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AMWAJ: MENA Water Crisis Seeps Further Into Business and Innovation Agendas

4 December, 2016
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Water scarcity has hit the MENA region the hardest, and the Levant is dealing with what National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said is the worst draught in 900 years.

The shocking fact came on Monday as part of Jordan’s Princess Somaya bint Al Hassan’s speech at the Amwaj forum. Sponsored mainly by PepsiCo and organized by Revolve Media, the forum lasted for two consecutive days.

With the issue climbing up business agendas, from major worldwide corporations, to startups trying to crack their way, Amwaj brought the private and public sector, leaders in environmental sustainability, entrepreneurs, and media, to the same table to push for innovation in environmental sustainability.

Stressing the importance of such collaboration, the princess stated, “No single organization can address issues alone. Partnerships are not an option, but a necessity”.

Amwaj witnessed the launch of the 2016Revolve Water report, a 160 page document on connecting water and energy around the Mediterranean and the Middle East launch. The forum also incorporated two field trips, to As-samra water treatment plant, and Jordan’s Zain Innovation Center. The final part of the forum was the PepsiCo Social Impact competition, in which Egyptian green startup Napata beat nine other initiatives.

“Industries are now forced to improve water management, at most in order to maintain their social impact" said Revolve Water’s founder Peter Easton. Media, NGOs, ethical investments, consumers and other players pressure companies into action, he expounded.

 

A Challenged Region

Environmental entrepreneurs are working in challenging conditions across the MENA region, and in the world.

“The world is facing a challenge in securing new energy, water and food sources, with increasing demand on natural resources, and increased use in different development, social and economic sectors,” European Union Ambassador to Jordan Andrea Matteo Fontana posed.

The governmental level occupied a share of the water issue discussions. Ageing or obsolete water infrastructure, or a lack of one, tops the key factors affecting urban water governance, followed by extreme events, attention to water in the political agenda, and water pollution, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Policy analyst at OECD Oriana Romano disclosed that the 3Ps for water governance in cities are Policy, People, and Places.

Looking at the big economic picture, Director of the Brookings Doha Center Tarik Yousef stated that “we are in the middle of a regional economic recession, the biggest in three decades”.

Putting it under the spotlight, Ahead of the Curves’ CEO Dina Sherif asserted that the private sector, despite being packed with wealth, is not playing the role it should in sustainability. "While we are making progress, we are not going fast enough," she stated, adding that “companies need to be transparent about where they stand… about what we are doing, and what we are not”.

In addition to funds, UNDP EgyptProgram Analyst Mai Abdelrahman spoke further of the role expected from the private sector, underlining that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without a healthy private sector.

“The private sector needs to let go of the old CSR model,” Abdelrahman explained.  

Discussing entrepreneurship, UN Secretary General Envoy for Youth Ahmad Al Hindawi said that this generation of young people does not want to work for companies; they want to start their own, and they can. Yet there remain enormous challenges for a young person starting a new business, among which are difficulty in access to credit, and in registration.

 

With Problems Come Opportunities

“The mission is to look for cracks of hope in the region and try to maximize them,” Al Hindawi asserted. “Success is not an exception in this region, and should not be. This region has keys to its development,” he said.

Entrepreneurs are expected to be part of the solution, to have social responsibility amid the economic recession and massive liquidity squeeze, maintainedBrookings’ Yousef. “Entrepreneurs have to be part of policy reform, and be agents of peace and prosperity,” he said.

Nevertheless, not a month goes by without an entrepreneurship event taking place, “a cause for celebration to who made this possible”, Yousef continued.

Ambassador Fontana stated that the private sector needs to be engaged through innovation, and competitiveness. It also needs to invest in different governorates, not only big cities.

Meanwhile, PepsiCo Egypt’s Noha Hefni underscored the importance of mentorship, as well as the return to the community on the socio-economic level.

PepsiCo highlighted its role in sustainability, taking on the slogan “Performance with Purpose”.  The company focuses on environmental entrepreneurship in alignment with the SDGs, PepsiCo MENA’s General Manager Ahmed El Sheikh said, setting an example of what international corporations can achieve.

“We are focusing on water sustainability, not because we feel guilty, but because we feel responsible,” Nidal Hamam, the General Manager of PepsiCo Jordan.

 

Science for Peace

Princess Somaya, who heads the Royal Scientific Society, said that besides entrepreneurship, “the catalyst we need to be talking about is scientific and technological advancement”. Transmission of knowledge and availability of trained scientific researchers are pivotal to the region.

Energy, food and water, the three interlinked aspects which deficiency threatens people, should be the base of “science for peace”, she believes.

The EU has always supported the water and energy sectors, and developed special regional initiatives to develop them, Ambassador Fontana stated. Giving examples, the ambassador brought up the Horizon 2020 initiative launched in 2006, with a vision to have a clean Mediterranean by the year 2020. Later, the EU launched the Shared Water Integrated Management project SWIM.

The ambassador emphasized that the EU supports the sector through research and science, saying that “there is an untapped potential of using solar energy in the region”.

There is a tight connection between water and energy, explained Nuno Fragoso, Director of the Water and Environment Division atEpitsa.  Energy demand requires water in very large quantities to produce fuel, to produce power, and for power plant cooling. On the other hand energy is needed for the pumping, treatment, and distribution of water, as well as in handling waste water.

“So basically saving energy means saving water, and vice versa” Fragaso said, adding that the limited technology in the region is one of the barriers of water utility for energy reduction.

However, a new, ‘circular’ perspective on water management is emerging, Fragaso declared, and one of its views on water looks at it as a “utility”. The utility view focuses on maximizing the value of existing water infrastructure by increasing utilization and ensuring better recovery and assets refurbishment. Potential energy savings from drinking water and wastewater utilities are in the range of 15%-30% per year, he stated.

 

Media

In 2009, water was an afterthought in the media. In 2010, a focus on the environment began, yet the spike in interest in journalists covering water issues died off in 2011 to 2013 in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, narrated Francesca de Chatel, a water journalist and the director of Revolve Water.

De Chatal presented eight major challenges to water reporting: complexity, accuracy of data, getting facts right, taking the long view, objectivity, selling the story, budgets and reaching the audience.

Further explaining some of the challenges, science journalists fail to understand what the public need, said Mohammed Yahia, Executive Editor of Nature Research in the Middle East.

"Another challenge is credibility. There is so much bad journalism out there. Journalists need to do their research,” Yahia stated.

In addition, there is a mentality that people in MENA are not interested in science stories, when actually they don't have access to them, according to Yahia.

Presenting several roles the media could be involved in, De Chatal discussed how stories could address mismanagement, raise awareness, change behaviors, provide balanced information, advance solutions, and highlight the fundamental importance of water.

As a general rule, the journalist advised, “If you can underline how water is connected to more general issues, ie economy, you can make bigger headlines”.

Highlighting the importance of forums like Amwaj,  Ruba al-Zu'bi,EDAMA green NGO’s CEO, stated that “through communication of cross-border success stories, we can learn a lot”.

“A moment that is very challenging for us in the region, but it is a moment of hope. A wake up call,” EU’s Al Hindawi believes.

Indeed, “There may be bad, but we have never been in a better position to solve it,” Princess Somaya concluded.