In addition to being a logistical and security puzzle, the pilgrimage which is usually one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, was also a challenge for the environment.
The passage, in a short time and in a limited space, of millions of faithful from different countries created a tsunami for the environment: atmospheric pollution generated by tens of thousands of transport vehicles, tens of thousands of tons of waste of all kinds and overconsumption of water.
This year, however, everyone admitted that the air was breathable at the hajj, which took place with the participation of tens of thousands of worshipers. But for the environmental activist, Nouhad Awwad, it is not so much the number that determines the impact on the environment but “Our collective behavior”.
” Everything is clean “
Still, the general opinion is that this year’s hajj looks very different from those of recent years. “Everything is clean and there are few municipal workers to pick up the rare garbage”, noted Azim Allah Farha, a pilgrim from Afghanistan who performed the hajj on several occasions, on Mount Arafat, 20 km east of Mecca, the site of one of the essential rituals of the pilgrimage.
One of these workers, Rahim Fajreddine, remembers the hundreds of tons of garbage left each time, in recent years, by the faithful on Mount Arafat where they spend a day invoking the mercy of God. “Many workers were mobilized to clean up all this waste”, he recalls. Last year, some 2.5 million worshipers from all over the world participated in the hajj.
The environment was not, until recently, at the center of the concerns of the Saudi authorities when it came to the hajj. Saudi rulers, who have endorsed the title of “Guardians of the two holy mosques” of Mecca and Medina, their only concern was to welcome the greatest number of pilgrims.
This explains the enormous extensions in recent decades to increase the reception capacity of the two mosques and to develop the sites of the pilgrims’ routes which have been largely concreted.
But in 2018, the municipality of Mecca launched a waste sorting program and began to consider recycling it. Signs in several languages were then installed to encourage pilgrims to sort their waste.
“Source of hope”
This year, despite the drastic limitation on the number of pilgrims, the municipality has deployed more than 13,000 cleaners to the holy places, equipped with hundreds of dumpsters and other devices, according to an official statement.
Huge amounts of solid waste have to be stored and their recycling is being considered as part of a project that is under study. “This year’s hajj, although taking place at a difficult time on a global scale, can be a source of hope”, underlined Nouhad Awwad who collaborates with Greenpeace campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa. “It gives an idea of what could be (…) a green pilgrimage”, she said.
According to her, what happened today under the effect of a force majeure must be the future. “Fruit of a choice”. “By investing in sustainable development and adopting green practices, we can continue to live our traditions and perform our rituals while keeping our skies free of pollution and our streets garbage-free”, did she say.
And imagine a “A hajj with its millions of pilgrims in total symbiosis with their environment in a Mecca powered by solar energy”. Utopia or real possibility in a country which is the world’s leading oil exporter and which has not initiated an energy transition? This is “The future we should all be working on”, assured the activist, optimistic.