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Investing in the environment for Lebanon's future

March 2, 2021

Nancy Khoury portrait
Photo courtesy of Nancy Khoury

Nancy Khoury is an assistant to Lebanon’s operational and political focal points to the Global Environment Facility, coordinating the work of a regional constituency also including Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. In an interview, she reflected on her country’s efforts to ease pressure points on the environment and shared her hopes for her country and the planet.

What are the main environmental issues of concern to Lebanon?

Lebanon is facing several environmental challenges that are creating pressure points.

From my own perspective, integrated management of waste is one such example, as poorly planned urbanization has made it difficult to secure treatment sites. Similarly, efforts to conserve Lebanon’s natural capital and very rich ecosystems are threatened by urban and commercial expansion, deforestation, unorganized quarrying, forest fires, and other activities. We are also facing challenges related to air quality, particularly in industrial zones and in areas where people rely heavily on power generators and private vehicles due to the weak public transportation system.

I truly believe that this list would have been even longer and more complex had it not been for the substantive support provided by the Global Environment Facility since its establishment in 1991. The GEF has been playing an important role in enabling my country to address key environmental challenges of both national and international importance. We have had very successful projects implemented thanks to GEF funding in the areas of climate change, biodiversity, land degradation, and chemicals management – including initiatives related to persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyl.

The COVID-19 crisis as well as the devastating port blast last August have made these efforts all the more urgent.

Is there a GEF-supported project that is especially meaningful to you?

One initiative that is close to my heart is focused on the mangement of persistent organic pollutants in the power sector. This project includes efforts to carefully manage and dispose of PCB-contaminated scrap transformers – they are drained, packed, labeled, and prepared to be shipped outside the country for disposal abiding by Basel Convention. It is very powerful to see how hazardous waste is being managed, stored, and classified in an environmentally sound way that prevents future damage and destruction. 

What first motivated you to work in the environmental field?

As a child, I was attracted and fascinated by nature while visiting my grandmother's village in the north of Lebanon in the summers. I recall waking up in the morning to birds chirping, running in the prairies, collecting flowers and fruits from trees, rushing to the village fountain to quench my thirst, and seeing villagers work their fields, plant, harvest, and water their crops.

Later on, while pursuing a Bachelor of Science at the American University of Beirut, I remember my passion during ecology field trips discovering the different fauna and flora which make ecosystems harmonized. All these memories are still in my mind and were the seeds that built up my character and personality of being a fierce advocate for the protection and conservation of the environment.

When I first joined the Ministry of Environment in the mid-1990s, it was still in its early stages and its workforce included only a handful of employees. I applied to join this pioneering team of environmentalists, and I was lucky enough to get accepted and have been working there since, for more than 25 years.

Is there a person you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?

Over my career to date, I have had the pleasure and the honor to encounter many decision-makers in national, regional, and international organizations who provided “eye openers” for me about issues including global warming, biodiversity, land degradation, water, the ozone layer, and their connection to one another. I was delighted to work with many ministers, politicians, and technocrats who left a positive impact during their mandate and afterwards, in their legacy to the Environment Ministry staff and other concerned stakeholders.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Something important I have learned is that work experience can be much more instructive and meaningful than formal studies. I read once that the difference between life and academia is that university gives you lessons and then tests you, while life tests you and then you derive the lessons. Additionally, I would say that managing both work and family issues as a mother of two during COVID-19 is the most challenging test that I am currently facing.

What environmental changes do you hope to see by the time you retire?

Based on my experience, I think that environmental issues have not yet been given the prominence they need or deserve in Lebanon. Increased financial support is essential to achieve our goals in the environmental space. My hope is that by the time I retire, the environment will be seen as a foundational issue in national budgets – with a prioritization on investing to address air pollution, solid waste and wastewater management, natural resource protection, and more.

There is a Native American saying that “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” This is something I believe strongly. I hope that the coming years will see all decision-makers and environmental activists joining force to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to tailor a national environmental road map so that future Lebanese generations will enjoy a sound environment to be thankful for.