Tracking the human footprint

Mohamed El-Ashry

Growing up in Egypt, Mohamed El-Ashry (MS, '63, PhD, '66, geology) cultivated a passion for geology following dramatic discoveries of oil in the Gulf of Suez and along the Red Sea. But it wasn't until he came to the University of Illinois in the early 1960s that El-Ashry discovered that his interest in geology goes far beyond what happens below the surface.

What happens on top of the land became even more fascinating to him.

This revelation led to El-Ashry's enduring interest in the impact of human activities on land and water. It also began his steady rise as one of the world's leaders on global environmental issues.

"Dr. El-Ashry's accomplishments are legendary," says James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "He led the research program at what many believe to be the world's best policy research center on global-scale environment and development concerns--the World Resources Institute."

With such endorsements, El-Ashry has been named one of the 2005 Alumni Achievement Award winners for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

El-Ashry received his master's degree in 1963 and his PhD in geology in 1966 from the U of I. During this time, he used aerial photos to study the impact of human activity on the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines—one of the earliest efforts in remote sensing.

After teaching for three years at Cairo University in Egypt, El-Ashry returned to the United States, where he built an environmental sciences department at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. Then he charged headlong into environmental politics with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"I learned how to influence decision-making with good science," El-Ashry says. "We didn't work on gut feelings, but with good scientific analysis."

This laid the groundwork for his next task. He was recruited as director of environmental quality for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—a utility that was, at the time, "the worst polluter in the United States," he says.

With El-Ashry's guidance, the TVA set the ambitious goal of reducing by 50 percent sulfur dioxide emissions that contribute to acid rain. This program also helped shape emissions-control legislation that was eventually advanced by President Bush and adopted by Congress in 1990.

In 1983, meanwhile, El-Ashry moved on to help build the World Resources Institute, a think tank that started with six people and a $500,000 budget. By the time El-Ashry left eight years later, the World Resources Institute had grown to a staff of 110 with a budget of $15 million.

Next, El-Ashry served as chief environmental adviser to the President and became director of environment for the World Bank, where he made what he considers his greatest mark. He helped establish the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which Speth describes as "one of the most important multilateral institutions on the world stage today."

In 1994, El-Ashry became the first CEO and chairman of GEF, which funds projects on biodiversity, international waters and renewable energy in developing countries. For example, GEF's many projects include a massive conservation set-aside that protects about 12 percent of the Amazon in Brazil and more than $40 million in grants to cover the extra cost of building a geothermal plant instead of a coal power plant in the Philippines.

"For example, through GEF, we devise ways to bring people together to agree on a plan to manage their shared water resources. And we help to fund it," El-Ashry says.

Without this firm financing, international environmental agreements "just collect dust on the shelf," he adds. "But GEF breathes life into them."

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Doug Peterson