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20 April 2018Last updated
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Real Women

'I'm a real mother earth'

Eco-activist Zeina Abdo, 36, is on a quest for a cleaner, kinder planet. Adventurer, mother and humanitarian pioneer, Zeina’s focus is to highlight the scarcity of water in our region. She talks to Samantha Dobson about her passion

By Samantha Dobson, Aquarius magazine
27 Nov 2012 | 03:12 pm
  • “Although difficult and at times dangerous, my adventures are designed to deliver the message that we can all do our bit to preserve our planet. The UAE has an important role to play," says Zeina.

    Source:Supplied picture

“My Lebanese parents were some of the earliest expats of Abu Dhabi, back when it was a sleepy town, so I was born and bred in the capital. I went to university in Switzerland and then stayed in Europe, working for several large multinationals.

“These early years of my career played an important part in shaping my commitment to preserving the environment. I’d always been passionate about the great outdoors and being in the Alps, surrounded by natural beauty, the injustice of the way many large corporations consume resources irked me.

“After marrying and having two sons, my husband and I relocated to Abu Dhabi in 2007 to be with my family. Since becoming a parent, I’ve felt strongly that I want my boys to grow into responsible, considerate adults, and to facilitate this, I lead by example. They, after all, are the future.

“It was on my first mountaineering challenge that the worry about our environmental future and the importance of sustainability hit home for me. The challenge was for Climb for Cancer, a non-profit charity initiative that raises awareness for peadiatric cancer patients.

“Although I had no previous mountaineering experience, I signed up to do the difficult Island Peak (6,189 metres) in the Himalayas in 2011, securing corporate sponsorship and following a tough training programme. Nothing prepared me though for that cold, sleepless summit night. At around 2am, exhausted and totally out of my comfort zone, I told myself I had two choices – give up and return to my cosy life, or, seize the challenge and the opportunity to make a difference. The only way was up. After many gruelling hours, I finally reached the top. It was here that I felt the full power of nature. I was humbled and more determined than ever to protect it.

Water scarcity

 “This trip really stressed the importance of water sustainability for me. In the foothills of the Himalayas, water literally means life. It may take a group of women three hours of pumping from a well to fill one precious gallon.

“Here in the UAE we consume it without a second thought. The average Abu Dhabi resident consumes 550 litres of water per day. We live in a desert, yet water consumption here is amongst the highest in the world. In 2010, the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency published a warning stating that we are using our underground water resources 24 times faster than they can be replenished. This, combined with the predicted population growth in Abu Dhabi to 3.5 million by 2030, makes our water consumption impossible to sustain. I felt there was a lack of awareness within society. Something needed to be done to emphasise this waste and help lower the usage.

“For the past five years, I’ve worked for Aldar Properties as a business development manager. Through my contacts, I’m aware of the potential of corporate social responsibility and the huge difference local governments and large corporations can make towards sustainable environmental solutions.

“On my return from Island Peak, I met Sir Robert Swan, environmental leader and explorer, and followed his next mission to Antarctica, involving another round of corporate funding. While amongst the diminishing glaciers of the wild beauty of Antarctica, I made up my mind – to put my vision into practice, to take action and become my own CSR advocate. Now, alongside my nine-to-five job, I offer my services on a voluntary basis (www.zeinaabdo.com). My focus is to tackle the water scarcity issue here in the UAE.

“Over the past 12 months as a CSR advocate, I’ve embarked on a number of expeditions, chosen because they highlight the need for environmental and social sustainability. I have scaled various mountains in Europe and recently went back to Nepal to set up the NGO Smile for Hope that brings medical treatment and sustainable electricity to remote villages.

Thinking local

“Although difficult and at times dangerous, my adventures are designed to deliver the message that we can all do our bit to preserve our planet. The UAE has an important role to play.

“In my capacity as CSR consultant, I’ve had the privilege of advising on a number of Abu Dhabi government-funded and environment-based initiatives. We’re in the process of setting up solar panels in remote desert areas of the UAE, as well as looking at more responsible solutions for water extraction.

“We’re also helping local women to generate their own income through environmentally sustainable cottage industry crafts such as weaving. Another Abu Dhabi government project I’m involved in is a pilot scheme through a local college, where we’ve selected students to go to Antarctica to fully understand the complexities of our water resources and become the next generation of environmental ambassadors.

“We all have the ability to make a difference. I hope to pass on my passion for the environment to others – for now that means the local youth and women, but I hope to spread the same awareness throughout the Middle East and beyond. The UAE has given me so much, and in return I want to offer a lasting gift: sustainability. If you love something, it is only natural for you to want to protect it.”  

The lessons I've learned

  • The time for excuses has run out – don’t wait for others, start positive environmental changes now.
  • Don’t talk, act – making changes doesn’t happen through just words and strategies.
  • It’s time to stop using our resources as if they were endless, and start thinking about solutions to preserve them. Our future and our children’s futures depends on it.
  • Boundaries exist only if you see them.
  • We live in a very hopeful world, there is so much we can achieve together.

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By Samantha Dobson, Aquarius magazine

By Samantha Dobson, Aquarius magazine