World leaders are this week meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh for COP27, the objective being to discuss and find methods to mitigate climate change, reduce carbon emissions, and nurture an environment hospitable to future life on Earth. The responsibility lies not only with governments but with every entity and individual; no effort should be spared to achieve that objective. Among the non-governmental organisations doing their bit in the environmental field is Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. Watani talked to Renee Shafiq, Director of the Environmental Development Programme at the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services (BLESS), on the Church’s efforts on that score. The talk was especially timely given that BLESS this year celebrates 60 years on its foundation.
Over the years, BLESS’s vision has been: “A community capable of investing its potential, accepting diversity, respecting differences, and preserving human dignity”. Its mission is to wake social awareness among individuals, stressing the Egyptian identity and broad human values, and leading change through collective participation.
Hand in hand with health
To fulfil its vision and promote change, BLESS works in local communities through some 15 programmes, among them the Environmental Development Programme. Renee Shafiq is Director of the Programme and is also Director of the Resilient Productive Communities project in Egypt, a three-year project in which the Coptic Church is participant. The project, partially funded by the EU, was launched in 2021 with the aim of getting productive communities to rely on clean and renewable energy; it runs in three communities: one in Cairo, and two in Beni-Sweif some 100km south of Cairo.
Ms Shafiq told Watani that BLESS started off since its foundation by running its environmental activity hand in hand with its health programme. “Back then,” Ms Shafiq said, “our environment efforts were rather limited; we focused on matters such as lighting, cleanup, and tree planting on a limited scale. Four years ago, however, it was deemed important to allocate a separate, wider programme for the environment, especially in view of numerous global changes on that score.
“We drew a broad vision that sought to achieve eco-friendly goals in line with the government’s environmental strategy and development goals.
“Our work targets four axes: conserving natural resources such as water and electricity through rationalising consumption; battling pollution and working towards safe waste-disposal; building teamwork capacity and skills for environmental development to attain self-dependent communities; and cooperating and networking with governmental and non-governmental organisations on environmental issues.
“In principle, BLESS targets needy communities. It determines their needs, and accordingly sets plans to achieve a comprehensive development and environmental programme.
“We make them aware that any projects should be eco-friendly, any agricultural or housing work should dispose of waste safely, and our health and education programmes focus on environmental awareness.”
Recycle and reuse
Ms Shafiq explained that BLESS has continued with its initial efforts on lighting and cleanup, but has additionally widened its scope into broader and more diversified environmental work.
To guarantee effectiveness, BLESS follows a time-tested procedure. “We start by raising awareness especially among the young,” she explained. “We hold festivals and workshops to instil environmental values and show how humans affect the environment and how the environment responds. Then we go on to teach on the conservation of non-renewable natural resources such as fresh water, and we promote recycling and reuse.”
BLESS’s recycling and reuse endeavours run on two levels: awareness campaigns, and practical application. “Many families have applied the concept to launch businesses to increase their incomes. They have recycling food scraps or solid waste; reused old jeans to make school bags, reused leftover frying oil to make soap; in addition to myriad other practices.”
Watani asked about the biogas project which has been gaining a reputation among BLESS’s environmental activity.
“Biogas is being produced from organic waste in southern Egypt’s rural regions to yield energy and reduce pollution. BLESS already installed numerous biogas units, and now new units are being set up through the EU’s Resilient Productive Communities project.”
Places of worship go solar
The EU programme is also helping to install solar panels on places of worship, Ms Shafiq said.
“BLESS is currently doing that in two villages in Beni-Sweif, some 100km south of Cairo, where we have equipped churches and mosques with solar panels. And we already got permission from the local security authorities and Ministry of [Islamic] Religious Endowments to install solar panels to other mosques and churches,” Ms Shafiq said.
“Did you encounter any difficulties while implementing your environment programme?” Watani asked.
“We did face some difficulties while dealing with local officials, especially concerning scarce means in poor villages,” Ms Shafiq said. “There is also the occasional difficulty of building a volunteer team; it is not easy to change environmental behaviour in individuals. This undoubtedly takes time and effort, but it ultimately yields fruit.”
“Is there any cooperation between BLESS and the government?” Watani asked.
Ms Shafiq said that there is definite cooperation. “The government strongly supports BLESS’s activities and projects concerning the environment, especially that the Church had issued an ‘environment document’ in which it explained its attitude on preserving the environment.
Within the framework of the presidential initiative “Go Green”, a protocol of cooperation was signed by Pope Tawadros and Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad.
The protocol aims at promoting collaboration on environmental issues, most importantly to foster in communities a culture that would translate into positive attitudes towards the environment and natural resources, with an eye to preserving the environment and achieving sustainability. As part of the National Sustainable Development Strategy Egypt 2030, the Go Green initiative aims at changing and spreading environmental awareness and urging Egyptians—young people in particular—to protect the environment, natural resources, nature reserves, and marine life.
The Church also cooperates with Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources, and the Holding Company for Drinking Water and Wastewater; both entities hold regular awareness and training sessions on water conservation in churches.
In December 2021, Pope Tawadros launched a nationwide tree-planting initiative in an effort to confront climate change. He stressed the beneficial climate effect of trees, quoting the Bible verse from Psalm 1:3 “…like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither”. https://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-affairs/coptic-church-tree-planting-competition-climate-effort/37585/
“During 2022, BLESS helped plant more than 2,500 fruitful trees in various regions in Egypt,” Ms Shafiq said.
The most numerous success stories achieved by BLESS’s environmental programme, according to Ms Shafiq, have been in underprivileged districts in Cairo. Next come those in Alexandria, Aswan, Assiut, Beni Sweif, and Minya.
An outstanding success story has been in the village of al-Maemariya in Aswan where a heavily polluted canal was a source of trouble and disease. BLESS cooperated with the local authorities who allocated a budget to fill the canal and clean the place.
Lighting up entire villages that never had lights represents other success stories. In other cases, systems for waste disposal were set up and garbage dumps turned into gardens. BLESS also set up hygienic, safe places in villages to slaughter animals instead of slaughtering them on the street at the village entrance.
“But most of all,” Ms Shafiq said, “We were able to significantly raise the individual environmental awareness index, which we measure at the outset of our work in any community and again when our work is done. This I see as our utmost success.”
BLESS in COP27
BLESS is participating in COP27, representing the Coptic Church’s environmental efforts. “We have prepared a working paper to present in the sessions on the sideline of the main ones in COP27.”
What is the vision of the future according to Ms Shafiq?
“Our dream is to see all Egypt as a green area full of fruitful trees, thriving on solar energy. And we hope to leave an indelible environmental imprint on any community we work in.”
9 November 2022