The citizens of a Halabja are taking matters into their own hands and leading the charge in the region to fight for environmental justice. The city has seen a citizens’ campaign, by the name of Green City Halabja, quickly growing in scale and reach since it was announced on the 16th of March 2022.
On the 34th anniversary of the chemical atrocity which still deeply scars Halabja, citizens of the city declared their commitment to tackling the multi-faceted environmental crisis they face. It is a cry to all those in the region who feel neglected by their government: who need to see action on the environment as soon as possible and have their voices heard as empowered, engaged citizens.
Halabja is infamous for being the site of a genocidal chemical attack which indiscriminately killed five thousand people and affected countless more with trauma and chronic health conditions which persist to this day. It was also a catastrophe for the environment, as the chemicals killed off animals and plants as well as entering water courses and soil. People over the age of forty from Halabja relive the unspeakable horrors which took place that day: almost everyone lost someone close. Every anniversary of the attack sees politicians and media from around Iraq flock to pay their respects, but despite this Halabja has seen very little support for its development in comparison with the cities of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah for example. This understandably causes frustration amongst residents who often feel like their suffering is capitalised on for political gains without any benefits for them.
Wadi is proud to support a variety of projects in Halabja since 1993. See more here
Being the site of such utter depravity committed by the Ba’ath regime has made Halabja into an infamous symbol in the entire region. Other than the atrocity, there is not much else commonly known about Halabja’s history or it’s people. This is another crucial aspect of the campaign: to show the world that there is more to the city than a dark history lesson and that there is hope for a brighter future even in a place that has seen such sorrow. That the citizens of Halabja are refusing to accept the fate of rapidly declining living standards caused by environmental degradation and climate change is a calling for others across the region to have the courage to act for the environment.
Campaign from Citizens for Citizens
A citizens’ campaign reaches those who have no faith left in politics, as all they have seen is a tiny minority accumulating vast wealth, whilst the majority in rural areas, like the Halabja governorate, are ignored and left underdeveloped. By taking a grassroots approach, citizens are empowered to uphold their rights, it is a campaign in which they can identify themselves.
Since Green City Halabja was launched there has been much progress in the environmental projects in the city. NWE organisation, Wadi’s local partner in Halabja, has steadfastly carried out environmental seminars and continue to produce reusable cotton tote bags (they have distributed well over 5000 of them) making progress towards phasing out the rampant use of single use plastic bags in the city. They continue to raise awareness about pressing environmental and social issues in schools, woman’s groups, social media as well as through their radio station Dange NWE.
The Green City Halabja recycling centre – a new partnership between ShredUp, Nwe and Wadi – has also seen much progress in recent months. The project has been steadily developing recycling infrastructure at a grass-roots level which has resulted in a reliable plastic collection network throughout the local community. A regular tuk-tuk round collecting plastic waste for the recycling centre from various sources is running daily. The amount of plastic collected has steadily been increasing as more people become aware of the need to recycle through the public outreach of the campaign; social media posts, television interviews, educational seminars, radio advertisements, meetings and word of mouth.
Plastic is collected to be recycled from local businesses, cafes, restaurants, municipality offices, many schools, the university of Halabja, neighbours, the mayor’s office, civil society groups amongst many others.
Milad – a local tuk-tuk driver – has been given regular employment with the recycling project and has benefited from this stable income. As a 21-year-old in a city where employment is scarce, to have a regular round means he can budget, support his family, and allocate time to his continued education. His tuk-tuk has the bright signage for the Green City campaign. It was not an unusual sight to see tuk-tuks laden with recyclables around the city – plastic, metal, cardboard – but these are seldom, if ever, signed as environmental businesses and as such there is a general low esteem towards these vital workers.
Empowering Waste Workers
In fact, many view waste work as an almost shameful occupation. The Green City campaign aims to turn this negative perspective on its head by championing waste workers such as Milad, without whom the streets would simply vanish under a thick layer of litter.
As well as aiming to boost the visibility and standing of waste workers in society, the businesses in the city who have decided to partner with the campaign also gain kudos from their environmental efforts. Certificates of appreciation have been handed to cafes, restaurants and shops who have allocated a separate waste bin for recyclable plastic. These can be seen then by all who enter, and the social media tags can be used to advertise businesses as “Jinga Doste” – friends of the environment.
Setting up this infrastructure is unprecedented in Halabja and business owners have overwhelmingly been supportive of the opportunity to reduce the amount of waste emitted from their premises.
Working with Students and Schools
The seminars given by Nwe and ShredUp to the schools which collaborate with the campaign educate students about regional specific environmental issues such as water scarcity, environmental pollution, and climate change: inspiring the young generations to combat and mitigate against these problems, to pressure their parent’s and grandparent’s generations to leave behind a habitable planet.
For young people like Shnyar Yadgar, the coordinator of the ShredUp recycling project in Halabja, the opportunity to get paid to organise environmental activities and develop sustainable infrastructure in her home city is an opportunity she has risen to. She is not the stereotypical waste worker, being young and a woman. She is a great role model, inspiring young women to contribute and get involved in environmental action.
A promotion video done by students of the University of Halabja:
For Shnyar, the opportunity to work as a partner to Wadi and Nwe is highly fulfilling, she says:
“I’m very interested in being a friend of the environment. This planet belongs to all of us, and we must do what we can to protect it. We are all responsible for what we leave behind for future generations. It is very important that we can work together to protect this planet.
Working with Wadi, ShredUp and Nwe makes me very happy, and I feel at home with the team, I’m free with any ideas and I can voice my opinions knowing that they will be listened to.
It doesn’t feel like a normal routine job and makes me happy to be supported to do what I think is right for my city.”
A great success has a been the reception given to the steady distribution of locally produced plastic collection bins throughout the city. Multiple bins have been placed at schools, the university, the mayor’s office, municipality buildings, businesses, and demand for them throughout the city is growing fast.
When plastic is delivered to the recycling centre it is then sorted by the staff into respective types and colours. Most of the plastic collected is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in the form of drinking bottles, this is crushed into compressed cubes to be transported to larger recycling facilities in the nearby city of Sulaymaniyah. The money gained from this plastic sold helps to pay for the running cost such as rent and electricity. The aim for the recycling centre is for it to become an example of a sustainable circular economy, giving employment and helping the environment. Other plastics such as HDPE (high density polyethylene) and PP (poly propylene) are set aside to be processed. They are shredded into granulate, cleaned, and then can be processed into a multitude of different items.
First Furniture made in Kurdistan
Indeed, the first furniture items made from recycled HDPE plastic from the ShredUp workshop have already been finished- benches, stools, and tables. These items are donated to the schools who are participating in the Green City campaign.
Each item consists of several thousand bottle tops as well as various containers made into durable plastic beams. It is quite a remarkable turnaround from plastic waste into furniture, these items are one hundred percent made in Halabja by local people. To show students what can be created from their own waste is a powerful educational tool. Making beautiful products out of “waste” is a way to change people’s perspective on what value is attached to single use plastic and on how valuable waste workers are to society. In marketing these products as highly fashionable the aim is that recycled products become desirable and increase the value of what is currently considered as junk. As a result, the amount of plastic ending up polluting the environment decreases and local people are supported through the process.
Cooperation with the Municipality
In a further positive step in this regard, the unicipality of Halabja has followed the lead of the Green City Halabja campaign and agreed to end the use of single use plastic drinking cups with aluminium foil lids in their offices, in favour of conventional screw top plastic bottles. These cups are practically impossible to recycle as the labour required to remove each individual aluminium foil lid would be far too great hence the fact that millions of these cups end up in landfill every day.
Almost all big media stations in Iraqi-Kurdistan already reportet about the recycling center. Here a documentation on Zagros Arabic program:
This is another step towards the city emitting less waste and adds to the long list of other local establishments – businesses and governmental -who are also taking this initiative. A goal of this campaign is to end the use of these foil lid plastic cups throughout the city. As said above, Nwe organisation has been successfully campaigning to end the use of single use plastic bags and the same approach shall be taken here, instead of cotton tote bags, reusable bottles can be distributed and advertised as an alternative.
It is very important that the municipality is on board with the campaign, as they represent the citizenry. They are very well respected by all levels of society and a co-operation between them, and civil society is the basis for a very strong grassroots movement with the ability to make broad scale changes with the support of the general population. As people in the region never truly see progressive policies coming from the high political offices, engaging in bottom-up campaigning is an effective and proven strategy. It engages normal working-class people and allows them to participate democratically to campaign for their own rights on their own terms.
Although combating plastic pollution in one small city may seem futile when put in comparison to the magnitude of the greater scale climate and environmental issues in the region, it is an important step to raising awareness and outlining a path to changing society from the ground up, one citizen at a time.