Science in Society Archive

Recycling of All Resources for Sustainability

Prof. George Chan, Ministry of Agro-Industry & Fisheries, Mauritius, envisages a national system of local integrated farming and waste recycling networks

How I became an environmental engineer

Sixty years ago, after 3 years, 3 months and 3 days in the British East African Army during World War II, I arrived from Mauritius, then a British colony, to England for my tertiary education at Imperial College, London. I was 22 years old, still a kid in Mauritius, who usually would have been working in his father’s shop as cheap labour, would have got married and have a dozen kids like his father did. But I already knew more or less what I wanted from life instead.

I got my degree at 25, but could not get a job as engineer. So I worked first as a bilingual telephonist while biding my time, and was later lucky enough to get an engineering assistant research job, though it was still not of much interest to me. By visiting many work sites and discussing with the various foremen of works, I had already taken a liking to building construction, so I continued to study it at two evening polytechnics.

I returned to Mauritius and got into building construction with an experienced building contractor whose son was studying to be one in UK. I stuck with the job for two years before I was appointed City Engineer at the Municipality of Port Louis, the Capital. One major project was to double the town water supply from five million gallons to ten. I had a British engineering firm to help me, and I remain very grateful for what I learned from them.

I was lucky to get a study leave in 1960-61 and specialized in public health engineering at the same Imperial College. Besides the water project, Mauritius was doing the sewerage project in the next district of Plaine Wilhems, the other most populated area besides the Capital.

So that’s how I came to specialise in what is today called environmental engineering, even if at the time, practically nobody was interested in the environment. It allowed me to work for the South Pacific Commission in New Caledonia, because I was the only one in the World Health Organisation  (WHO) of the United Nations who was both a sanitary engineer (a rare bird at the time) and bilingual in English and French. I dealt with nearly 20 groups of islands spread over a quarter of the globe in the big Pacific Ocean, then under the administration of Australia, France, New Zealand, UK and USA. I also made contact with India and China, the two big giants of Asia. What a unique experience it was!

I was offered my first academic job at the University of Papua New Guinea, and this allowed me also to work as a consultant with United Nations agencies such as the WHO, UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and especially ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific). I was subsequently offered the post of Environmental Engineer for the newly created US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). However, when the US Administrator of CNMI saw my CV, he decided that I should be appointed Administrator instead, despite the fact that I was not a US citizen. “We will make him one”, he said.

That’s how I started work with the US Environment Protection Agency, and later became the Director of the Department of Energy of CNMI. During that period, the most important turning point was to be in the US-China People-to-People Mission to China, meeting with the top Chinese officials in the course of three weeks, and seeing what they were doing differently.

When I turned 60, I could still work for another five years before retirement from the US Insular Area Services. But I decided to spend the next five years in China instead. I learned lessons that allowed me to start a new consultancy at age 65, lasting until today at age 82, and still going strong.

Inspiration from Back Bench Energy Hero

Just before leaving Mauritius to come here to the UK, Mae-Wan Ho sent me an article by Alan Simpson MP, “Back Bench Energy Hero” (see “The slow fuse of sustainability”, this series). I read it on the plane instead of dozing off as usual. I was so inspired it kept me awake and working all through the 12 hour flight.

He rightly recalls the marvellous work done by certain municipalities in what he refers to as “Gas and water socialism” of the 1870s, and compares that with the blunders of the present. He advocates many simpler but most appropriate ways of tackling the energy and other development problems in a decentralised and more effective manner, which you will read about in his excellent paper.

This is exactly what I have proposed to my own government, and which, I hope, will be very useful to the UK government as well.

Another distinctive and important case is the use of the biodigesters  (my own favourite renewable energy and pollution eradication system) to replace incineration that is not only wasteful but also destroys many valuable biological and chemical products. It is a win-win situation, we should not waste time debating this.

I totally agree with Alan Simpson that the way most governments think about today’s energy systems is hopelessly out-of-date. It is the same with farming and waste treatment issues. Just as 60 percent of the energy produced in power stations distributed by the National Grid is thrown away, 80 percent of the food humans and animals consume end up in non-treated wastes to pollute the environment; 40 percent of which end up in inefficient treatment plants. Only total recycling as in the Integrated Food & Waste Management Systems (IFWMS) I have developed will prevent any wastage of our resources (“How to be food and fuel rich under climate change”, this series).

I sincerely hope that the UK government will listen to Alan Simpson and start adopting the politics of interdependence and not of individualism, to emulate what other European nations are already doing, and catch up with them. I am trying to do the same on the African continent. I hope our African neighbours will catch up with Mauritius, and I shall describe what I am implementing in Mauritius.

Integrated food and waste management for Mauritius

I am now implementing a pilot project of integrated food and waste management in Mauritius with the following objectives:

  • Produce milk, meat and grain and other foods now mostly imported
  • Produce of biogas and fertilizers at village and farm levels to replace imports
  • Generate electricity from biogas produced in villages and farms to supply the towns
  • Provide biogas as transportation fuel from the villages to supply the rest of the island
  • Polyculture fish on land as well as in the lagoon and sea
  • Use cold ocean water to cool buildings for tourists and to boost the growth of vegetables
  • Treat garbage at home in to produce earthworms as high-protein feed for chickens and bait for fishing.
  • Build mini-hydroelectric plants in streams and rivers for isolated villages and farms
  • Use tidal energy from small and big rivers for coastal towns, with decentralised ones for inland villages and towns

Mauritius is going through a big crisis with preferential tariffs for sugar slashed by 36 percent and the textile industry still facing competition from China, India and other countries. The tourism industry is the only one surviving. We are aiming to increase the number of tourists from 600 000 to two million as soon as possible, which is a tough job. The Chikungunya disease (a viral disease spread by mosquitoes) has reduced the number of tourists from France, our best customers.

With the compensation money from the European Union to offset the crisis in the sugar industry, we want to find effective and efficient alternative, first for the small and medium planters and eventually for the big ones as well. The tendency, of course, is to help the sugar mill owners and big estates to mechanise and innovate, but we should change such a policy as Hawaii had done in the past. They did not hesitate to drop the sugar issue for other more promising development.

Our aim is to have almost all present consumers to become suppliers of energy, fertilizers, feeds and even raw materials for sustainable development instead of the existing system depending on charity. This is contrary to what most of our politicians and bureaucrats think of as the solution.

I shall say more on what I am doing during our brainstorming workshop in Gould’s Farm, Somerset, 27 May. I hope we can come up with some action on Dream Farms, which have the same philosophy as IFWMS, to tackle the kinds of problems outlined by Alan Simpson.

This article is based on Prof Chans presentation in the Which Energy? Launch Conference, House of Commons, 25 May 2006, London, UK

Article first published 28/06/06

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