Flow water research and education more towards developing world: UN University

May 29, 2019

Post-secondary education and research aimed at tackling the global water crisis is concentrated in wealthy countries rather than the poorer, developing places where it is most needed, the United Nations University says.

Two new papers from the UNU's Canadian-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health call for reducing this "alarming" imbalance between resources and need, which impedes the search for solutions to crucial water challenges.

They also suggest refocusing how water research is assessed; with more emphasis on whether the work leads to successful, practical solutions and less on counting the number of papers published and cited by other researchers.

Leading international agencies rank inadequate water supply and sanitation among the top-10 global risks, and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals set ambitious targets for improvement.

Despite the research and other efforts that have gone into trying to resolve the water challenges, "not many of them have been removed from the global development agenda," says Hamid Mehmood, a UNU-INWEH Senior Researcher, based in Hamilton, Ontario, in his paper, "Bibliometrics of Water Research: A Global Snapshot."

"Higher education related to water is a critical component of capacity development," according to Colin Mayfield, Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in "Higher Education in the Water Sector: A Global Overview."

In their separate papers, Drs. Mayfield and Mehmood examine the weaknesses in water-related research and education systems and suggest reforms.

In both cases, with no global data source offering detailed information on educational activities in the water sector, or even listing water-resources programs as a discrete category, the authors devised indirect strategies to extract information from several databases.

Mehmood entered a string of 1,057 search terms into the Scopus database, which indexes 22,800 journals, magazines and reports from more than 5,000 international publishers, to find trends in water-related publications and citations, between 2012 and 2017.

Mayfield also used Scopus as well as the Shanghai Academic Ranking System, the Times Higher Education (THE) website, the Ranking Web of Universities, Our World in Data and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics to get data on the location of the world's more than 28,000 universities that offer degrees in water-related programs, particularly those with high academic rankings, as well as the obstacles and opportunities for researchers and students to access them.

Most troubling for both is the evidence that too little training and research takes place where water problems are most acute.

"Countries with protracted water problems in infrastructure, environment, agriculture, energy solutions do not seem to be at the forefront of water research production or knowledge transfer. Instead, global water research is reliant on the Western - particularly US - scientific outputs," Mehmood states. "Considering the regional and cross-boundary nature of water-related problems, the lack of regional knowledge flows is alarming."

Among Mehmood's findings: All 15 countries leading in publications per million population are among the world's wealthiest, suggesting water research does not necessarily emerge as a reaction to water scarcity but, instead, to some economic value in a supply and sanitation industry expected to be worth $1 trillion (US) in 2020.
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