Greening the Hajj Pilgrimage to Mecca

Originally published on

The Hajj season of 2016 is underway in Saudi Arabia and the world’s attention is finely tuned to the environmental impacts of four million pilgrims converging on Mecca. The pilgrimage crowd is phenomenal and attempts to “green” the hajj, as we’ll cover in this update, are continuously improving and as innovative as ever.

Taking place between the 8th and 13th days of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul Hijjah, this year’s hajj occurs from the 9th to the 14th of September. This is the largest pilgrimage in the world, reenacting the events of 1,400 years ago when the Prophet Muhammad gave his final sermon.

Hajj pilgrims making their way to Mina. Credit: Wikipedia commons
Hajj pilgrims making their way from Mecca to Mina. Credit: Wikipedia commons

A Perfectly Choreographed Ocean of Worshippers

Citizens of over 150 countries participate in rituals throughout each day, en masse, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and in the region of Mina, about 8km/5 miles away. The five daily prayers are performed in astonishing synchronicity by millions of Muslims, in uniform lines requiring no coaching or guidance whatsoever.

Shoulder to shoulder and with just enough space in front and behind to bow and prostrate, lines of worshippers form at the first sound of the calls to prayer. Raising both hands in salute to God, worshippers bow, kneel, prostrate, and stand repeatedly like a perfectly choreographed ocean stretching beyond the limits of vision.

Evening prayer at the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Hajj. Credit: Wikipedia commons
Evening prayer at the Grand Mosque in Mecca during Hajj. Credit: Wikipedia commons

Ensuring Personal Safety During Hajj

A multitude of upgraded practices and facilities have vastly improved the environmental impact of so many people in such a small place. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is continuously striving to correct weaknesses that crop up as the Hajj crowds continue to grow.

Facilities have repeatedly been enlarged, transportation systems have expanded, and security forces have multiplied. Public awareness campaigns have also greatly helped to dramatically increase pilgrim safety and reduce environmental damage. However, as was seen in the unfortunate stampede of 2015, the risks during Hajj are nevertheless still high.

This year, efforts to regulate crowds are being redoubled. The personal safety of every single pilgrim is taken very seriously during Hajj. E-bracelets are now being issued to everyone upon entry, helping to keep track of everyone. Barcoded and connected to a smartphone app called “Hajj Bracelet,” Eissa Rawas of the Saudi Ministry of Hajj explains, “This new technology helps a lot when a pilgrim is hurt or lost.”

Rawas adds, “If you open the app, focus it on the barcode written on the bracelet, you will instantly get all the personal details of each pilgrim, including his/her photo, name, age, nationality etcetera.”

Greening the Hajj Environment

Although the large health hazards to personal safety tend to receive a lot of media attention, there are other health issues that may seem at first inconsequential, like flies. Unfortunately, four million people converging on an area of only 463 square miles for about a week creates chaos in the local waste disposal services.

Large garbage trucks are simply unable to get into Mecca’s congested streets, so trash piles up and starts rotting under the hot Saudi Arabian sun. It starts stinking, too, and this attracts hordes of flies. Flies are responsible for transferring diseases, so the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has implemented one more interesting green measure to help protect Hajj pilgrims’ health.

Working with KSA, US biotechnology company BiOWiSH Technologies has developed a solution to prevent waste-related odors. Applying a mixture of naturally occurring (not genetically modified) microorganisms at trash disposal sites is proving to be a great success. The product is 100 percent natural and is safe for both people and the environment.

Starting with a small test site in 2014, the Hajj operations management team reported a significant reduction in pesticide use, as well as a dramatic reduction in medicines for coughs and infections distributed during Hajj. A larger test in 2015 provided even greater results, applied to a larger area serviced by 160 large trash compactors.

Taking out the trash may be an insurmountable challenge, but the smart combination of trash compactors and an organic biospray to prevent flies from multiplying and transmitting diseases is an innovative solution. Now, supplied as a powder, teams with sprayers mix it with water and then spray waste and waste-related areas by walking into all of the areas where trash collections vehicles can not get in.

Expanding Solar Energy in Saudi Arabia

That hot summer sun beating down on the heads of Hajj pilgrims is also being taken better advantage of in Saudi Arabia these days. All over the kingdom, KSA is starting to detoxify from its notorious addiction to oil.

The recent announcement of an ambitious 9.5 GW renewable energy target by 2023 will see far more solar power plants operating in the country soon.

Residents of Mecca are looking forward to solar-powered electricity from a 100 megawatt (MW) utility-scale solar PV plant in the region. Contracted out to Rolls-Royce and General Electric, the plant has a scheduled commission date of 2018, and is expected to generate 385 gigawatt-hours per year (GWh/yr).

umbrella usage in hajj. Credit: bdnews24
Umbrella usage in Hajj. Credit: bdnews24

Umbrella Use Inspires Personal Solar Power

While waiting for Mecca’s energy supply to turn green, Hajj pilgrims are turning to a more personal, portable solar energy supply. Inspired by the prevalent use of umbrellas to protect pilgrims from the hot sun, a couple of ingenious techpreneurs have designed a “solar umbrella.”

For over forty years, Saudi Arabian environmental engineer Kamel Badawi has been an annual volunteer during Hajj to assist pilgrims. He knows first-hand how helpful the umbrella is in Mecca. They are always being used in Hajj, says Badawi.

“However,” Badawi relates, “the pilgrims only use the umbrella as a form of protection from the sun. No one has considered the umbrella could be used for more than one purpose. When we started thinking about this, we found that we could install a built-in fan to keep the user cool.”

Solar Umbrella for Hajj Pilgrims Credit: Manal Dandis via
Solar Umbrella for Hajj Pilgrims Credit: Manal Dandis via

Badawi and his Palestinian consultant and partner, Manal Dandis, generated the fan’s power via solar cells embedded onto the umbrella. Building on this great idea, the pair added a USP battery charger with three outlets in the handle, as well as a GPS system, and a flashlight, all solar-powered. The GPS system comes with a mobile app enabling instant identification of every umbrella.

Badawi explains, “This means we always have electricity to not only charge mobile-phones, but computers as well. You can charge any device that can be connected via USB.” He adds, “The GPS system will help families stay together by helping each individual who has an umbrella easily identify where he or she is.”

The Kafya, as the umbrella is named, has separate switches to control the flashlight and fan individually, and another switch to automatically open the umbrella. Sturdy enough to be used as a cane, the light-weight, waterproof fabric of the umbrella holds 16 solar panels, and the power bank can also be recharged from a wall outlet.

Dandis points out, “In Mecca, there are no adapters for electricity and there are three or four million people who need to charge their mobile phones. Sometimes people lose each other. It is also very hot in Saudi Arabia and older people need walking sticks.”

Hoping to manufacture at least a million solar umbrellas in the Middle East, Badawi and Dandis are in the early stages of product distribution. “We started making this umbrella and we just started connecting with companies,” Dandis reports. “Now we will start doing our crowd funding and start selling it online to people who wish to purchase it.”

Although the Kafya was not yet ready for Hajj this year, insha’Allah it will be available soon. I will definitely be on the lookout for one, as I dearly hope and pray to make Hajj next year. And, from the look of those streets, this could be a very helpful product!

Makkah's incredibly crowded streets during Hajj. Credit: aljazeeraenglish via Flickr
Makkah’s incredibly crowded streets during Hajj. Credit: aljazeeraenglish via Flickr

[Learn more about the Hajj Pilgrimage in our previous article: Saudi Arabia Continually Striving for a Green Hajj]


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