Green Innovators: How Young Pakistanis are leading Urban Sustainability initiatives

Amidst the narrow streets and densely packed blocks of homes in the suburban Ghouri Town neighborhood of Islamabad, there is more concrete than greenery in sight. But one household stands apart. Despite limited space for greenery outside, a surprising green oasis thrives on the rooftop of this modest building.

On the rooftop, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, chilies, cabbage, and melons flourish in the home-built system using PVC pipes in horizontally stacked rows, nourished by nutrient-rich water solutions. This hydroponic garden is the brainchild of Marfaa Naseem, a student at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), showcasing the ingenuity and determination of Pakistan’s youth in tackling environmental challenges.

Hydroponics – Growing Food without soil while saving water

Naseem’s TerraTech project combines rainwater harvesting with hydroponic gardening, creating a model for sustainable urban living. Hydroponics, a method of growing plants using nutrient solutions in water instead of soil, allows year-long cultivation. The project utilizes brown wool-like material called Rockwool to germinate seeds instead of soil.

Hydroponics is remarkably water-efficient. Water is continuously recycled, making hydroponic systems 90% more water-efficient than traditional farming and eliminating fertilizer runoff, says Marfaa Naseem as she attentively tends to her plants. This efficiency is crucial in water-scarce regions like Pakistan, predicted to become water-scarce by 2035. With agriculture consuming 90% of Pakistan’s water, changing irrigation and cropping practices is essential to conserve water and improve food security.

Hydroponic farming is also incredibly space-efficient. Using this farming technique, urban dwellers can produce yields up to ten times that of traditional farming on the same area of land. This efficiency is due to the continuous ideal growing conditions — the right temperature, optimal light, and clean, climate-controlled environments that do not require any pesticides, Marfaa said in an interview with Islamabad Scene.

Impact: Building on their initial success, Marfaa and her husband Umar Haider have launched TerraTech, a company offering hydroponic systems and rainwater harvesting installations for homes. Since its inception in January 2024, their pilot project has secured two orders. TerraTech’s hydroponic systems, which can accommodate between 48 and 80 plants, cost between PKR 30,000 and PKR 65,000, offering a sustainable and efficient way to grow plants.

Rainwater harvesting

Another key element of TerraTech is its rainwater harvesting system, based on the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) model. Rainwater is collected in an underground tank and used for non-potable household purposes. The system features a first flush mechanism and filter media composed of gravel, sand, and activated carbon. “In a city where groundwater is depleting rapidly, this system offers a sustainable way to collect and reuse rainwater,” says Naseem, whose research in environmental microbiology underpins her innovative approach.

Impact: “With this approach, we have saved roughly 48,000 liters of rainwater which is equal to four tankers of water, saving approximately PKR 12,000 in tanker fees,” according to Haider. The quality of the harvested water has been tested and verified by PCRWR.

Transforming Waste into Growth: QAU student leads Eco-Organic Fertilizer initiative

Another inspiring initiative is led by Aqsa Arshad, an MPhil student at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), who spearheads an on-campus composting facility that transforms organic waste into eco-friendly fertilizer. Located near Margalla Hills National Park, the facility built with an initial investment of Rs. 350,000 utilizes green waste that could otherwise contribute to environmental pollution through burning or dumping, says Arshad.

“Our eco-organic fertilizer supports organic farming and helps manage waste effectively,” Aqsa Arshad explained. “By converting green waste like leaves and brown waste like paper without lamination into compost, we are addressing waste management challenges and also promoting ensure a cleaner environment and contribute to sustainable practices.”

Plastic pollution is a significant issue in Pakistan, which ranks sixth globally and third in Asia for plastic waste generation, producing 4 million tons annually, according to a 2023 UN-Habitat report.

During the Islamabad Scene reporter’s visit to the small setup located at QAU Botanical Research Garden, Aqsa explained that the facility’s operations include waste collection and segregation, composting, and final product packaging. Initially, organic waste is collected and sorted to remove contaminants. Segregated waste then undergoes a composting process, where it decomposes under controlled conditions, reaching temperatures of over 60°C within 15 days. After approximately 45 days, the compost is ready for the final stage — filtering, packaging, and preparing the eco-organic fertilizer for distribution.

Impact: In just three months, the project has already demonstrated significant benefits by diverting organic waste from the university’s grounds, mitigating pollution, and contributing to a cleaner environment. The Eco-Organic Fertilizer project provides a sustainable solution for local farmers seeking organic alternatives and also reduces waste, and supports the local ecosystem, setting a powerful example of how academic institutions can lead in environmental innovation.

Smart Water Management introduced by COMSATS student

Talha Ajmal from COMSATS University has pioneered a Smart Water Management System to address water wastage during ablution in mosques. Planning to pilot this system at a local mosque in Islamabad’s G-10/1 neighborhood, Ajmal aims to optimize water consumption and make ablution wastewater suitable for reuse. “Water is a precious resource, and its wastage in everyday practices like ablution is significant,” says Ajmal. “Our smart system not only conserves water but also sets a precedent for smart management practices that can be applied to various community spaces.”

Smart Water Management System focuses on:

  • Assessing water wastage during ablution and untreated wastewater discharge.
  • Piloting smart systems to optimize water consumption.
  • Exploring solutions to make ablution wastewater reusable, including installing water-saving fixtures and promoting behavioral changes through awareness campaigns.

Traditional vs Smart Water Management Systems: Traditional Systems rely on manual monitoring and maintenance, leading to delays in leak detection and inefficient water usage, often resulting in higher operational costs. In contrast, smart systems integrate Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) to utilize real-time data and automation, detecting leaks, optimizing water distribution, and minimizing wastage. This innovation offers long-term cost savings through reduced water wastage, lower maintenance expenses, and improved resource allocation.

Expected outcome: The Smart Water Management System aims to reduce water waste and enhance efficiency. It intends to optimize water usage and propose the reuse of ablution wastewater to conserve water, addressing Pakistan’s increasing water scarcity.

Sabz Qadam: Green Efficient Kinetic Pavers

Sabz Qadam, founded by COMSATS students Aatirah Amir, Mudassir Karim, and Zoupash Khan, is an innovative enterprise dedicated to generating electricity through pedestrian activity. Their green-efficient kinetic pavers are crafted from recycled waste materials like discarded tires, effectively diverting waste from dumpsites. By harnessing the energy of foot traffic, Sabz Qadam promotes sustainable energy production and also contributes to waste reduction, creating a cleaner and greener urban environment.

Nawallah App: Reducing Food Waste and Insecurity

The Nawallah App, developed by Waiza Kiani, is a mobile platform designed to redirect soon-to-expire and surplus food from restaurants, grocery shops, and bakeries to underserved communities at reduced prices. This initiative tackles the dual issues of food waste and food insecurity, ensuring that excess food reaches those in need instead of ending up in landfills. Nawallah not only addresses hunger among underserved urban populations but also promotes a more sustainable approach to food distribution.

Green Urban Development School support empowers student-led green projects

These student-led green projects are part of the Green Urban Development School (GUDS) program, which aims to enhance youth capacity to promote sustainable urban practices. The GUDS has been jointly launched by the Islamabad-based Institute of Urbanism (IoU) and the School of Leadership Foundation (SoLF), with support from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Implemented at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) and COMSATS University Islamabad, the GUDS empowers youth with training, hackathons, mentorship, and exposure visits. These events serve as a practical example of the Triple Helix Model, which promotes collaboration between government, industry, and academia to drive innovation for scalable, sustainable solutions. The program has supported 5 students or 2 teams (2 from QAU and 3 from COMSATS) in terms of action research grants. Two of them, one from each university, will be given additional grants and mentorship to turn their climate projects into startups.

GUDS Approach: The Green Urban Development School (GUDS) supports student-led green projects in the following ways:

1. Grants: GUDS offers financial support through grants and funding opportunities covering research, development, and implementation costs.

2. Mentorship and Guidance: Experienced mentors and faculty provide guidance throughout the project lifecycle, offering expertise in project management, sustainability practices, and technical and business skills.

3. Skill Enhancement: Workshops, training sessions, and seminars are tailored to enhance students’ proficiency in green technology, environmental sciences, and sustainable urban development.

4. Networking Hub: GUDS serves as a nexus for connecting students with industry professionals, government bodies, and international partners, fostering collaborative opportunities and resource access.

5. Recognition and Awards: Successful projects receive recognition through awards, boosting student morale and validating their contributions to green innovation.

Dr. Jabir Hussain Syed, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the Department of Meteorology, COMSATS University, identified the most significant outcome of the GUDS program as the “successful launch of youth startups.” These initiatives enable students to innovate solutions for emerging sustainability and urban environmental challenges, fostering entrepreneurial skills and empowering them to develop green businesses for a more sustainable future.

Youth-led initiatives and the impact of student exchange programs

Two student projects stood out and were awarded grants of PKR 500,000 each to develop their projects into viable business ventures, focusing on green infrastructure and water conservation. The awarded participants will also benefit from mentorship, exposure visits, and cross-learning opportunities with experts from DePaul University in Chicago, United States.

“International exchange programs play a crucial role in promoting youth-led green urban development projects in Pakistan, bridging theory with practical application,” says Dr. Ejaz Ahmad, Senior Program Fellow at the Institute of Urbanism. He hopes these initiatives will help prepare a new generation to lead Pakistan towards a more sustainable future.

Dr. Jabir Hussain Syed also underscored the profound impact of exchange programs. “International exchange programs and collaborative models integrating government, industry, and academia are essential for encouraging youth-led green startups in Pakistan,” he says. “These programs provide invaluable exposure to young students, especially in developing countries like Pakistan, to bridge the gap between local challenges and global solutions.” These programs offer students invaluable exposure, knowledge, and networking opportunities to address pressing local challenges with global solutions.

Role of Academic Institutions in empowering students

Universities like Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) and COMSATS play a pivotal role in empowering students to develop and implement green urban development projects, according to Dr Syed. They provide guidance on startup projects and equip students with tools to transform ideas into actionable plans. Experienced researchers help refine projects, ensuring innovation translates into practical impact, while faculty members deliver tailored lectures and workshops, preparing students to address critical issues such as waste management, water management, and green infrastructure in Pakistan.

Green Innovation for a Sustainable Future

By leveraging global insights, and fostering collaboration across government, private sector, and academia, Pakistan can unlock its green potential and effectively address environmental challenges.

In Pakistan, harnessing youth potential is crucial for climate adaptation, says Ayesha Majid, Senior Program Coordinator at the Institute of Urbanism. “Engaging youth is crucial for understanding local contexts and shaping effective strategies for green urban development. Youth-led initiatives have the power to drive change in communities and create a sustainable and resilient future for Pakistan.”

The collective efforts of young innovators like Aqsa Arshad, Mafaa Naseem, and Talha Ajmal are paving the way for a greener, more sustainable future in Pakistan. In a region increasingly affected by climate change, the efforts of these young Pakistanis offer hope for a better tomorrow. Their work demonstrates the power of youth, innovation, and collaboration in creating a more sustainable and equitable future for all. “It’s about more than just growing vegetables,” says Marfaa reflecting on her journey. “It’s about creating a sustainable way of life that can be replicated across our cities. We are showing that with the right support and resources, young people can lead the way in transforming our urban landscapes.”

Sana Jamal
Storyteller. Avid Reader. Learner to the core.

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