Arab researchers fill breach at Stockholm’s World Water Week

It might have been the Eid holidays, the inclement Swedish weather, or just political apathy, but not a single official Arab delegation was present at World Water Week in Stockholm earlier this month, an event that is considered the world’s most important forum for the discussion of water-related issues.

The only notable presence from the region was in the scientific realm. Young researchers, mostly attending the conference on their own dime or through fundraising, presented their research results with respect to the main theme of the conference, entitled, “The Water Quality Challenge: Prevention, Wise Use and Abatement.”

Professionals and academics based in the Middle East and abroad attended the event to share research results, debate new ideas and network with fellow researchers.

Among them was Gehan Abdel Hakim of the Egyptian Drainage Research Institute, whose research deals with an increasingly pressing problem. With existing demographic pressures, the use of evaporation ponds to dispose of sewage water has become inadequate. Abdel Hakim, therefore, suggested fours options: “Reuse sewage water; use it in fish farms; bio-treat it with the use of wetlands; or use biological drainage, by which we mean the use of purified sewage for agriculture for non-human applications,” she explained.

Palestinian researcher Basheer Obaid, for his part, has employed a Geographic Information System to develop an advanced water information database. Using data from the Palestinian Water Authority and an Oracle database management system, he has superimposed layers of information–about water quality, quantity, land use, soil characteristics, aquifers, farms, etc.–to serve both as “a decision support mechanism for policymakers, as well as a web-based application that would be available to the public,” he said.

Olfa Mahjoub, meanwhile, whose project won her an honourable mention in a recent scientific poster competition, focused on water resources in her native Tunisia. She developed a groundbreaking measurement system to study and measure concentrations of a seldom addressed type of water pollutant: pharmaceutical material.

“Focusing on northeast Tunisia,” she explained, “I measured concentrations of pharmaceutical materials in reclaimed water, which is used as a resource in agriculture.”

Abir Kouzayha, Lebanese doctoral student at Bordeaux University and researcher at the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission, presented her research on the “extraction and analysis of organic contaminants.” The urgency of her work, she explained, stemmed from the fact that certain contaminants were not only carcinogenic, but could also accumulate in the body. One is not only contaminated by being directly exposed to the toxin, she noted, but also by consuming, say, contaminated fish and water.

“In the 2006 war, when Israel destroyed the Beirut power station, some 15,000 tons of fuel leaked into the sea and poisoned local fauna,” Kouzayha explained. “There’s a dire need, therefore, to examine water quality and establish whether ports and open areas suffer from deep contamination or not.”

France-based Laith al-Moghrabi, program leader of the Mediterranean Wetland Office of environmental NGO Wetlands International, mourned the absence of official Arab participation at the event. “There are no senior officials, unfortunately. Attendees from the region are either technical or junior officials,” he said. “There’s usually some focus on the Middle East in the conference program, but this year there is none. There were seminar days dedicated to Asia and Africa, but the Middle East was for the most part overlooked.”

“The Middle East–unlike Latin America, for instance–isn’t particularly attractive when it comes to the global discourse on water,” he added. “With its lack of water resources, the Middle East region just isn’t on the global priority list.”

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