5 February 2023

Making places of worship eco-friendly: The Eco-Surau Story

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Green is a colour with many traditional associations with Islam, it is after all featured on the flags of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim countries. It’s no surprise then that many in the Muslim community have begun to adopt eco-friendly and sustainable practices. New mosques, suraus and religious school are being built with eco-friendly applications and behaviours in mind in many Islamic nations around the world. A prime example of this is the Cambridge Central Mosque in Cambridge, UK built with large skylights to bring in natural light and rainwater harvesters to irrigate the gardens. Islam can become a powerful force for environmental protection and conservation, especially since the Quran emphasizes the beauty of nature as an example of Allah’s creative power and wisdom and even provides guidelines for protecting and preserving this nature.

Universiti Malaya (UM) had initiated the Imarah Green Project: Surau APIUM (Academy of Islamic Studies, UM) project conducted under the purview of the UM Living Lab Programme. Led by Dr. Asmawati Muhamad, its aims are to transform the APIUM’s surau (mosque) into an “eco-model” to be used as an example by other mosques in the community, to empower the Imarah Eco-Friends as an agent of change in sustainability practices via training and awareness campaigns, and to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by employing a cultural translation of the environmentalist guidelines from the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad.

The core concepts of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Greening are integrated into the goals and activities of the project. The goals are to reduce pipeline water and electricity consumption by 10%, to increase the recycling rate amongst the APIUM community by 20%, to increase the amount of greenery around the surau and to educate and encourage students to embrace eco-friendly practices

Water management

With the help of the UM Water Warriors, a Rainwater Harvesting System (RWHS) was installed at the APIUM surau. This technology collects and stores rainwater for ablution, charity car washes and watering the plants. This system stores up to 3000 litres of rainwater and comes equipped with an ultraviolet (UV) and sand filter for purification. More than enough to provide ablution for a Friday prayer. In addition to reducing pipeline water usage, this system also helps reduce flooding of surrounding roads and pathways. The ablution taps have also been outfitted with ‘Mr. Thimble’ tap aerators that limits the water’s flow, resulting in lower water usage.

Energy management

With respect to energy management, 285 lights within the surau are outfitted with LED bulbs These are longer lasting than other forms of lighting whilst also providing brighter lights for the same level of electricity use. Usage of the air-conditioner is limited to Friday prayers starting from 12 pm until the end of prayers. This simple act will save more than a few ringgits (RM) from the electricity bill and reduces the amount of harmful hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) (a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) released into the atmosphere.

Waste management

When it comes to waste management, the Eco-Surau project had certainly succeeded in promoting the viability of recycling. The old guard house is now a recycling centre, providing a place for people to properly dispose of their recyclables. White boxes are set-up throughout the campus as dropping-off points for recyclable textiles. Collected recyclables such as plastic bottles and aluminium cans are then sold to outside vendors. Thus, in addition to encouraging recycling, this initiative also delivers modest financial returns.

The Lestari (sustainable) Shop is another sustainability feature that was set up to give UM staff and people from nearby communities a place to donate their pre-loved items such as clothes, bags and shoes to. These items are then resold at affordable prices or donated to members of the UM community (cleaners and students) and outside institutions (rumah anak yatim, sekolah Rohingya etc.) From September 2018 to August 2019 the shop earned more than RM 1,600.00; though modest, it does show that such a store can be a successful venture with enough support. To promote the shop, the Imarah Eco-Friends (IEF) organised a successful series of Eco-Free Market programmes in Kerinchi with eh collaboration of Masjid al-Khadijah, Pantai Dalam and other NGOs. More than 250 people had received donated items from the Lestari shop during the programmes.

Landscaping and biodiversity

Adding a little bit of green to the surau’s immediate surroundings is not just for decoration, it is also a vital part of improving biodiversity in the area and can contribute to combating climate change via absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This project had transformed the barren surau backyard into a community planting area and leisure spot for students and staff. Among the additions are an urban garden made up of 4 rows where edible vegetables such as pandan, turmeric and kaffir lime are grown, the Living Green Wall (recently planted with money plants), planters for growing flowers, hanging pots throughout the surau’s compounds, vertical farming structures and tires recycled into plant-pot holders.

Education management

To gather support for the project, educating and raising the awareness of APIUM students, UM staff and students and nearby communities is of utmost importance. Shockingly, initial findings of this project found that there was a lack of awareness and understanding amongst APIUM students regarding green practices such as recycling, conserving water and saving energy. Fortunately, the various talks, workshops and activities that have been going on since the project’s beginnings have gotten more and more people involved in sustainable practices. Even something as simple as putting up posters and signages to remind people to switch off the taps or lights when they’re done have proven to be effective. Some of these programmes include Alam Flora 3R on Wheels, where people from UM and nearby communities participated in collecting and donating recyclables, the Kokedama (soil balls for growing ornamental plants) workshop, where student made their own kokedamas and the Campaign to Buy & Use Metal Straws where reusable metal straws were sold to encourage their usage over disposable plastic ones.

None of these would have been possible without the valuable contributions of the IEF, team of volunteers founded to assist the Surau APIUM committee board in various duties such as running programmes and activities promoting sustainable practices, posting updates and promoting Eco-Surau activities on social media, monitoring water and electricity usage, cleaning the surau’s compounds and planting and taking care of the greenery.

From the start, the project had its work cut out for it. The students at the time were ignorant of concepts like conservation and responsible consumption. Though most students are now more familiar with the ideals the project is promoting, complacency still remains an issue. This is especially true in regards to water management as there are still people who avoid using the RWHS-connected taps and even some cases of people removing the Mr. Thimbles from the taps. Needless to say, there is still much work to be done. In brighter news, most of the new sustainability features planned from the project’s inception (RWHS, LED light bulbs, recycling centre, more greenery) are now fully implemented at the surau and are being put to good use.

One of the final features that is still in the progress of implementation is the solar-energy system which will provide the surau an off-the-grid energy source for its electrical needs. Overall, the Eco-Surau project had made great strides in the installation of sustainable features for the surau and educating students, staff and communities alike on the importance of sustainable living and the Eco-Campus’ goals. The end result of the project will lend itself to the creation of a new generation APIUM students who will contribute significantly towards a culture of eco-friendliness in the Islamic community.

This article has been published in UMR Bulletin, an internal UM publication (Ed.)