Engineering Professor Returns from Tunisia Inspired
Spends 1.5 Years as visiting faculty at University of Gabes
When FAMU-FSU College of Engineering professor, Tarek Abichou returned to his birthplace of Zarzis, Tunisia, he inadvertently arrived just days prior to the start of a month long uprising that ended the 23 year dictatorship of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Abichou was in Tunesia to work at the University of Gabes, as a visiting faculty member.
"It was quite exciting really," Abichou said, "the Arab Spring, at least in Tunisia, was much more peaceful than the media showed. It was a truly awesome time for the family and especially my kids. At the university, the students were bursting with ideas and enthusiasm...it was like the 60's in a week." The former Fulbright scholar had not lived extensively in his birth country for 30 years and was eager to go back to make a difference.
On the heels of Tunisia's revolution, the students and faculty found themselves enthusiastically ready for new ideas on how to make the country better according to Abichou, who specializes in civil and environmental engineering. The professor took the lead on focusing on the country's need for solid waste and wastewater management as well as its need for water resources management.
One environmental issue that got Abichou's attention ironically happened on his day off. "I went snorkeling in Zarzis where my family and I were staying and immediately saw what looked like algae bloom all over the sea floor. It changed drastically from 30 years ago so I asked some of the local fishermen about what I saw and they confirmed it and said that the beach sometimes smelled like sewage, but they did not know why."
Abichou had an explanation, "Zarzis used to be a small fishing village that had grown quickly as a tourist destination. More and more people came and buildings went up without government oversight." He went on to say, "the area did not have an adequate sewage treatment system to handle this new influx of people and consequently the nutrients from archaic septic systems reached the coastal sea floor."
The determined professor worked with the municipalities along the coast to raise awareness and tried to show them that they needed to invest in septic system infrastructure and create waste management policies in order to protect their resources. "There is a study that is currently a Master Thesis for a graduate student at the University of Gabes. It consists of a modeling effort to showcase that the origin of the algae bloom originates from the local septic tanks that are not functioning well. The hope is to use the results of the modeling study to convince the authorities to take action."
The Environmental Engineering Professor was brought to the university to help the faculty compete for funding in the western world and to develop research programs. Abichou also introduced the faculty and students to many avenues to get funding for research including the World Bank and NSF. He also assisted faculty with publishing their work.
Abichou used environmental problems in the area, like the algae bloom problem to engage his M.S. and Ph.D. grad students into developing research areas to explore and publish their findings. Local water resources and waste management have now become a primary focus for university research efforts.
"In terms of water resources, we did a study on how the salt levels in irrigation water would affect the production yield of palm tree oases. A couple of projects came out of this study. One involved the modeling of seawater intrusion and its effects on groundwater in Mahdia, Tunisia and the other dealt with best management practices for irrigating palm tree oases with slightly salty waters", Abichou said.
Intensive and unsustainable management of natural resources and increased urbanization are threatening the viability of the region by placing the ecosystems under stress.
After the Tunisian uprising, more than 300,000 refugees showed-up in Tunisia from Libya and with that influx came more garbage and more solid waste. "The new non-governmental organization, Association de Development Environmentale de Zarzis (ADEZ) that I am working with, sponsored a simple beautification project involving personal garbage cans," says Abichou. "We ended up combining tourism, education and an art project with impressive results. "
The idea was to make garbage containers that are pretty. A local artist, Mr. Taher Aouida, came up with the idea to invite area school children to a local hotel to participate. Tourists staying at the hotel were also invited to participate and got a chance to meet the locals and learn about the community. Several cans were painted in one day and the event turned out to be big hit according to Abichou. "Suddenly, everyone wanted the trash bins and other businesses began to order more." As Mr. Aouida said, we want Zarzis to be known as the city with the artistic trash cans."
Abichou is optimistic about Tunisia's future and hopes the Arab Spring will facilitate the new optimism of the youth and continue to have a positive impact on the environmental issues in the area.
Related Links: Non-governmental organization Association de Development Environmentale de Zarzis (ADEZ) Beautification Project