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Environment and development AL-BIA WAL-TANMIA Leading Arabic Environment Magazine

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Boghos Ghougassian
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Ask this month‛s expert, Boghos Ghougassian, Environmental Engineer, President of the Lebanese Appropriate Technology Association (LATA) and he will reply here on this page.

Previous expert, Dr. Imad Saoud, Professor of Aquaculture and Aquatic Science at the American University of Beirut (AUB)
Q: Where sewage flows into the sea, does this pose a health hazard to fish consumers? (Samar Matouk, Beirut)
Dear Samar,
The water flowing into the sea contains sewer material. That is mainly organic matter and minerals that are good for plant and algae growth. Think of manure that you add to plants so they can grow better. If this was flowing into a closed bay, it would cause too much algal growth, something we call “eutrophication”. In such a case, life in the bay would consume all oxygen in the water during the night and everything in the bay would die. However, in Lebanon we do not have closed bays and the nutrients get diluted.
Some scientists even say that: “The solution to pollution is dilution”. The problem with sewage is that it might contain human pathogens because it is human waste. In such a case, we would want strong dilution, which happens in Lebanon. This is why we do not have hundreds of people with Typhoid and Cholera and Dysentery every time the go to the beach. If people are close to the outlet of the sewer, they are at risk.
Now for your question on fish. Since sewage is fertilizer, we get a lot of plant productivity near the sewer outage and thus a lot of fish that eat those plants. There might be some harmful bacteria stuck to the fish but we are washing the fish and cooking it before we eat it.
As for heavy metals, Lebanon does not have enough industry to cause it nor enough long living fish to bio-accumulate it. The people most at risk are the fishermen because they can injure themselves with the hooks and these might have bacteria or viruses on them. The consumer is fine.
Q: We hear a lot about red tide, especially recently in the Gulf region. Please explain this phenomenon. (Makram Al Jabri, Kuwait)
Dear Makram, red tides are caused by the rapid growth of an organism in the water called a dinoflagellate. These organisms are tiny, single cell plantlike
and grow fast when they have nutrients such as sewers and fertilizers. The organic pollution in the gulf is causing their rapid growth. The organisms produce toxins that can hurt us from giving us a runny stomach to paralyzing us to killing us. They can also kill fish and other organisms. It also seems that with warming waters because of global warming, dinoflagellate growth rate is increasing.
The only way to stop these red tides is to decrease the amount of fertilizer flowing into the gulf from agriculture and sewers and to stop driving big cars and using lots of electricity which can increase global warming.
Many things in our world are going to change in the near future because we have not been good stewards of our planet. Unfortunately, it is going to affect our children and grandchildren most.
Q. How do the piles of rubbish and solid waste strewn across the country affect our marine water quality and marine life in it? (Ata Abdallah Obeid, Lebanon).
Dear Ata, the question is quite broad and there are many scenarios that can develop depending on location, weather, kind of solid waste, and time the solid waste
spent rotting before it came in contact with beach water. I will assume that hospitals are professional enough and industry honest enough not to dump toxic and harmful wastes into their trash. Accordingly, I will simplify my answer and divided into two scenarios: 1- Waste dumped into the sea; and 2- Waste piled on land. If the waste is dumped into the sea, then it can be divided into aesthetic pollution (mainly plastics and some metals) and organic pollution from medically harmful microorganisms to decomposing organic matter. The metals would sink and get incorporated into the bottom. If they do not contain toxic substances, they would become a nuisance to recreational divers until they get covered by sediment and organisms grow on them. Rusting iron might even be beneficial. Plastics tend to float, get deposited on beaches, clog nets and get stuck in intakes of cooling pipes for power generation. Additionally, the plastics often get confused for food items by fish, turtles and marine birds and end up in their digestive systems and might kill them. Some plastics break down with time to tiny particles that can irritate fish gills and their digestive systems. They also affect filter feeding organisms such as oysters. These plastics might not affect Lebanese beaches for long because currents will move them north towards Syria and Turkey but they would affect sea life in the Eastern Mediterranean.
If the trash is on land and has been rotting in the sun for a few days, a lot of foul smelling and noxious liquids and gases can be produced. Rain could wash these into coastal waters. Lebanon is sort of lucky to have an open coastline and most of the pollution gets diluted into the seawater and organics will break down with time. At the point of entry of the runoff into the sea, marine life will probably be affected but within limited areas. The biggest problems are not related to garbage pollution entering the sea but rather to infiltration into groundwater which is directly used by us and is not enough to dilute the toxins or allow for aerobic oxidation of dissolved organics. This is not to say that the effect of garbage piles on marine waters is not big. It is just not yet as dangerous as the oil spill during the 2006 war was. However, if the problem is not solved soon, then pollution might start bio-accumulating in animal tissue and reach problematic levels.
Q. Aquaculture is spreading in Arab countries. What are the environmental dangers and how can we solve them. (Jamila El Kasri, Rabat, Morocco)
Dear Jamila, first let me start by saying that all modes of food production and agriculture have some degree of environmental effects. We just try to limit those effects so we can have sustainable food production. Having said that, let me return to aquaculture in the Arab world. First of all, these vary from regions with a lot of freshwater such as Sudan and Egypt to countries that are extremely dry such as Kuwait and the UAE. Second, aquaculture can be in salt water or fresh water. In very dry countries, only marine aquaculture can be justified, and only if it makes sure that its effluents do not pollute the coastal waters. That is very possible and is being implemented in many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, California and northern Mexico. In countries that do have sufficient fresh water, aquaculture could be an extremely important tool to improve water productivity. If governments pay attention and forbid the unregulated use of antibiotics or toxic chemicals, and place limits on organic content of effluent water into rivers and lakes, then environmental harm from aquaculture is less than from any other kind of farming. Additionally, water from aquaculture facilities is excellent for irrigation, thus allowing for a dual use of the same water. Let me add here that more than 50% of all fish consumed worldwide is aquacultured and that proportion is increasing. Moreover, we need to start using the oceans to produce food because terrestrial food production cannot increase fast enough to feed the growing world population. What we need to do is make sure aquaculture is managed responsibly so it can remain sustainable while growing. Most of the environmental concerns of aquaculture development have been dealt with in the past 20 years. There are still some issues but these can be regulated if governments are willing to do so.
Previous Expert: Dr. Iman Nuwayhid, MD, DrPH. Professor, Dean Department of Environmental Health Environmental Health Faculty of Health Sciences American University of Beirut (AUB)
Question: What are the risks for people to consume tanker water from private wells that sometimes don‛t pass quality tests?
Name: Andres - Spain
It is difficult to answer the question without knowing which water quality indicators were not met. Generally speaking, there are short term health risks mostly related to microbiological contamination (water borne diseases) and long term risks if the water is contaminated with chemicals or heavy metals. The source of water is not of concern as long as it meets the quality standards (physical, chemical, and biological).
Previous Expert: Mrs. Roula Majdalani, Director , Sustainable Developmnet & Production Division, ESCWA
Question: How can the countries of North Africa, especially Algeria to benefit from renewable energies and green economy?
Name: Nawal
The role of regional integration in developing renewable energy in North Africa has been underlined in every national and regional forum that has been organized during the last years (as the Arab Forum on renewable energy and energy efficiency, Cairo, April 2012...).
In addition to renewable energy, energy efficiency is an important step and component of the green economy. Actually, energy efficiency and energy savings reduce customer‛s energy bills, enhancing household welfare and enterprise competitiveness as well as contribute to reduce the rapid increase of energy demand, which require large investment and costly maintenance.
Renewable energy when they can fairly compete with fossil fuels (due to subsidies) have the potential to diversify domestic energy supplies, thus enhancing security of supply, as well as creating new domestic activities and jobs and reducing local and global pollution.
Algeria plans to develop renewable energy especially for electricity generation from sun (PV and CSP) and wind (which is now cheapest source in Tunisia and Morocco) and the diversify its supply, fulfill demand needs and enhance oil and gas exports.
Question: What are the sustainable development applications in the sectors of architecture and buildings?
Name: Imed Eddine
Energy, materials, water and land are the basic resources used in the construction and operation of building, infrastructures and cities. All of these resources can be used in a sustainable or unsustainable way in these fields. Many techniques and schemes were developed to promote sustainable development in the urban and architectural fields.
In the building sector, emphasis was placed on technical issues regarding the construction and operation of buildings, such as materials, building components, construction technology, waste management, and energy related design concepts. Specifically, it involves issues such as design and management of buildings, materials and building performance, energy and resource consumption.
In urban planning, the emphasis is on land management involving spatial and functional planning which translates into urban layouts, public transit provision, water and waste management options and infrastructure requirements, including energy production and distribution systems.
In both fields, sustainable development involves taking into account environmental, socio-economic and cultural issues.
The following links provide access to documents that will provide more detailed info about these topics:
Sustainable buildings:
Sustainable cities:
Question: What is the best academic route into sustainable development? The scientific route or the policy route? I am very interested to find work in the sustainable development industry but I do not have a scientific background (my background is Politics and International Relations). Are there any Masters courses you would recommend?
Name: Omar
Both routes are possible and the route chosen will affect where you work and at what level (eg in government, civil society, etc.). Given your background, I suggest you opt for a “developmental studies” path. For example (and there are many others), the School of Oriental and African Studies offers a Master’s programme in Sustainable Development through distance learning (See
In the transition to a green economy, all talents are needed from scientists to policy-makers and technicians to scientists. And policy is key to design, coordinate implementation and evaluate sustainable national policies.
In addition, regional cooperation in this field is key and growing fast notably major actors in South-South regional cooperation (as through the in Cairo,…).
A few Masters courses in the MENA region (indicative list):
Slide 5 of IRENA PPT:
Previous Expert Hussein Abaza - Green Economy
Q: Is green economy profitable to nations, big and small, as much as present traditional economy?
Name : Karim Abdallah
A: It is up to countries to design policies in such a way that are in line with their socioeconomic circumstances and address national priorities and concerns. Green economy is intended to enhance competitiveness of countries and create new market niche, create new employment opportunities in sectors such as agriculture, industry, and tourism. If policies are properly designed they should be beneficial to both developed and developing countries alike.
Q: What is Green Economy?
Name: Farah Youssef
A: As defined by UNEP "A green economy is one that results in improved human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities"
In other words a green economy is one that advocates investing in the environment and human resources as a means to enhance competitiveness, diversify the economy, open up new business opportunities, create new jobs, while at the same time promote environmental and ecosystem conservation.
Previous Expert Dr. Farid Chaaban - Air Pollution
Q: What are the signs of air pollution?
Name: Fouad
A: Polluted air can be identified through:
 The brownish color: example, the brown cloud we see over Beirut from the surrounding mountains. Soot and smoke are easy to identify due to their black colors (example, car exhaust and stack emissions).
The smell: some pollutants have distinguished smells, example: hydrogen sulfide smells like a rotten egg.
Experiencing difficulty in breathing: especially for elderly people, and for those who have problems with respiratory system (asthma).
Q: We hear that ozone is a serious air pollutant in cities, causing respiratory illnesses. We also hear that the ozone layer protects us against harmful radiation from the sum. So, is ozone good or bad? And how serious is ozone pollution in Arab cities?
Name: Abdul Hakim Fayad
A: Ozone in the lower layers of the atmosphere (troposphere) is a secondary pollutant that results from chemical reactions between some primary pollutants in the presence of sunlight. Hence, in the troposphere, it is a very common pollutant associated with the traffic volumes inside major cities. Accordingly, all major Arab cities and capitals are expected to have high ozone concentrations. The concentration peaks midway through the day, and drops during the night due to the lack of sunshine and high traffic.
Ozone is also found in higher layers of the atmosphere (stratosphere), where it absorbs the ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth from the sun, and so protects our planet from the effects of these radiations.
Q: Are there any estimates of the volume and nature of air pollution in Beirut, and Lebanon in general, due to private electricity generators? Can you estimate emissions of different pollutants per capita, based on 16-20 hours of daily operation?
Name: Salim Saab
A: Private generation, nationwide, is estimated to be of total capacity of around 600MW. If assumed to be operated for 3 hours daily (Greater Beirut Area), then these generators emit around 511,000 tons of CO2 every year, and around 17,000 tons of SO2, in addition to NOx, particulates and many other pollutants. What makes things much worse it that all these pollutants are emitted almost at ground level, very close to people, and with no filtration whatsoever.
P.S. To find for 16-20 hours of daily operation (or any number of hours), it is a linear relation (for example: for 16 hours operation, multiply the above numbers by 16/3)
Previous Expert Boghos Ghougassian - Organic Farming
Q- Is it possible to irrigate with greywater (GW) when doing organic farming?
Name: Adla Tawbeh
A- Dear Adla, GW is not the ideal water for practicing organic farming, but for sure it is safe and adequate to grow non-organic or close to organic produce in home gardens by using the treated domestic GW that has undergone at least secondary level treatment (for wastewater), and when all sanitary requirements are met. The quality of such produce will be far better than conventional/commercially grown crops.
GW that is generated at household level, from sinks and showers (not toilet wastewater) is an important source of water, which is free from hazardous materials, except from residues of in house used cleansing solutions. But if natural (baladi) soaps are used when taking showers and washing clothes, etc., it will be much safer to use it in irrigation of edible plants. However, the users of GW should practice proper irrigation techniques, such as drip irrigation, in order to avoid sprinkling of GW on plants and possibility of human contact with GW.
Lab test results in some ME countries, such as Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon, where GW projects have been implemented since 1995, have indicated that the fruits and vegetables grown with treated GW do not pose any health problem, because they do not contain chemical residues or harmful microorganisms that affect the health of people, and provided that vegetables are not eaten in raw state.
It should be added that, GW contains natural nutrients that boosts plant growth and enables production of good quality fruits and other produce, without application of chemical fertilizers that contribute to family food security.
In many rural and peri-urban areas of MENA region, GW is the only available source of irrigation water that households can use for growing plants. And if that GW is free from cleansing formulations and meet sanitary requirements, then the produce can be considered close to organic.
Thank you for your question!
Boghos Ghougassian
Q- Why costs of organic produce are much higher than the conventionally grown products? And how to make sure that the products are real organic?
Name: Saiid Abdullah
A- It is generally believed that about half of human illnesses are due to what they eat. Healthy food consumption is a key factor for maintaining a healthy body. This is why most of the buyers of organic foods are those who are concerned on their health. These people usually do not care for the high price. They look for the quality, in order to protect their state of health. A mid-aged lady used to say “I eat organic foods in order to have a natural death at the end”.
Actually, the retail prices of fresh local organic produce in Lebanon and some other MENA countries, such as Egypt, is just about 10 to 30% more expensive than conventional produce. This is because the yields in organic way of farming are lower and the production costs of crops is high, when compared to conventional farming. But in this case the consumer gets high quality organic products that do not contain residues of pesticides and other agro-chemicals, are more nutritive, tasty, and can be stored longer.
It should be added that the healing properties of organic products are quite well established. Even people suffering from cancers and other chronic illnesses have been cured or significantly improved through eating strict organic products.
It is also worth mentioning that at certain food markets even the prices of conventional produce are close to that of organic ones. And in case of imported organic products, the prices are far higher due to shipping costs, taxes, overheads and traders’ profits.
But still there are cheaper options. Consumers can purchase low cost genuine organic produce at farm-gate level instead of buying from urban health stores, where in this case they might also doubt the authenticity of the organic products. In this case, they should make sure that the organic products are certified by authorized certifying organizations.
Thank you for your question!
Boghos Ghougassian
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Boghos Ghougassian
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