Pakistan’s Captain Planet: Dr Fozia Parveen is on a mission to protect our environment

Pakistan’s Captain Planet: Dr Fozia Parveen is on a mission to protect our environment

The climate change activist and educator is working to change the way we look at the environment and sustainability.
Updated 27 Mar, 2024

You may know Dr Fozia Parveen from a video that went viral in which she speaks about the environmental and social impact of tourism in Gilgit Baltistan. In the video, Dr Parveen gently articulates the result of increased visitors to the region and how community-centric cultural norms are being negatively affected as a result.

Dr Parveen is an environmental scientist from Oxford University whom I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development (AKU-IED), from 2022 to 2023. Prior to her role at AKU, Dr Parveen was a faculty member at LUMS.

When I was approached to work on a piece highlighting women change-makers in Pakistan, Dr Parveen was the first person I thought of — I’ve known her to be a passionate activist for climate change, an enthusiastic educator, and an all-round amazing colleague. I had the pleasure to interview Dr Parveen to get to know her and her work a bit more.

Early years and the motivation to be an environmental scientist

Dr Parveen’s early years were spent close to nature in the mountains Gilgit. Growing up in a middle class family, the environmentalist was always aware of how scarce resources were. A minimalist lifestyle was inculcated from a young age, making it easy to follow through in her adulthood. Dr Parveen described the beauty of living in the mountains — the calming sound of the stream beside her house, the breathtaking view of a mountain outside the door.

“At the time I was not aware of what a luxury this was. I was living a million dollar life without knowing it. The experiences that come along with growing up next to nature are also incomparable, the feeling of walking barefoot on the soil, feeling that connection to the earth, sitting by the river, reflecting on how big the universe is and how insignificant we are in comparison.”

People growing up in the mountains often begin to think about the role they can play to preserve their sanctuary at a young age. “As a community from the mountains, we are raised within a culture that is very minimalistic. I come from a village where resources were scarce and up until my grandparent’s generation, we didn’t have enough. It’s that degree of resilience, survival, and wisdom of living close to nature that was part of me and how I was raised. When I began formal education too, I was always inclined towards nature.”

Dr Parveen took a keen interest in STEM subjects in school and college and finally made her decision to pursue environmental sciences after completing her Intermediate education. She recalls her brother bringing a few university prospectuses from varsities in the twin cities, “I looked at all the departments available at those three or four universities, but my first priority was environmental science and from then on my decision was made.”

The environmentalist recalled how, during her undergrad years, she was upset with how lifeless the cities looked. She looked for ways to make a change and even with her university assignments, her passion for nature shone through.

Dr Parveen’s focus on experiential learning began at a young age, albeit, unconsciously. She shared how during a project about medicinal plants, she sought out experts in the area and spoke to them, as opposed to using the internet to copy content. Her desire to create her own knowledge base was a driving force behind the publicly available resources she has worked on, such as the Environmental and Climate Change Dictionary, and the Climate Change and Sustainability Module, among others.

Something I always wonder about when individuals choose a niche career path is how they ensure success and monetary return. Growing up in a South Asian community, you’re often expected to choose the most lucrative career early on. However, Dr Parveen’s response to this really made me take a step back and reflect.

“Having been raised with a lot of humility and limited resources, the priority was never to earn wealth. Success in my home wasn’t measured by how much money my siblings and I made. Perhaps this is because we saw our father, who is a lawyer by profession, fight for the poor and marginalised. He didn’t end up making a lot of money out of it, but the community as a whole was doing better as a result of his dedication. Even in my career right now, wherever I go, whatever I do, community building is the first step in my journey.”

From a young girl in the mountains to a renowned academician

“I grew up in front of glaciers, we were, therefore, never taught about glaciers in schools. I grew up with a sky full of stars, no one needed to teach us about the stars. Every evening we would just lay below the vast sky and make up stories. These things are not part of our curriculum,” Dr Parveen explained.

“I grew up with a lot of local wisdom, traditional stories, indigenous solutions, indigenous knowledge. None of this rich information was translated into academia, none of this was part of our textbook curriculum. Contextually relevant knowledge was highly lacking. Similarly in my undergrad, I was able to participate more in class and enrich the classroom discussions because I had experienced what was being taught, from creating small dams to trophy hunting.”

Speaking about opting for climate change education in undergrad, Dr Parveen shared how she and her classmates believed the issues being taught were of the distant future, but it was during that time that natural disasters started to become more frequent in Pakistan. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) now happen every year, the likelihood of earthquakes and flooding also increased. “As a result, my classmates and I were more active and engaged. Whether it be action or policy, we wanted to contribute,” she recalled.

“I was also very aware of the localised pollution in the big cities after having moved there for my undergrad, so my concern was two-fold — climate induced natural disasters were impacting the communities I grew up in and the difficult conditions of our cities,” she said.

“Our cities are our responsibility, if we can protect our green spaces, we should. If we can advocate for public transport, we should. Climate conservation needs to be a 365-day agenda and not just something to speak up about on World Environment Day.”

Living life the eco-friendly way

When discussing personal practices to be more eco-friendly, Dr Parveen shared a profound thought — “We measure success by wealth made and by possessions. For me it was never about that, till today people tell me I should have my own home by now, a bigger car, and just more of everything, and I struggle with that mentality. Why are we accumulating so much as if we were to live forever?

“It’s with this ideology that I live life, to not buy into the concept of just accumulating worldly possessions for the sake of it. For me, having a safe space where I can live, where I’m close to nature, that’s what’s important. I don’t need to take too many resources from the environment. Not buying into consumer culture is my biggest tip to live a more environmentally friendly life,” the environmentalist said.

“We operate in circles where how we look matters a lot, so the one area I have slightly less control over is my wardrobe, but I still don’t buy a lot. I try to reduce my impact in terms of travel, I take as many online meetings, conferences, etc as possible. Unless absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t do something that has a bigger footprint.

“As a general practice, I try to buy as little as I can and for as long as I can remember, I have had very minimal plastic use, in fact, in Gilgit, we were campaigning for a plastic-free region and I worked with the local government.”

Effects of climate change in Pakistan

Dr Parveen shed light on the floods of 2022 and said that while climate change is a reason for it occurring, the lack of planning also played a significant role. “Traveling around the world has helped develop this view because you see how other countries have the same infrastructure and waterbodies, both large and small, and they have naturally occurring events as well, but they plan for such natural disasters.

“On one hand floods are catastrophic, but on the other we build houses and hotels on the riverbed, where the extra water is meant to be accommodated. The lack of policy and understanding of natural spaces has led to much of the destruction we have witnessed.”

Dr Parveen stressed on how the events occurring are changing as well. “In my undergraduate years, there was no concept of atmospheric rivers, now there is a concept of atmospheric rivers flowing in the sky. As a result, Sindh and Balochistan have received more than 500 per cent rain so even the cities that planned for 200pc more rain are unable to contain the destruction. These are the events we need to be planning for,” she cautioned.

“While the increased precipitation is a problem, efforts need to be made to harness the power of all this extra water. Rainwater could be harvested and put back into underground water storage known as aquifers, as practiced in Jordan.

The shift from an environmental scientist to educator

Dr Parveen has worked on many projects in the climate change realm and at this point in her career switched to educating educators about climate change. She realised how unaware people in cities are of nature and climate change.

“I was always a community person. As a girl guide at the age of six, I was serving water to the community. My mother would make us clean our streets when there was too much trash, even though it was trash thrown by others. We were taught that our streets were our responsibility. I began to realise the importance of inculcating these values.”

“So now when I’m teaching my cohort of teachers at AKU-IED, I take them out of the classroom to understand their responsibility, create a sense of community and engagement, while increasing awareness.”

Dr Parveen spoke about how in the professional circles she was moving in before her shift to environmental education, there were often comments about how she should not be working at grass-root level. She was made to feel like working with the waste scavenging communities, responsible for the majority of our recycling was somehow beneath a scientist’s job. “Working with schools and children directly was considered ‘dumbing it down’, but when we’re working with teachers, its called ‘breaking it down’ signifying the importance of disseminating information in an easy-to-understand way.”

Dr Parveen’s message to those who want to work in the area of environmental sciences is to absolutely do so. The field is still relatively untapped, allowing much room for impactful work to be done. The issue at hand is grave so those who want to really make a change and understand that it will not always be easy, that there may not be enough guidance initially in the form of mentorship, however, those who are passionate will navigate their way.

Honouring Dr Parveen’s work and highlighting her wisdom would hopefully inspire others to take on the critical challenge that is climate change. If not, it will definitely make you take a moment to appreciate nature and notice the lack thereof if you reside in big cities.

This March, Images is profiling trailblazing women who are stirring change in our society. Women who inspire us and women who make us proud. You can read all our stories on inspiring Pakistani women here.

Trailblazers and change makers


Syed Hasni Mar 27, 2024 11:52am
One can see from space how the human race has changed the Earth. Nearly all of the available land has been cleared of forest and is now used for agriculture or urban development. The polar icecaps are shrinking and the desert areas are increasing. At night, the Earth is no longer dark, but large areas are lit up. All of this is evidence that human exploitation of the planet is reaching a critical limit. But human demands and expectations are ever-increasing. We cannot continue to pollute the atmosphere, poison the ocean and exhaust the land. There isn’t any more available. Kudos to Dr Parveen for raising awareness.
Taj Ahmad Mar 27, 2024 12:09pm
Great lady with great work in her mind.
Shakeb Elahi Mar 27, 2024 12:25pm
We need more like you Dr. Fozia Parveen
ahsan Mar 27, 2024 05:24pm
What a role model she is Earth needs millions of people like her.
Atif Mar 27, 2024 08:52pm
Kuddos to Dr Parveen for her great contribution.. but why we always find stories of Oxford taught girls inspiring. There are now many young girls and women, locally educated, doing much more for mother nature than Dr parveen does but barely get acknowledged by any forum. Inclusion is required here too. Because encouraging local heroes working on ground from Kashmir to Tharparker to save environment is the way to make it more general rather than keeping climate advocacy a topic of privilged academics.
NYS Mar 28, 2024 01:45pm
Spectular!!! Tbh Every bit of this article worth read Dr Parveen need some volunteers to cope environmental challenges the people who have mind of community back service ...she brought up in that environment that taught her how to live in society as a sensible civilian . Oh pines! make your habit to take less wardrobes we need organized and planned people . The organic humans translate Ms Parveen "The one who is passionate will navigate their way". Last but not the least ,Choose a lifestyle that leads to less wastage.
Ali Rehman Mar 29, 2024 12:20am
Dr. Fozia is an inspiration for all of us.
Naveed Musofer Mar 30, 2024 06:51pm
We really appreciate your work and effort for this country specially caring about our future and future generations, we need more people like Fozia who can make real change to our society. Proud of you dear!!
Baqar Taihan Mar 30, 2024 08:43pm
Impressive, i just want to know whether the lady Dr Fozia worked with British council few years ago ? regards Baqar Taihan 03002009806