World Science Forum makes Middle East debut
Water scarcity is the most pressing issue in the Arab region participants in the World Science Forum (WSF) were told as scientists and policy-makers issued a defiant stance against the politicisation of some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Water shortage is a particularly pressing problem in Jordan, which hosted the eighth WSF in early November. The woes have been exasperated by the large number of people fleeing Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian territories seeking refuge in the small kingdom.
“After 50 years of science diplomacy are we better off or worse off? Water issues persist,” said Ghaith Fariz, director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau of Science in the Arab States, in a session on the management of shared resources in the Arab region.
Fourteen of the 20 countries most vulnerable to water shortages are in the Arab world, a 2013 UN Development Programme report stated, and with the population in the region expected to double by 2050, access to fresh water was predicted to become a more serious issue.
“Appropriate cost-effective science is needed to provide a platform to implement effective water governance,” said Fariz, suggesting that grounding problems in science would protect them from political influence.
The annual amount of drinkable water in the region stands at 80 cubic metres per person, well below the UN water scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres per person.
Andras Szollosi-Nagy, from the National University of Public Service in Hungary, said part of the problem is Middle Eastern countries’ lack of data transparency.
“Sometimes it happens today, in this part of the region, that upstream countries are withholding data and they are using it as a negotiating chip,” he said.
The WSF attracted 3,000 participants from 120 countries, keen to provide evidence-based debate on mankind’s greatest challenges. Besides water scarcity, conferences focused on food, energy and security as issues deserving more resources and international cooperative efforts.
Jordan is in the limelight of the science world, having recently inaugurated SESAME, a particle accelerator with wide-ranging potential as a research tool.
Asked whether SESAME and the debut of the WSF signalled renewed interest in the region by the world’s scientists, SESAME’s President of Council Rolf Heuer said “renewed” is not a word that he’d use.
“I’d rather say that interest is increasing. The world’s scientists have never lost interest in the region, you just have to look at the number of excellent scientists from the region who are active around the world to see that,” Heuer said via e-mail.
A common discussion at the forum was the growing gulf between politics and science.
“Whatever politicians may think, the unfortunate reality is that the world is more in need of experts now than it has ever been and scientific experts in particular. For this reason, gatherings like WSF also aim to raise awareness with everyone about the science that underpins our lives,” Heuer said.
Jordanian King Abdullah II and Hungarian President János Áder opened the event but it was Jordanian Princess Sumaya bin Hassan, president of the Royal Scientific Society and passionate science advocate, who spearheaded the initiative to have the WSF in her home country.
The forum’s close saw the issuance of “Science for Peace,” a declaration calling for science to play “an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.”
“The declaration asserts that ‘peace’ is far more than the absence of conflict. It implies an absence of fear and the full realisation of a whole and healthy life. It encompasses an equal access to the resources and potential of our planet,” read the announcement.
Heuer was full of praise for the event’s Middle Eastern debut.
“Suffice it to say that the quality of the programme was excellent,” he said. “Overall, the conference was wonderfully organised, giving an excellent image of Jordan, the region as a whole and the scale of the scientific potential just waiting to be tapped.”
Ibraheem Juburi is a London-based correspondent of The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.