Tech Civil Engineers Advise Angola on Environment

Georgia Tech student Marcus Millard knew that Angola wouldn't be anything like a vacation resort. But like many from wealthy nations, he had little idea how few of the comforts he had come to expect are available in a developing country.

For instance, when Millard, two graduate students and School of Civil and Environmental Engineering Chair Joseph Hughes flew into Luanda, Angola's capital city and home to about 4. 5 million people, they expected to be able to buy a drink or a newspaper.

"I was expecting a city that ran a little more like a city - something that looked like Mexico City," Millard said. "If we wanted, I thought we could leave the area we were staying in and walk down to the corner and buy something. But there were no stores."

Their first view of the city was an eye-opener for the students, the first of many they'd experience on their two-week visit to advise the Angolan government on environmental issues. Hughes and the students met with officials from the government's Ministry of the Environment to discuss the country's infrastructure and environmental challenges.

Angola has had only a few years to begin its recovery from more than 30 years of war - war that drove nearly half of its population out of dangerous rural areas and into the capital city of Luanda.

"There was a terrible displacement, followed by incredibly rapid growth in the city. Just about any societal problem you can imagine began to manifest itself there," Hughes said.

Most of the country, including Luanda, is without basic infrastructure such as water distribution and waste and water treatment.

In one instance, the group saw residents bathing and drinking from water thick with trash and waste from one of Luanda's bays.

"There is all sorts of stuff floating in the bay. It looks like there's no plant life anywhere and there are even wrecked ships," said Millard, who is president of the Georgia Tech chapter of Engineering Students Without Borders, an organization that encourages engineering students to use their knowledge to improve lives in developing international communities.

But now that the war is over, the country is hoping to speed its development. The country is an exporter of diamonds, minerals, coffee, fish and most importantly, oil. In fact, Angola is one of the top importers of oil to the United States.

But without clean water, safe dwellings and waste disposal, it will be difficult for the Angolans to address many of the country's quality of life and education challenges, Hughes said. And that's where the group's mission comes in.

One part of the trip involved working with Angolan engineers on oil field waste treatment and other waste treatment issues in Luanda. For instance, the group toured a refinery in Luanda, and Millard worked with a local company to give advice on how the country could improve its waste treatment methods, especially waste from oil production.

The government was also very interested in the impact oil production might be having on the county's environment, in particular mangrove trees that line its coast.

Miles of mangrove trees have died in recent years along the coast. The mangrove trees are especially key to local fish that breed among them and the Angolans who rely on the fish for food.

With financial support from the Georgia Tech Research Institute, Hughes, along with undergraduate students and faculty Kevin Caravati, of the Georgia Tech Research Institute; and Paul Beaty, of the Georgia Tech GIS Center, studied satellite images of the mangrove trees from Tech and later the trees themselves in an attempt to discern what environmental factors might be causing the trees to die.

While there were quite a few documented oil spills off Angola's coast, Hughes and his students concluded that oil was likely not the reason for the loss of habitat. Because the trees thrive in fairly delicate conditions, the deterioration was more likely caused by a combination of environmental factors, Hughes said.

The group's work also included teaching the Angolans improved methods for treating wastes.

The Angolan government has asked Hughes to come back in November to teach some courses to officials that work with environmental and infrastructure issues. He hopes to bring another group of students, possibly undergraduates, in the future if the country's political situation allows.

The trip provided an important lesson for students about the role they can play as engineers in the world community.

"I think all the students had experiences that will influence them both professionally and personally. They see the potential for what they can do as an engineer working in developing countries," Hughes said.

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