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Lebanese Universities Put More Focus on Environmental Studies

Air and water pollution, waste disposal, loss of biodiversity and deforestation are among pressing challenges that prompted Lebanese universities to introduce environment and sustainability studies in their curricula.

The subject is gaining in popularity among the young generation of students who are more aware than their elders of threats to the environment in the age of climate change.

Following Unesco’s 1999 directives on environmental education, substantial strides have been made in strengthening environmental education in Lebanon.

The United Nations’ 2019 Sustainable Development Report ranked Lebanon sixth among 22 Arab countries, saying Lebanon was on track to meet two of the U.N.’s environmental goals by 2030: clean water and sanitation, and action on climate change. It was lagging on other targets, in particular the goal of making cities and towns sustainable places to live. (See two related articles, “An Arab Researcher Seeks Solutions to Urban Pollution” and “A University Wades Into the Lebanese Garbage Crisis.”)

“Lebanon’s environmental performance is still far from being satisfactory and the economic cost and environment degradation is increasing,” says Safaa Baydoun, director of the Research Center for Environment and Development at Beirut Arab University.

The center was set up in 2010 to provide research facilities for students enrolled in the university’s master’s and Ph.D. programs in environmental sciences and engineering. It has collaborated with Montpellier University in France and the Lebanese-French environmental observatory, O-Life, to “fill the gaps” in the curriculum for its master’s degree.

Practical Programs Needed

“There is a need for interdisciplinary environmental education that connects knowledge and professional skills in order to address present and future challenges and to achieve environmental sustainability,” Baydoun said.

“We seek to upgrade the program at BAU to make it more tailored to the needs of the country,” she added. “The current programs are focused mainly on theoretical knowledge without giving much attention to the skills and competencies required in the job market. We want to remedy these gaps.

“This will create environmental professionals capable of identifying and solving emerging environmental problems within the complex settings of natural, technical, economic, social, ethical and political challenges Lebanon is facing.” (See two related articles, “Population Growth Compounds Climate Change” and “As Lebanon’s Forests Burn, Researchers Seek Solutions.”)

Lebanon is badly in need of experts in environmental science, says Carine Monzer, a Ph.D. student at Beirut Arab University. Above, she works on her research at the university's Research Center for Environment and Development (Photo courtesy of Carine Monzer).
Lebanon is badly in need of experts in environmental science, says Carine Monzer, a Ph.D. student at Beirut Arab University. Above, she works on her research at the university’s Research Center for Environment and Development (Photo courtesy of Carine Monzer).

The Research Center for Environment and Development’s main mission is to assist master’s degree and Ph.D. students in research on topics such as improving water quality and phyto-remediation—the use of living plants to clean up contaminated soil, water and air.

The center is also assisting engineering students in developing bio-based construction material from sediments in Lake Qaraoun, an artificial lake in the Bekaa Valley, and sludge from wastewater treatment plants. The lake is a reservoir created more than 60 years ago when a dam was built across Lebanon’s largest river, the Litani. Both now suffer from industrial pollution.

Environmental Studies as a Minor at LAU

At the Lebanese American University, environmental studies is offered as a minor to all students regardless of their major subject.

“We introduced the first course on the environment some 15 years ago,” says Ahmad Houri, a lecturer on environment at LAU. “It was designed in a way to be offered as a course for all. Its advantage is that students can enroll in this minor in their second year of study.”

The course, he added, “turned out to be largely appealing to the students. At some point we had seven sections on the course with 40 students in each section.”

However, the Lebanese American University has not yet introduced a full-fledged major on environment and sustainable development that combines theory and practice for undergraduate students.

“We definitely need to have a comprehensive program,” Houri said. “The environment should be a subject of study for higher as well as lower education to sensitize the youth on environmental challenges. It must be integrated in high school curricula the same way as history, geography or math.”

A Related Discipline

While the interest in environmental sciences in higher education is a product of the 21st century, environmental engineering has existed in most universities for decades.

“The environmental engineering program is not a new subject at LAU,” says Caesar Abi Shdid, an associate professor and chair of the department of civil engineering at LAU. “It was there when I was a student in the 1990s.” The program “is highly technical,” he added, “even though it somehow overlaps with environmental sciences studies.”

“The environmental engineering program is not a new subject at LAU. It was there when I was a student in the 1990s. It is highly technical, even though it somehow overlaps with environmental sciences studies.”

Caesar Abi Shdid  
An associate professor and chair of the department of civil engineering at LAU

Carine Monzer, 25, is preparing a doctorate in environmental sciences at Beirut Arab University focusing on water quality in the Litani River. A lot of household and animal waste is dumped in the river, which is also contaminated by antibiotics.

“I believe Lebanon is badly in need of environment experts and hydrologists to help protect and conserve water and other natural resources,” Monzer says. “I read a lot about water pollution and environmental challenges before deciding to go for a Ph.D. in environmental sciences. It is a very important field and we don’t have enough specialists.”

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Nine universities in Lebanon offer master’s degree programs in environmental science, technology and engineering. The goals, structures and requirements of the programs vary according to the educational objectives of each university, as the development of curricula is not regulated at national level.

Baydoun believes that courses on the environment should be a general requirement for all university students. “This is how students are introduced to environmental issues and motivated to specialize in the field,” she said.


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