Tackling water security through S&T

Water is a critical public goods problem. For the foreseeable future, it will remain to be. Across the global south, considerable consternation exists over the sustainable supply of water for livelihoods and other purposes. Agriculture consumes copious amounts of H2O. As rivers get polluted and drained of fresh resources, countries across river basins have a litany of reasons to worry. To confront this progressive depletion across Asia and other parts of the world, its critical to look at some of the innovative technologies that can help citizens use and reuse water, in turn, conserving more than expected quantities and leveraging them with care.

One recent scientific development shows great promise – desalination prototype that can be used to separate salt from water before being deployed. The technique, known as electrochemically mediated seawater desalination, was recently unveiled. This new method holds great promise for water starved areas across the world, where billions now reside. Many of these regions have access to abundant seawater but not to technologies that can be used to desalinate water, making it amenable for daily use. Due to this gap, millions of people die across the world from water borne diseases.

To achieve desalination, the researchers have developed a small chip prototype that contains a microchannel with two branches, which contains an electrode that neutralizes chloride ions in seawater to create a electric field that culls the salts to one side, allowing desalinated water to flow through the other branch. Before the product is patented and released, few issues need to be remedied to enable scaling, mostly related to engineering of the product to generate sufficient volumes of desalinated water through the micro channels.

Going ahead, these technologies will become more significant as solutions to confronting the global water crisis that is beckoning. For instance in Asia, the ten largest rivers, including the Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra (which becomes part of the Ganges), and Indus—originate in the Himalayas or on the Tibetan Plateau and collectively serve 47% of the world’s population. Inadequate or unreliable water supplies pose serious and worsening problems in all the countries along these rivers, as do energy shortages, which affect millions of lives across the belt. Clean water deficits have  created local public health crises in all of these countries, laterally imperiling food security as well. A new scholarly symposium deals with the issue of water security in Asia in great detail. 

Governance of common goods like water, energy, and food will consume great attention over the next generation. These issues will demand more energy and cooperation at the international level; clearly, as we are witnessing, the demand structures of multilateralism all point to sustained interest in and towards these particular issues. As emerging powers continue to ascend, their power internationally will be devoted to securing sufficient supply of these goods so as to prevent major dips in their growth trajectories and their preferences and norms will largely manifest through their positions on the governance of water, energy and food at the global level. Given the issues that are bound to arise, it is important to work towards tackling these issues at various other levels – regional, south-south, mini-lateral and non-state. Deploying transnational science initiatives are one such mechanism and one that has promise since it enables us to transcend the contentious politics of these issues, or at least, jettison it for the time being. Moreover, doing so under a development framework also insulates potential cooperation from the security realm, in turn, desecuritizing matters whilst scouring for potential solutions that are scientifically, not politically, grounded.

Leveraging science for development – I

It is notably curious and rather mystifying that within the mainstream development studies discipline, science and technology are not considered and regarded as tools to advance progress and human wellbeing. For decades, some of the most critical advancements in human progress has come through scientific and technological ingenuity. For instance, the Green Revolution: which revolutionized agriculture across the global south, feeding millions of mouths during that process. Of late, however, this thread is receiving a fillip through bilateral assistance – Obama administration’s QDDR places considerable premium on mainstreaming science and technology in American foreign policy. The broader field as its becoming to known is Science Diplomacy, which encapsulates all efforts undertaken by governments to integrate science and technology as a tool of statecraft and diplomacy. The AAAS covers this terrain through its inter-disciplinary journal Science and Diplomacy. In a recent Science policy forum article, Thomas and Paul Bollyky capture this burgeoning trend under the Obama administration that has identified innovation as the  “currency of the 21st century and the means by which the United States and its partners would create new jobs and tackle the global challenges of climate change, hunger, and disease.”

For the past year, we had been engaged in such an effort at the LKYSPP, seeking to facilitate and nurture science for development (and diplomacy) linkages within South Asia. However, since our effort originated from the non-state terrain and did not involve any governmental involvement or stake, it was called Science Engagement, not diplomacy. As a theme, we focused on rice by uniting rice scientists across South Asia and China to unite and discuss issues related to growing rice and how we can use science and technology to further that effort. One of the critical takeaways from the effort was the realization that scientists across the region are assiduously leveraging technology to raise crop yields given rising deficits, mainly labor, land, water and uncertainties associated with varying climate patterns. One of the major bottlenecks, that can be tackled through surmounted external financing, include chronic capital shortages for research, hiring scientists and retaining them, purchasing technology and also for small-scale research activities, including travels, conferences, joint projects, etc. The endeavor was a success; it vindicated our efforts and intentions of designing and undertaking this effort. And through it, we realized that great potential exists to deepen work on this thread. Indeed, many similar efforts are already underway across Africa and some in Southeast and South Asia. Calestous Juma’s work on this front is well known.

As mentioned, I’ll cover this particular theme on this blog through regular posts and developments. More work, research and policy efforts, are sorely needed. As our initiative’s report underscores, there exists several possibilities to deepen work on this thread through building scientific networks within and beyond regions and more importantly, establishing venues and mechanisms that connect them for possible mutually beneficial projects.

What I’m Reading

China in Ten Words – Yu Hua: An uncanny, wry and revealing look into contemporary China through ten words, excellent so far.

End of Power – Moises Naim: A deep and detailed exposition into how power has become easy to get, harder to use and easier to lose; Naim’s always cogent but this is hardest case he’s probably ever had to make given the complexities of demonstrating how power is wielded