Education Unusual For Resilient Leaders In Asia

By Debra Tan, Chien Tat Low 18 June, 2020

With education disrupted by COVID-19, surely it’s time to prepare students for climate risks ahead? CWR's Tan & Low on why we must rethink the curriculum

Universities are losing revenue from rents, conferences & tuition fees – UK universities could lose up to GDP6.7bn; with so much at stake, universities must rethink courses to stay relevant
Racism must be dealt with; but so must climate change as it will only widen existing inequalities; Universities can help bridge knowledge & collaboration gaps but academic silos must go
Asia faces dire challenges but waternomics can already be embedded in business, finance & policy courses to help students find solutions & stay resilient; we have some ideas – contact us

Like in any other sectors in the world, education is not immune. COVID-19 has caused huge disruptions to universities – lockdowns have closed university campuses worldwide; classes have moved online; and hostel and facilities are left unused.

While the pandemic has thrown the global education system into disarray, it has resulted in ‘downtime’ to rethink the current system. Is now the time to go all-in on “education unusual” to prepare future leaders for imminent systemic shocks from more viruses as well as climate change?

University operations & business models disrupted = time to rethink

Already, universities are losing revenue from rents, conferences, and tuition fees, leading to jobs cut and disruptions to research and learning. Worse still, forecasts predict a decline of 15% to 25% in enrolments. For just the UK alone, universities could lose up to GBP6.7 billion from tuition fees next year.

In light of the COVID-19’s disruptions, surely it’s time to prepare students to face imminent water & climate crisis ahead

With the movement of international students still up in the air, reliance on international student income will also have to be considered. Since all these factors point to a new business model for universities post COVID-19, surely the time to rethink education is now? Surely, it’s time to prepare students to face imminent water and climate crisis ahead?

Evolving to stay relevant … 

As we are writing this, a movement has started to #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives – an initiative by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) academics and organisations to support the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and efforts against systemic racism in the scientific community.

Racism must be dealt with; but so must climate change as it will only widen existing inequalities

Racism must be dealt with; but so must climate change as it will only widen existing inequalities. Racism is inextricably linked to minority and poverty and it is this group of people who are usually the most vulnerable to climate change.

Although they are likely the least responsible for the climate crisis, they will suffer its gravest consequences due to the lack of soft and hard infrastructure to withstand disasters – lack of access to water, medical treatment and sub-standard housing to name a few.

Universities should therefore also lead efforts to eradicate climate injustice. This will not be achieved without embracing inclusiveness and interdisciplinary collaboration. The rigid institutional structure of academia must evolve to stay relevant. This is particularly urgent in Asia, where hundreds of millions still live without access to clean water.

Climate crises need solutions – academia silos must go!

Asia faces unprecedented challenges ahead with our water resources and climate change. It’s not just the rural poor but many of our capital cities may run out of water – they are also by the ocean and will face coastal threats.

Asia needs a waternomic roadmap to generate more GDP with less water & less pollution…

What’s worse, many countries do not have enough water to develop under business-as-usual scenarios. We have no choice but to chart a new waternomic roadmap that will allow Asia to generate more GDP with less water and less pollution.

Innovating solutions to achieve this will require multidisciplinary skillset and collaboration from politics to engineering, and finance to geography. However, the siloed nature of academia creates a barrier restricting this collaboration

…yet academic silos create such knowledge gaps in courses & research

Many students who are studying business or finance do not necessarily take environmental courses and understand how natural risks may impact their investment portfolios; while engineering or environmental science students are unlikely to study business and policy and understand how water and climate risks could be factored into government/corporate strategy or credit policy. Such siloing effects also filter through academic research, creating a huge gap in such research.

Worse still, modern universities are still under the pressure to “publish or perish” – a measure of scientific “success”. This has led to an abundance of scientific publications that are “unnecessary” which are merely for the sake of publication to get tenure positions. This vicious cycle must go.

There has also been a rise in fake news related to science, which has worryingly led to many not to trust science. With no public access to good scientific journals (only fake news), the science research model needs revamping. Science and policy has its own language – this “speaking in tongues” must also end so as not to alienate the public and encourage buy-in to water and climate policies.

Universities must unsilo departments & lead in applied research that could help deliver climate solutions

Universities must be proactive – unsilo-ing departments is not enough – they should lead the way in applied research that could help businesses, investors and policymakers to gauge climate solutions that will save money or could even be profitable in the long-term. Corporates in return can fund university R&D for more solutions, creating a virtuous cycle from research to application.

Start unsiloing with water – the resource most vulnerable to climate change

Yes, such structural reform is difficult for universities, but we must not delay as climate change waits for no one. Since January, there have been plenty more grim news on the climate crisis – from accelerated warming of oceans, melting glaciers, and rising seas, to abnormal hurricanes and megadroughts.

Depressingly, COVID-19 only brought about a fall of 8% in carbon emissions and we will need 10 more years of this to avoid warming of more than 1.5°C. Universities must therefore also undergo a metamorphosis along with other sectors and close these knowledge gaps and come up with innovative solutions.

Teaching Asia’s water challenges help students “see” & manage the new risk landscape…

In the pantheon of impacts accelerated by climate change, we must pick a place to start. Of course, we will root for water. We would like to see Asia’s water challenges taught in business, finance and policy courses so that students can “see” and manage the new risk landscape.

Studying “environment” related courses with business is not just about how companies will impact the environment – they must also be about how the environment will impact business. Floods/droughts, rising water scarcity or sea levels will all impact companies/cities ability to survive.

Without seeing this big picture”, we will likely be left in the dark, making uninformed decision. Worse still, we may invent solutions that are counterproductive. A recent example is that an alternative measure hailed as a “climate solution” could do more harm than business as usual – ships powered by LNG could be worse for the climate than those powered by conventional fuels.

The right time to embed the climate crisis across university courses is now!

Education is in for a “great reset” – how can university curricula stay relevant post COVID-19? Since there is no right time to reform, NOW is a good a time as any to embed the climate crisis into the core curriculum.

To prepare students for a resilient future, waternomics must be embedded as a core topic across all course subjects …

To prepare students for a resilient future, waternomics must be embedded as a core topic across all course subjects. Education should be solutions-focused and centered around a curriculum designed to empower and create climate champions around the world – be they climate scientists, engineers, policy makers or entrepreneurs.

Even tech graduates can put their skills to good use by creating big data applications that can help improve the environment.

…change is difficult but we must summon up the courage

Change is difficult but we must summon up the courage to dismantle academic silos. Like it or not, universities must use this time to think out-of-the-box and fill these knowledge gaps, or economic development and livelihoods will suffer.

When we look back on this moment, surely we want to say we used it to prepare the next generation for a cleaner, greener and smarter world that is also fair and resilient to climate crises ahead?

So what will these multidisciplinary courses look like? We have some ideas from our various interactions with universities globally. We are distilling our experience in guest lecturing; collaborative research; plus waternomic coursework development for a Masters in Investment Management into a paper.

We are working on this brief now – so  if you would like to help us catalyse action in academic preparedness to produce a future generation of business, policy and finance leaders – please contact us!

Further Reading

  • Too Big To Fail! Protect At All Costs – Multiple policy innovations have been unleashed to protect the Yangtze River as it is too big to fail – corporates and investors need to get on top of the YREB to avoid regulatory shocks
  • Thirsty And Underwater: Rising Risks In Greater Bay Area – How will water & climate risks, including rising sea levels & droughts, threaten the already water-stressed Greater Bay Area (GBA)? CWR’s Tan & Mirando explain in their latest CLSA report and highlight companies’ failure in climate risk disclosures
  • Capital Threats Remain Post COVID – There is no vaccine for climate & water risks, yet some in the financial sector are still burying their heads. CWR’s Dharisho Mirando reminds us how our capital is at risk & steps we can take to reduce them while going green
  • 8 Risks You Missed During COVID-19 – Been focused on COVID-19? You are not alone but we can’t get distracted from the climate crisis. Catch-up with CWR’s Chien Tat Low who runs through 8 latest climate & water risks
  • Metamorphosis! Hard Truths & Unicorns – With blanket disruption globally, we are forced to rethink our future. The pandemic has presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to morph toward business unusual, but can we take advantage? CWR’s Debra Tan ponders
  • Asia, Why On Earth Would We Leave Our Future To G7? – With G7’s absent leadership & inability to plan for pandemics, CWR’s Debra Tan calls for Asia to step-up & lead the global fight against our climate crises. Tycoons, think about it – what’s the point of building empires that will kill your grandchildren?

More on Latest

  • Two Sessions 2020 – Ecological Roadmap – China’s still sticking to the ecological roadmap despite COVID-19. CWR’s Xu runs us through three key takeaways from this year’s Two Sessions that give clear signals of this direction
  • 4 Chinese Lessons For India’s Water Security – India is waking up to its water crises but with 21 cities set to run dry by 2021, urgent action is needed. Kubernein’s Vishwanath shares 4 Chinese lessons India can use to tackle key issues & leapfrog ahead
  • Deeper Ecological & Environmental Policy Reforms In 14 FYP – Dr Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning shares his views on how to overcome unprecedented challenges of environmental protection during the 14FYP
  • China Still Going Green Despite Coal Moves – Post COVID-19, green recovery is key but there has been mixed signals on coal in China. Is this a reversal of its commitments? CWR’s Xu deciphers polices & signals from coal to UHV transmission lines
  • 2019 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – Has groundwater quality recovered from the drastic deterioration in 2018? Can the major rivers meet their Water Ten targets? Read our review of the latest 2019 report to catch up on China’s water quality



Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
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