World Science Forum makes Middle East debut

King of Jordan at inauguration of SESAME

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.