Paul Gremillion: Engineering in a Global Setting

Paul Gremillion, PhD

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Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences

 

Sabbaticals can be more than time away; they can be an opportunity to make a lasting difference on issues that will affect generations to come. This was certainly true for Paul Gremillion, NAU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. From July 2009 to July 2011 Gremillion left the solitude of his Bilby Research Center laboratory, where he assesses the human impact on water systems (specifically how mercury gets into lake sediments and affects the food web), and stepped into the multicultural, suit-wearing, fast-paced, and high-security environment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. “It was as big a change as I could possibly make,” says Gremillion.  “I led a very different life.  It was exciting.” 

Gremillion’s role at the IAEA

The IAEA, perhaps best known for its nuclear-weapons monitoring activities, has a strong interest in the world’s water issues. Gremillion joined IAEA’s small hydrology section as a technical manager to help countries, as he says, “build their technical capacity to use their water resources in the best way possible.”  One of Gremillion’s key accomplishments was to finalize an existing strategic action project by overseeing the drafting and adoption of several groundbreaking documents that will significantly affect how the Nubian Aquifer in North Africa is managed in the future. These documents may even become blueprints for other partnerships as countries wrestle with how to administer their own groundwater reserves.

The Nubian Aquifer, one of the oldest and largest caches of groundwater in the world, supplies water to  Egypt, Libya, Chad, and the Sudan.  When it comes to water issues, these nations, with vastly varying histories and cultures, have different, competing development interests; unequal access to the aquifer; and age-old political tensions.  Gremillion’s responsibility was to help these uneasy neighbors reach a cooperative strategy:  to agree both on the technical status of the aquifer and on a future water-management plan. “It was a complicated issue,” Gremillion confesses, one that required sophisticated technology, such as numerical modeling and isotopic measures. “My job was to get all four countries to agree that these measures and the model accurately represented how water moved through the system.”  After months of hard work, which included workshops, meetings, and close contact with each country’s official representatives and technical experts, the four nations drafted their parts of the plan. Based on these documents, the IAEA developed a regional report that was to be signed by all four water ministers at a landmark event in Tripoli [Libya] in April 2011.

Arab Spring Disrupts Negotiations

Everything seemed to be on track until Arab Spring erupted, and Egypt and Libya each dropped out temporarily from the aquifer negotiations. The regional meeting was cancelled. “I had no idea there would be a direct political dimension [to my work],” notes Gremillion. Now, Gremillion wondered about political issues, such as which government should be recognized in Libya and whether communications could jeopardize the welfare of his colleagues. “The human dimension is never part of the equation when you are considering where to drill a well," says Gremillion. “It’s easy in America to take for granted that maybe we could do things more economically, more sustainably. There is so much more on the line in a country that is willing to go to war over access to water. …There is an urgency to what you are doing.”

In the end, the IAEA was able to reschedule its landmark meeting, and the regional report was adopted in November 2011—a significant achievement that brought closure to the project. “Paul’s work epitomizes the complexity of engineering in a global setting where competing interests must be addressed,” says professor Bridget Bero, chair of NAU’s Department of Civil Engineering, Construction Management and Environmental Engineering. She is proud of the international recognition Gremillion’s assignment at the IAEA has brought to NAU.  

--Sylvia Somerville


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