Headmaster Jonathan Starr (centre) with two of his students from Abaarso School of Science and Technology. Image Credit: Courtesy: Abaarso School of Science and Technology.

Abu Dhabi: When people are in survival mode after decades of war, can they think about a green future?

A school in Somalia proved it is possible and their efforts have led them to the final list of contenders for a prestigious award, Zayed Future Energy Prize, managed by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company.

“Teaching students to think sustainably is a great challenge in our society, as decades of war have left most people in survival mode with little mind space or capacity to think about long-term impact,” said Jonathan Starr, Headmaster of Abaarso School of Science and Technology, a non-profit advanced educational institute in Somalia.

In a harsh living environment the school currently relies on outside resources such as diesel generators for power and tankers to transport fresh water from 20 kilometres away.

Still “we were the first organisation in Somalia to erect a modern wind turbine, with many in the country later following our leadership to put up their own,” Starr said.

If the school wins the prize, the school will get $100,000 (Dh367,000). The prizes for schools, which constitutes one category of the Zayed Future Energy Prize, will be presented on January 20 in Abu Dhabi. Five schools from the American, European, Asian, African and Oceanic regions win the prize with Dh367,000 for every winner.

The prize is totally worth $4 million awards in five distinct categories — Large Corporation and Small and Medium Sized Enterprise (SME), Non-governmental Organisation (NGO), Lifetime Achievement and Global High Schools.

The prize, launched in 2008, represents the vision of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, who championed environmental stewardship and sustainability as fundamental aspects of the UAE’s heritage. The annual award recognises achievements that reflect the impact, innovation, long-term vision and leadership in renewable energy and sustainability.

About the school’s green projects that are considered for the award, the headmaster said its sustainability measures include collecting rainwater and utilising grey water for toilet flushing. Its waste management system aims to use bio-gas for 100 per cent of its gas needs. The school would now like to invest in solar panels and a hybrid system for renewable energy.

The pupils’ work in the local orphanage, a community service initiative focused on character building among them with traits such as tenacity, integrity, and logical reasoning.

“For our recent entry examinations, orphans tutored by Abaarso’s students were rated best at math in the country. This shows our students are already making an impact on their community,” Starr said.

After decades of civil war, it is inspiring to think that in the years to come Abaarso’s students can be the solution for Somali education, peace, development and prosperity, he said.

“This is our motivating factor and also the reason why I work for free, and why our highly qualified teachers accept just $250 (Dh917.5) per month while working 70-hour weeks.

Sustainable living is taught by directly showing students how their decisions impact the world around them.

Abaarso’s pupils are taught to compost from the time they arrive at school. They are also shown how their food, water and power decisions impact the school’s finances. When waste goes up, pupils are told that this could impact some of the luxuries they enjoy, as the school would need to spend money to manage the waste. Such a line of argument generally gets the pupils’ attention!

“Perhaps the most effective way we teach sustainability is for the staff to model such behaviour and lead by example. The pupils see how their teachers behave, and without necessarily knowing it, they take on some of the same thinking,” Starr said.

The school has ambitious green plans, if it wins the prize.

“We will install water, waste, and energy solutions that add efficiency and sustainability to our school operations. Examples of these include grey water recycling, water catches, and turning waste into cooking gas. In a society that faces water shortages, does not have a proper power grid, and can ill-afford to burn down more trees, these projects are even more important than they would be in other areas of the world,” Starr said.

It is more important for future Somali leaders [pupils] living in an environment that values sustainable resource management, he said.

The Prize’s benefits go well beyond one school to effect society as a whole. Abaarso already attracts numerous visitors each day and the school’s activities attract a great deal of attention.

“If we are fortunate enough to win this prize then efficient and sustainable water, waste and energy techniques will be on display for all other Somali institutions to see and adopt. Abaarso’s pupils can then help teach others how to install such solutions in their own organisations.”