The Last Earthlings: Cleaning up Karachi's beaches

People cool themselves off as a tourist rides a horse at Clifton beach in Karachi, Pakistan
20 October, 2021
A Pakistani student-led initiative have started organising community clean ups of Karachi's beaches with the aim to increase awareness about Pakistan's climate crisis, and urge the government to act more decisively.

When Greta Thunberg began to skip school to strike for climate action three years ago, no-one would have predicted the movement would grow the way that it did.

With the likes of Kherann Yao, Alexandra Villasenor, and Satvhiga ‘Sona’ Sridhar leading conversations around climate action in each corner of the world, the climate action movement is being led by young people in a way that other social justice movements have rarely seen.

But with this fast growing participation of young people in protesting for climate action and demanding change, comes the question - what is the role global youth plays in these conversations, and why are they so personal for them. 

"We will be the [world's] last generation if we do not change our ways and try to reduce the climate crisis, and we are also the last generation who can act on this if we want to make a difference"

Some of those answers can perhaps be found with a look at a group of young Pakistani’s who’ve termed themselves The Last Earthlings. Co-founded by students Nabila Zahra and Shaheer Tariq, the student-led initiative meets on a weekly basis to clean up trash from Karachi’s beaches.

Zahra points out that the name of the group came about after a realisation that the time for change was now, and that it was in their hands to make it happen. “One of the reasons we named ourselves The Last Earthlings was because we will be the last generation if we do not change our ways and try to reduce the climate crisis, and we are also the last generation who can act on this if we want to make a difference,” she says. 

With both Zahra and Tariq being actively involved in trying to play a part in the climate action movement, they put a lot of thought behind organising these regular beach clean ups, and their efforts saw participation go from 15 of their friends, to seeing over 150 volunteers come together during busier weeks.

Without urgent top-down impetus, Pakistan will become one of the major casualties of climate change [Getty Images]
Without urgent top-down impetus, Pakistan will become one of the major casualties of climate change [Getty Images]

The Global Climate Risk Index points out Pakistan as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, and the government has been accused of inaction around the issue. With government efforts not being enough, climate activists in the country have bene trying to start up more grassroots action but an understanding of the crisis has been slow despite the risks the country faces.

Ummama Imran, a volunteer with The Last Earthlings points out some of the challenges that come with mobilising community efforts in Pakistan. “For many people from low-income communities, who have to worry about issues like financial burdens and what not, the climate crisis is not something they feel they can afford to worry about,” Imran tells The New Arab. 

With those challenges in mind, Zahra and Tariq saw beach clean ups as a way of making an individual impact and also attempting to spread awareness on the dangers of littering and getting people to engage with what they often leave behind as litter without a second thought. They also use the clean ups as a way to take out the time to talk to their volunteers about issues like carbon footprints, the impact of plastic pollution and more.

“Most, if not all of the trash we collect on our clean ups is plastic, and it’s really a reminder of the impact plastic can have on the environment and the way in which human actions can degrade nature,” Zahra shares, adding that they once went to a relatively remote beach strip and found a dead turtle washed ashore.

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Despite the criticism they have faced from people who saw their efforts as too insignificant to make an impact, Tariq points out that in their 70 cleanups, the group has managed to collect 20 tonnes of litter from the beach while adding that this was despite their limited numbers. These efforts also bring about a change that keeps growing, no matter how small it may seem at first.

Farahnaz Sohani, a banker and mother to an 8 year old, says that her daughter began to accompany her on her clean ups soon after she joined herself. “I didn’t force her to join me, though one day I asked her about this activity and she showed her interest herself and said, "Mom it seems challenging". This clean up activity has made her more confident as she has been appreciated by the founder members as she is the youngest among all the volunteers. I personally felt that she had become more concerned towards her society and surroundings,” she shares. 

With clean ups starting as early as 6:45 am on a Saturday morning, it has been pleasantly surprising for the founders to see volunteers across all ages, though Zahra points out that a majority of their members are students roughly between the ages of 16 to 22. A big part of the motivation to give up their weekends towards this cause may also be driven by the feeling that they are a part of something bigger.

"With 29% of the population between 15 and 29, Pakistan currently has more youth than it’s ever had, and they refuse to sit silent"

Zahra Noorani, who first started joining the group’s clean ups a year ago says she’s now started attending with more friends, and that her experience has changed the way she views her own role in the climate crisis. “Personally, I’ve learnt a lot about my own impact on the environment and more about what I can do to support the cause.

Posting on my Instagram about the clean up, encouraging my friends to come, and even talking about the clean ups when I was head of the Environment Club in my O-Level school, it makes a difference. I don’t feel as helpless as I once did when it comes to helping the environment,” she says.

 

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For Tariq, even the smallest difference in changing people’s minds can make a huge difference. “Our government keeps focusing on planting trees but they also need to start paying attention to other stuff like our oceans, and the health of corals or mangroves that are being affected,” he says, talking about how important it is to make people understand the need to look at the climate crisis in a broader, and more urgent way.

As a computer science major who wants to connect his love for data analysis and environment protection as a way of helping understand climate change, this is his first step in making a difference in his community.

He isn’t the only one. With 29% of the population between 15 and 29, Pakistan currently has more youth than it’s ever had, and they refuse to sit silent. These clean ups may only be a small step, but they are the first ones that will go a long way in teaching these young Pakistanis where to  direct their efforts to make a difference.

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, Guardian amongst others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine 

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22