By Fozia Tahir

04 March 2021 - 11:38

Aerial view of Hunza Valley with mountains, stream and trees.
'My support can help residents to understand and accept the need to change their habits on plastic use, and to introduce alternatives in line with the sentiments and traditions of my community.' ©

Mehtab Farooq, used under licence and adapted from the original

Environmental scientist Dr Fozia Tahir is working with her home community of Khyber in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley to protect the environment.

Why is plastic pollution a problem in Hunza?

The traditional way of life in Hunza, with minimal reliance on packaged goods, has changed.

As transportation links and tourism develop, more packaged products are being introduced to Hunza and the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.

In 2019, the Gilgit-Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a ban on polythene (plastic) bags in Hunza. Enforcing the ban remains a challenge. 

I was shocked at the amount of plastic pollution when I returned to me home village of Khyber in Upper Hunza after studying in the UK. Trash dominated by plastic is visible in the banks of roads and rivers, and on designated dumpsites.

How did you raise the plastic pollution issue with your community in Khyber?

I wanted to raise awareness of the issues around plastic pollution and to encourage collective efforts to tackle the problem.

Firstly, I wanted to improve local residents' understanding of the issues.

Then I made plans to phase out single-use plastic items and to introduce reusable alternatives to the village.

When I approached regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives about my plans, they were keen to join forces with me on a shared campaign. Following lots of discussion, the village administration and EPA officials made the pledge for Khyber to go plastic-free.

Were you able to gain trust and support for your campaign?

I gained some visibility and support for my work because I am a woman from Hunza, and because of my academic achievements.

I am the first woman from my region to receive a doctorate from the University of Oxford in the UK. I studied my master’s degree in environmental science in Pakistan before moving to Oxford.

The Director of the regional Environment Protection Agency was receptive to working with me because I could introduce change in a way that is in line with the sentiments and traditions of my community.

How did you convince Khyber residents to take collective action to tackle plastic pollution?

I ran a series of information and education sessions on plastic pollution.

I first met with the village administration and told them about the vision. I was invited to speak at the community hall – also known as Jamatkhana – where the community gathers daily. I spoke to residents about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to achieve it: by phasing out the use of plastics and introducing reusable alternatives.

My village is small, so I was also able to speak to many shopkeepers in my mother tongue, Wakhi, about plastic pollution and its affect on the environment and human health.

Environmental Protection Agency officials also visited Khyber to speak with village elders and the community about plastic pollution. 

At the same event, students from the local school presented their science model to the community to show the importance of conserving the natural environment.

The talks led to collective action. For example, the village organised a cleanliness campaign. We collected, bagged and transported trash with the help of a local waste management authority.

What is the biggest challenge in reducing single-use plastics in Khyber?

The main challenge is breaking this cycle of convenience created by cheap plastic products.

I started with the use of plastic bags given for free in shops in Khyber.

It's not easy to break a bad habit. Despite the official ban on plastic bags by the district administration, some people are resistant to change.

Free plastic bags are perceived as convenient compared to the traditional way of transporting items: wrapping items in a cloth carrier. I needed to demonstrate that cloth could be convenient – in the form of reusable cloth bags.

I source and provide free batches of cloth bags to Khyber residents.

How did you secure and distribute reusable cloth bags for use in Khyber?

I wrote to many organisations to ask if they could provide or fund sturdy reusable cloth bags. I received resources for this initiative from the Environmental Protection Agency as part of our shared campaign, and the United National Development Programme.

The Environmental Protection Agency provided the first set of bags and the village administration distributed them around the village. Volunteers went door-to-door to deliver the bags.

The second set of bags was funded by the United National Development Programme POPs project.

The funding was provided on the condition that information on POPs (persistent organic pollutants - poisonous chemical substances found in plastics) was given to the bag recipients. I trained two volunteers who were able to distribute the bags and to share information and awareness of this issue.

I tried to be creative and wrote to organisations to ask for donations of surplus reusable bags from events such as conferences. Unfortunately, this did not lead to any solid leads, so I provided a third batch of bags on my own.

All batches of bags were sturdy and residents told me they liked them. I aim to get more bags to the community. They serve as good reminders to the community to do their bit to meet the plastic-free goal.

Fozia Tahir standing next to a man holding cloth bags.
’I focused on the reduction in the use of single-use plastic bags and an uptake in the use of reusable alternatives.’  ©

Fozia Tahir, used with permission

Have Khyber residents have made a permanent switch to reusable cloth bags?

During my visits to the village I see that many residents of Khyber continue to use the bags that I put into circulation. Some shop keepers continue to offer plastic bags, but I hear through my network that they are often refused by customers.

A promising example of change is a shopkeeper in Khyber who has made the full switch to cloth bags, which are handmade by their daughter. The family has seen a business opportunity from using waste cloth to create bags and selling them at the shop to create additional income.

I hope that the discussions continue and that we get better at changing our habits on plastic use. This will need to happen alongside broader changes in environmental practices by the authorities and environmental scientists.

I will continue to push the discussion for actions to happen – slowly but steadily we can make progress.

Dr Fozia Tahir is a Postdoctoral Fellow and an Adjunct Faculty at the Centre for Water Informatics and Technology, School of Science and Engineering at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

She is a panel member on the discussion Farming in Harmony: Sustainable Agriculture for Mother Nature on 7 March 2021 as part of the World of Women Festival, Pakistan.

WOW – Women of the World is a global festival to celebrates women and girls. Together with The WOW Foundation, the British Council is celebrating International Women’s Day with WOW events in Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal throughout March 2021.

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