DOHA (AlertNet) - Several hundred climate activists, including members of a fledgling Arab youth movement, waved banners and called for Arab governments to take the lead in tackling climate change on Saturday, in Qatar's first-ever environmental march.
Following a 1.3 km route along the Doha waterfront, near rows of towering buildings, they urged politicians attending the U.N. climate talks in Qatar to make commitments to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, use more renewable energy, and provide fresh funds to help poor countries adapt to climate impacts and develop in a low-carbon way.
The official message of the march was "one environment, one people, one earth". Participants shouted slogans including "Food for all; water for all" and "Put the money in the fund".
"It's very exciting because lots of people turned up and it's fun. This is my first time on a march," said Iman Hossein from Bahrain, a member of the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM), which brings together young people from more than 15 countries, including Egypt, Oman and Iran.
"Our main demand is to ask the Arab leaders to take the lead in climate change policies. We want them to pledge to reduce their emissions and be an example for the rest of the world, and to put some money into the Green Climate Fund."
Prince Wilondja, from a Congolese group called Youth Action for Development, said he was tired of slow progress at the U.N. climate negotiations.
"People continue to suffer in Africa and other parts of the world. We think that if we send a message to our leaders to bring a small change and take some action, it will help save this world and our future," he said.
The Qatari chairman of the U.N. climate conference, Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiya, told demonstrators at the end of the march that the day marked "a very important moment in our history".
"We want to be free from hunger, we want to be free from fear, we want to be free of all the impacts that climate change could have on us... Congratulations for this gathering. I hope the message gets across (to politicians). I am sure it will," he said.
He said he would like to see officials and ministers at the climate talks "come up with a responsible decision towards addressing the issues of climate change".
Khalid Al-Mohannadi, co-founder of Doha Oasis, a local environment and development group that organised the march, told demonstrators, "Everyone all over the world has seen us and heard us!"
Al-Mohannadi told journalists on Friday that the march had been easy to arrange as the interior ministry had called him to request a meeting. The government also unusually allowed the participation of a group urging better rights for workers, in a country where poor conditions are widespread for South Asians employed in construction, oil and the service industry.
Al-Mohannadi estimated that more than 1,000 people had taken part in Saturday's demonstration, but the actual number appeared to be closer to 300.
"We didn't expect thousands and thousands like we did at many other COPs (U.N. climate conferences) but it is a good start," said Tasneem Essop, head of delegation for the international environment charity WWF. One of the group's members dressed as a polar bear, and others carried placards calling for "food, water and renewable energy for all, forever".
Essop said WWF wanted to support the efforts of non-governmental groups (NGOs) in the region working on climate change. But some other international campaigning organisations kept a low profile or stayed away from the march, wary of being associated with an officially sanctioned demonstration.
There are around 50 Arab NGOs represented at the U.N. climate talks, some of whom have received financial support from the Qatari government to attend.
Student Moza Issa, another co-founder of Doha Oasis, said awareness about climate change and support for a response to curb global warming are growing in the Middle East, both on the part of governments and ordinary people. There is a need for the younger generation in Qatar – which has the world's highest emissions per capita of greenhouse gases - to reconnect with the environment, she noted.
"This march is only part of the momentum that's happening. It's not something new, it is adding to what is starting in Qatar," she said.
"Arab governments, I think, are unfortunately trapped in the past... It's not about the governments anymore - we all know the Arab Spring happened because of the will of the people. So it's about the people realising that it's not about the status quo, it's about what if? Imagine. Think about what can be for your country," she urged.