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 Ecological Approach
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Environmentally Sound

The Environment Program at AUB is not just an academic department that issues degrees. Both students and faculty “practice what they preach” by getting involved in community-based green initiatives and regional research. When May Farah investigated the measures the University is taking to help conserve the precious environment and resources of Lebanon, she found out that it all starts at home.

To refer to the American University of Beirut’s environment curriculum by its given name has a catch-22 implication. On the one hand, the appellation “Environment Program” is broad enough to encompass and include an extensive diversity of objectives, offerings, and achievements. On the other hand, however, it may be a touch too general to distinguish the unique and individually important aspects of the many departments and areas it encompasses.
Indeed the very existence of the Environment Program at AUB is a
progressive response to the diverse challenges facing the environment in Lebanon and the region, made up of all the multifaceted approaches necessary to promote and implement sustainable development solutions.
More precisely, AUB’s exemplary and trend-setting environment umbrella embraces a number of active components—courses of study, research initiatives, and projects being realized by the Interfaculty Graduate Environmental Sciences Program (IGESP), the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU), the Water Resource Center (WRC), and the Energy Resource Group (ERG), among others.
“AUB has certainly taken the initiative in environmental studies and work in Lebanon,” says Rami Zurayk, professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, who is the director of IGESP as well as a founding member of ESDU. “Whether it’s through our drylands project, Healthy Basket, sustainable development, or biodiversity, we’re well rooted and are setting trends.”
One of the early and influential initiatives is the Interfaculty Graduate Environmental Sciences Program. Established in the mid-1990s, IGESP is headed by the provost, Peter Heath, and involves a number of prominent faculty
members. “This was among the first efforts to promote a community-based ecosystem-oriented approach in research, services, and in teaching,” explains Zurayk. “That is, we learn from our environment—and that includes our ecological surroundings—and we use those principles to give back to it.”
Recognizing Lebanon’s unique diversity—
environmental, societal, and cultural—IGESP understands how much an equal diversity of environmental problems can affect the integrity of the country’s ecosystems. Accordingly, it adopts a holistic approach to resolving those problems, and offers a program of study and practice designed to address both the most salient environmental issues as well those that are more specialized.
The development and research projects being carried out by the IGESP faculty are also as diverse. They include efforts to develop an integrated zone management plan for the Lebanese coastline; improve the national capacity to manage plant diversity, save threatened species, and plan for protected areas; develop
a decision support system for solid waste management, taking into account socio-economic and environmental considerations; and map out and understand the dynamics of change in urban environments.As “Interfaculty Graduate” in its name suggests, the program brings together courses and professors from various faculties: Agricultural and Food Sciences, Engineering and Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Health Sciences, and Medicine. “The environment, like other complex subjects, is interdisciplinary,” says Heath. “In many ways, the different departments that are involved have loosened their disciplinary perspective in order to create a more interdisciplinary program.” As Zurayk puts it, “Communities and ecosystems are by their very essence interdisciplinary. So, at AUB we are strongly interdisciplinary in addressing the environment.”
The response in IGESP student enrollment has been increasingly positive. Its fields of specialization—environmental technology, environmental health, and ecosystem management—have all witnessed a significant increase of students over the past five years, in some cases more than double. “We now have 50 students registered in the program,” says Zurayk, adding that IGESP has responded to demands with a new major in environmental policy planning, which was introduced this year.
In keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit and operating closely with IGESP, the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit was established in 2001 to focus specifically on research and development activities pertinent to rural community development. Founded by the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, ESDU facilitates the forging of links and strategic partnerships with different groups, research centers and institutes—local, regional, and international—in the areas of integrated natural resource management and sustainable development.
“It was created in response to the needs of the interdisciplinary efforts within the faculty,” explains Zurayk. “ESDU has been successful in enabling its members to feel part of a cohesive group, to apply for grants under a common entity, and to move forward.” Among the
projects already being carried out by ESDU
are initiatives to evaluate the sustainability of farming in the marginal lands of Lebanon; to promote the improvement of agriculture in remote regions; and to increase the capacity
for protected area planning and management. Another ESDU-initiated project involves the possibility of introducing practices centered
on achieving sustainable livelihoods in dryland communities. These lands, as their name
indicates, lack water—the basis of life. Many communities, such as Yammouneh in the
highlands of the central Beka’a Valley, are faced with massive obstacles, not least of which is their unfortunate lack of nature’s precious endowment. With World Bank funding and professional input from around the region, the project is assessing ways in which to promote sustainable development in the drylands of Lebanon. “New courses and research programs are based on these projects,” says Zurayk. “So we’re practitioners first, and then we teach what we have practiced.”
Healthy Basket: Bringing Organic Produce
to Beirut and Helping Farmers
Just outside the door of a third floor office in the Sodeco neighborhood of Beirut is a small plaque that reads: “Healthy Basket: Produced by small farmers of Lebanon, supervised by the American University of Beirut.” What began as part of a rural development team project of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences about 18 months ago has flourished into an enterprising non-profit partnership between AUB and local farmers, aimed at promoting organic agriculture as a viable livelihood strategy.
Demonstrating AUB’s commitment to decreasing environmental pollution and subsequent food contamination, Healthy Basket works through mutual commitment and support between organic farms and a community of supporters who commit to purchasing a share of the farm’s harvest. “This idea of community-supported agriculture is a novel approach in which the urban community supports a rural community by subscribing to a weekly basket of produce from these farms,” says Zurayk, who was instrumental in getting Healthy Basket up and going. “Organic produce is now on the shelves. More than 20 farmers are sustained through this venture, and 130 families have already subscribed to purchase their output.”
Farmers drop off their produce three times a week at the Sodeco office and its ground-level store, where their goods are sold directly and where baskets of fresh produce are assembled and delivered to subscribers on a weekly basis. Each basket, small or large, contains a minimum of eight different fruits and vegetables. The wide variety of traditional and innovative fresh produce includes seasonal fruits, vegetables and baladi eggs, along with other kinds of produce, such as baby corn and carrots, eggplants and cherry tomatoes, and minimally processed honey, jam, breads, and olive oil.
Rana Touma and Nathalie Cherfane, two AUB graduates, are responsible for overseeing the Healthy Basket operation, which involves coordinating with farmers, ensuring quality control of produce, inspecting the farms, and communicating with subscribers. They also produce a monthly newsletter, which goes out to the subscribers to inform them of the latest in organic farming.

Although Healthy Basket is still subsidized, it should eventually become self-sustainable. “Because of demand, there are now plans to increase the number of subscribers and the number of farmers,” says Touma, who visits the farms at least once a week. “Many organic farmers are eager to join, as this is one of the few outlets they have to sell their produce.”
Conservation Begins at Home: Environmental Initiatives on Campus
AUB’s environmental and conservation efforts are not solely outward-looking. Rather, as with any viable strategy, the process begins at home. To that end, the University has invested millions of dollars to make the campus more environmentally friendly. And Mike Harrison, director of the far-reaching range of responsibilities of the Physical Plant, has been there overseeing it all, from water conservation, recycling, and reusing, to saving electricity and insuring the safe disposal of hazardous materials. “The Physical Plant has already begun to chart and notice savings in many areas, such as water,” he says, “and we’ve been saving, even though the population of AUB, and therefore consumption, has risen.”

Greenline: AUB Faculty, Friends, Students, and Alumni
in Action

Founded in 1991 by a group of AUB professionals and friends who wanted to
translate their concern for Lebanon’s war-devastated cultural, human, and natural environment into organized action, Greenline today is a non-profit non-governmental association independent of any political group, which is working to ensure that the principles of environmentally-sound development in the developing world are respected. Greenline operates through a seven-member executive committee (six of them AUB graduates or students) that oversees about 150 members and has a mailing list of more than 2,000.
“Our main objectives are to expose environmental threats, spread awareness, and contribute towards a scientific framework for sustainable environmental management,” explains Ziad Moussa, AUB graduate and a member of Greenline’s executive committee. Although Greenline has since moved off campus and become a separate entity, it still considers itself attached to AUB, the source of the majority of its membership. “The organic link with AUB lies in several joint projects, the latest being organic farming (of which Healthy Basket is a part),” explains Moussa, adding that the executive committee meets weekly to discuss projects in progress and confer on planned initiatives, upcoming conferences, and other environmentally relevant activities.
Since its inception, Greenline, which receives most of its funding from Europe, has focused the bulk of its efforts on three fiery issues: the quarries, privatization of the coast, and sustainable transportation. Among the group’s many initiatives is its campaign for a sustainable transport system—a national land transport strategy aimed at reducing car circulation and promoting green modes of transport. “We are trying to offer the population tangible solutions,” says Moussa, admitting that people are generally more environmentally aware today than they were a decade ago.
As for its name, Moussa explains that when the group was founded, the 15-year civil war was coming to an end. At the time, the “green line” was Lebanon’s infamous
appellation for the no man’s land that separated East and West Beirut. “So, we thought of Greenline to indicate the bridging of that gap,” says Moussa. And in the process, it is hoped, to bridge the gap of environmental awareness.


The electricity savings come from the many buildings and the campus streetlights that have now been equipped with a photoelectric cell system, whereby the lights come on and go off at dusk and dawn respectively, thus preventing waste of power during daylight hours. Moreover, each year about six or seven bathrooms in buildings across campus have been undergoing refurbishment, and among the changes being introduced is the installation of passive infrared sensors. With these sensors, bathroom lights switch on when somebody enters and switch off about 10 minutes after no movement is sensed. Then, in another 10 minutes, the air extract fan goes off as well. “In these bathrooms,” says Harrison, “we no longer have the problem of lights and fans being on all night and wasting power.” He adds that sensors have also been installed in all laboratories in the chemistry building to control the lighting there as well.

Sensors for water release are another environmental change that has been made in the refurbished bathrooms. “All urinals have been fitted with sensors that automatically release a specific amount of water after use,” explains Harrison, noting that this system actually has three advantages: “It’s hygienic; it ensures that the toilet has been flushed; and it saves water. The same sensors have been installed on faucets, so that taps won’t be left running, and low-flow shower heads have been installed in the dorms and faculty buildings as well, ” he adds.
AUB has also made further water savings by re-using what had previously been wasted. The condensate water from air conditioning, which literally used to go down the drain, is now being collected and used for irrigation. In the case of College Hall, the water is going back into the system and being used for the building’s bathrooms. “We’re saving up to 2,000 liters a day,” says Harrison. “Being more environmentally efficient and friendly is now part of design.”
The Physical Plant is currently carrying out trials on solar systems for showers—they are now installed in one or two places—to assess their effectiveness. “If we can ensure savings then we’ll think of investing, because solar panels call for large capital investment,” says Harrison. “And in some cases, for example in College Hall, they are not aesthetically pleasing.”
In November 2001, AUB purchased a fluorescent lighting tube disposal machine, which removes the potentially harmful content of the tubes and prevents gases from escaping into the atmosphere. The machine is used to dispose of all fluorescent tubes from the University and the Medical Center. Since November 2001, over 25,000 tubes have been disposed of, tubes which otherwise would have had a huge detrimental impact on the air.
In terms of energy consumption, as well, there have been many strategies employed to ensure savings. For example, shutting down the central air conditioning system at the end of the workday significantly reduced its running time. “We were operating the entire system for one or two people who worked late,” explains Harrison. “But, we’ve reduced operating times; and as for people who are working after hours, they can open the windows.” In rooms where split-system air conditioning units are used, passive infrared sensors have been installed,
which means no occupants, no air conditioning. “Although fuel prices have gone up, our consumption has come down, so we’re not spending more on fuel,” he adds.
Although AUB still relies on its own power-generating plant—which was its primary and sometimes its sole source of power during the war—the station can just barely keep up with the needs of the continually growing campus and its population. “Right now we are fed partially by EDL (Electricité du Liban),” explains Harrison, noting that AUB plans to gradually purchase all power from EDL, but will maintain its own plant for use during EDL power cuts.
He strongly defends the power station as being the cleanest in Lebanon, particularly in light of the concerns recently voiced by the AUB community over the plant’s noise pollution and potentially harmful emissions. “AUB has invested in new technologies to reduce both,” he says. For example, on the roof of the new plant, soundproof cones reduce the generator noise, while installation of a soundproof barrier around the radiators prevents further noise pollution. And, all engines of the plant are now equipped with state-of-the-art precious metal filters, which are designed to convert standard products of combustion into more environmentally friendly gasses, like carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.
While AUB’s efforts have been substantial and noteworthy and the results encouraging, more will need to be done so that the savings in water, electricity, and other resources can continue. “People have to be conditioned, but that’s a long and slow process; so until then, we are looking at engineering solutions to the problem,” says Harrison. “At the moment, we’re saving more with these solutions. But eventually, the savings will level off and we will then need to go to the community and educate them more.”
Recycling Efforts Grow
One area in which the University has witnessed sizeable student and faculty input is recycling, particularly of paper and cardboard. According to Anis Abdallah, the Physical Plant’s manager of Grounds and Transfer Services, who has been involved with AUB’s recycling efforts from day one, 7.3 tons of paper were collected in the first month alone.
Campus-wide recycling, including the hospital, has been effected in three phases. The first phase was paper, which began in 1998 when notices were sent out to the AUB community explaining the objectives and requesting full collaboration. By February 2000, all AUB premises had been equipped with paper recycling bins and boxes.
In March 2000, the second phase began with the recycling of glass and aluminum in the faculty apartments, the university cafeteria, and the Engineering Milk Bar. By February 2001, special can and glass collection units had been distributed to various locations across campus. So far, however, glass and can bins have been placed at only five different locations, which may account for the relatively poor collection response in this area. “The participation has only been about 50 percent in this area, compared to 100 percent for paper,” admits Abdallah. “But soon we’ll be increasing the number of receptors to 10 and that should increase the recycling effort.”
In the spring of 2001, AUB implemented the third phase of its recycling efforts and began collecting printer ribbons and cartridges. “By August 2003, 304 tons of paper and cardboard, 9.7 tons of glass and cans, and 635 cartridges and ribbons had been recycled,” says Abdallah, noting that although recycling has not yet been initiated in the dorms, the process is under way and the containers should be delivered and in place before the end of the year.
The Student Commitment to Promoting Environmental Awareness
AUB’s recycling efforts have certainly received a boost from the participation of the Student Environment Club, which has been doing its
duty by spreading the word and encouraging fellow students—both club members and the student population at large—about the importance of each person doing his or her part. The general objectives of the club are to make people aware and active when it comes to environmental issues. “We start by educating ourselves, and then spread this information to our members and the AUB community,” explains Farah Taha, the club president.
Sitting in their newly refurbished third-floor office in West Hall, Taha and Hanadi Musharrafieh, vice president of the club, discuss their environmentally friendly plans for the coming academic year. “We’ll try to get across the major themes, like how our actions can have an impact on the environment,” says Musharrafieh.
With about 20 registered members, joined by the many friends of the club who turn out during activities, they are hoping their campaigns will raise awareness and reach all fellow students. The club’s numerous activities last year included participation in Big Blue, a yearly event organized by Cedars for Care to clean up the country’s beaches; a solid waste management workshop organized by the Beirut Arab University Environment Club; and an awareness campaign on recycling on campus. As for this year, activities are still in the planning stage. “We hosted a workshop recently during which members were encouraged to put forward ideas in three areas: sustainable consumption (water, food); solid waste, especially recycling; and, air pollution, particularly to increase awareness of the practices that pollute the air,” explains Taha.
The club also regularly publishes Green News, a newsletter that informs members and the AUB community about environmental issues and upcoming activities, along with spreading the word about the copious environmental initiatives being taken by the Physical Plant.
A Focus on Water and Energy
A recent addition to the Environment Program family is an initiative based on an idea that has been floating around since 1998. Gaining momentum year by year, it finally led to the establishment this year of the Water Resources Center.
With the center now functional, AUB hopes to consolidate its various efforts in the area of water studies and initiatives. It is intended to act as the University’s focal point in the planning and management of Lebanon’s water resources, by developing strategies to make optimal use of those resources and also to serve as a forum for information exchange and regional cooperation. “The idea is to have a committee made up of various people who are all working now in different departments, to bring them together under one umbrella,” says Dr. Mutasem El Fadel, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who heads the center. “We’ve also recently introduced a master’s degree in water resources study at the management level.”
Among the center’s objectives are to assist in the formulation of water policies and master plans for water supplies in various regions of the country, to ensure that water resource systems are operated under optimal conditions
of quality and quantity, and that essential information is regularly updated and made available for analysis.
The Water Resource Center is just one of many new groups and programs that have been realized to make environmental studies as far-reaching as possible. There are many others, such as the Energy Research Group and the Ecosystem Approach to Health Group, which all have a similar multidisciplinary structure and are focused on leading research and development efforts in their particular areas of specialization.
Certainly, as demand and need arise, the AUB Environment Program will continue to grow. And, considering its many achievements and milestones so far, its participation in the implementation of sustainable livelihood strategies for Lebanon and the region is sure to remain at the cutting edge.