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The Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Balamand

This week we met Dr. Manal Nader, the Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Balamand. An opportunity to get the opinion of an expert on the environmental challenges facing Lebanon.

Yann Rotil: What is the mission of the Institute for Environmental Studies ?

Dr. Manal Nader:
One of the missions of the Institute is to launch environmental research at the University of Balamand. Secondly, it is to actually try to approach environmental problems from a scientific perspective and not only from an awareness perspective. Hopefully this will lead to better solutions to long term environmental challenges facing the Lebanese society
First and foremost our main goal today is to launch projects of research that our students will benefit from, that our country needs and that can provide the scientific basis for environmental decisions to be made at the government level.
The other thing the Institute is very much involved in is the transfer of academic knowledge to the community in a way that they can understand and use it, and accordingly hold their officials accountable for their actions.
The Insitute is only a year and a half old, it took approximately three years to launch it and we have a lot of work in progress that is very beneficial to the community. I have to say that we are very community-oriented, we don’t do science for the sake of science, we do science for the sake of the community, for the development of Lebanon, for the preservation of our cultural heritage, of Lebanese environmental resources. We also concentrate on the marine environment that has been neglected for years and more specifically the coastal zones, the interraction of man and the sea.

Y.R: Can you give us some examples of the projects in progress ?

M.N: Yes of course. We are now working on a project with the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) on the management of fisheries and fisheries resources. We are starting to establish a center that will gather fishery data. Twice a week we go to four ports and we assess what, when, how, and how much fishermen are actually collecting, more specifically we see the quantities and the species they are collecting. Accordingly, we will be able to propose to the government a plan on fisheries resource management in Lebanon. For example, there are restrictions on net sizes, but they are not enforced. This kind of fishing technique removes small fish species that might lead to their extinction.
Another project we have is to make an inventory of sharks and cartilaginous fishes. As you may know they are endangered on an international level and we have no data on the population of sharks living in our sea.
We also have a project funded by the Ramoge agreement on marine pollution that was signed by Italy, Monaco and France in 1976. We concentrate on the fishermen, the resource user that are most affected by human behaviour. What we do is we collect all the solid waste, plastic, metals that are caught in the net when they are fishing. Our students will then sort the waste, note the percentage of each type of collected waste with the hope that we will be able to determine the source of pollution and stop waste entering the sea at the source. This is a fundamental problem in the Mediterranean and we do this also in collaboration with the Mediterranean Action Plan a UNDP program.
These are the three main projects we are working on.
Now at the University level we are starting a marine life collection. We have collected the most common species with the help of local fishermen and we are now starting to get the rarer species with the objective to complete a comprehesive collection of fishes encountered on our shores. We will then open our doors to schools and students aged between 6 and 12, because this is the age at which they are most receptive to information, to teach them the basics of biodiversity and the biology of the sea for them to respect it more.
At the level of the Institute we have three programs : the marine resources, the biodiversity program and the environmental communication. The latter is mainly responsible for the contacts between the University and the community and for the awareness campaigns. It is also very much involved in research about the kind of communication methodologies that are beeing used in Lebanon for environmental issues. Because we don’t have environmental communication specialists in the country so relating the information is one of the most important factor to improve environmental awareness. So they will work on the message and on the messenger to make sure the information is conveyed in a way that makes it usable and practical for the recepient.
The biodiversity program is a very wide program, you have marine biodiversity, insects, plants, birds, reptiles and no one can actually do this by himself so hopefully this program will grow to have more team members. Currently it is focusing on awareness with the hope of launching research activities in the near future..

Y.R : What are the needs for environmental experts in Lebanon ? How would you assess the environmental situation of the country ?

M.N: I think the environmental situation in the country is very bad ! This comes from several factors. One of them is the fact that environmental science is not yet considered as a field of importance for the country.
We lack a lot of environment specialists, we have a lot of problems at the level of the law and legislation and even more at the level of implementation of existing legislations. Our culture does not encourage people to respect the environment. So basically we need experts in all those fields. We have engineers who claim to be environmental engineers, but they are not and we need specialists. The very few experts we have in the country cover the environment in a horizontal fashion, we need vertical experts, i.e coastal zones specialists, fisheries specialists, etc. But this requires an investment and an effort that has not been supported during the past years. We hope that the new situation at the government level will bring the right people at the right place and that a real environmental policy will emerge.
For the time beeing there are NGOs that are very active in the field of environmental protection and have been able to stop some large projects that would have had a negative impact on the environment. The problem is that this can not be left to NGOs only. The government is the authority that has to address the problems and solve them.
Lebanon has not yet moved from the mass tourism trend to the ecotourism trend. So large development projects are accepted and endorsed to the detriment of the environment which is the wealth of our country. Ecotourism is booming in Europe and North America and if we don’t preserve our environment today we will be out of the tourism map within ten years.
The Lebanese coast has increased from 225 km which is its original size to 330 km because of sea filling and reclamations, every resort wants its own port or marina but this is to the detriment of the animal and vegetal sea life and to the beauty of the landscape which is what tourists will be looking for in the future.
We have exactly the same problem in the mountains with quarries, moutains are cut without any consideration for the landscape, the heritage or the environment. The same goes for the standards, or rather the lack of standards for emissions of industries, water. When we do have standards they are not applied. So on one side we, at the Institute, have the ambition to deal with these problems that affect the health of the people themselves and on the other side to protect and preserve what is left from the environment in Lebanon

Y.R : Are you in contact with the Ministry of Environment ?

M.N: We are in contact with the Ministry of Environment, we actually have a project with the Ministry concerning the marine turtles. It aims at tagging marine turtles, counting their nests and their eggs in Tyr nature reserve and palm island nature reserve.
We’re always in contact with the Mnistry for consultancy, whenever they need expertise in a specific field they know we are ready to provide any assistance within our capacity.
The problem is that the Ministry has very limited powers. It can not take any decision on any issue, so a law has been sent recently to the parliament to extend its jurisdiction and mandate. The frustrating thing is that part of the draft law has been removed from the text presented to the parliamant. Nevertheless, it would still be beneficial to the ministry and thus to the environment shoud it pass.

Y.R : What are the different disciplines covered by the cursus ?

M.N: First the Environmental Sciences Program is at the Faculty of Science, we want to give our students a very strong scientific base so in the first two years the courses are the same as the pre-medical school: physics, biology, etc. This is very important for them because if they decide to continue for the medical school after they pass their environmental science degree they would have taken all the required courses.
Now for the environmental science courses we have introductory courses about the history of environmental science and environmental problems, where it stands today and we always empasize solutions on the global level, you can’t have a local approach to environmental problems.
Then we have courses on pollution in air, water, soil.
We have one course on environmental communication, and how to communicate environment-related information.
We have environmental planning and policy, so they will be exposed to legislation, to master planning and strategic planning.
We also give courses on ecotourism that we discussed earlier, on coastal zones management, on marine biology, on fishery management.
Finally, one of the most important courses is the project residency, they are obliged to spend two months working with an environmental consultancy group, in reserves, municipalities, at the Ministry of Environment to gain field experience.
We also have projects that are linked to the cursus such as environment and development indicators which we work on in collaboration with municipalities. We have 200 indicators and we evaluate them. Results are posted on the following web site : www.balamand.edu.lb/medermis
We’ve been working on this project for four years now and have a good base to start comparing the results and the indicators year after year.
So they cover almost everything at an under-graduate level and we strongly recommend them to pursue their studies at the graduate level. By exposing them to various disciplines we give them the opportunity to chose a specialty they like.

Y.R : Are there other universities offering the same cursus in Lebanon or in neighbouring countries ?

M.N: Well, some are dispensing courses related to the environment but in faculties of engineering thus more from an engineering perspective. Also faculties of health sciences work on environment but from a health perspective. So to my knowledge we are the only university with an environmental perspective, we place the environment at the center of the cursus, other dsciplines serve the environment and not vice versa.
We have the Institute, we fund projects, we do quite a bit of field work, so we’re one of the few with such a strong commitment to excellence in environmental sciences at an institutional level.

Y.R : Do you have foreign students?

M.N: We have two Syrians and a Lebanese but she is living in Dubai. However we believe that the number of foreign students is likely to increase along with the emergence of environmental awareness on the global level. We also have to take into consideration the fact that our academic program is only 2 years old and we already have 12 students registered. Our first student will graduate in Spring 2006 and we are very proud to her enter the work force. Graduates are the ones that will save and conserve our natural environment.

Beirut 27-01-2006
Yann Rotil
Ebizproduction



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