverty still a challenge, though, we also needed to find a way to offset emissions and reduce poverty.

LogoShagara is about getting plants to provide people who don’t have much money with a little more. The raw materials we use are, therefore, labor intensive and have the lowest environmental footprint possible. Some examples are palm reeds, tightly-packed earth, rice straw, and upcycled plastic bottles.

Our flagship project is “Shagara at School”. Egyptian public schools suffer from various issues already. Their overall educational environment is not very good. The infrastructure is poor and keeping them hygienic is a problem. Activities to empower students and improve their skills are often absent. Teachers of marginal subjects, like agriculture, receive low salaries.

Shagara realized that public schools had some assets, though, that it could use to create value that would be shared for the public good. Schools contain relatively large spaces, including rooftops, and in some cases, have lots of empty space around them. They also have agricultural classes and teachers. And lastly, new students enter schools every year. 

Roofs can be converted into productive rooftop farms that act as a carbon sink, provide income to the school’s lowest paid staff, increase the food supply, and are a platform for student activity. Empty areas around the schools that currently attract garbage can be used instead to grow indigenous species of plants that consume less water than exotic species, promoting healthier ecosystems and offsetting carbon emissions. Agriculture teachers could head the gardening teams—necessary to keep the project going. Through it, students could learn about climate change and, potentially, help spread the practice elsewhere.

The Shagara project was carried out for the first time at a school in Egypt’s Al-Qalyubia Governorate in February 2013. It met with phenomenal enthusiasm from the students and teachers, some applying what they learned at school back at home. Started in 2013, it is still going, the school extending it in 2015 by using its own resources after receiving an award for quality for the second year running.

With success like this, I see no reason why this sort of project can’t be carried out in schools everywhere, not just in Egypt but worldwide. 

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