‘Science Unusual’ to Counter Fake News!

By Debra Tan, Feng Hu 13 July, 2017

Science & policy have their own language. Hu & Tan on the urgent need to bridge science & policy

The tri-annual water congress wants to bridge this disconnect which is more pronounced given G19 vs. USA
Asia's 10 major rivers face a challenging future, yet research & funding lack; China & India must lead BRICs
The public has no access to good scientific journals, only fake news; the science research model needs revamping

Every three years, the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) hosts a World Water Congress. The purpose: to advance water resources knowledge, policy and management around the world. As a result it is less “public-friendly” compared to World Water Week and more of a gathering of people from the “water world”.
This year, China Water Risk ventured to the XVIth Congress for the first time presenting on our work on Yangtze water-nomics with MEPFECO. Held in Cancun, this year’s theme was “Bridging Science and Policy” and aimed to bridge the gaps in knowledge, communication, and coordination. With the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and climate change deniers abound, the theme appears to be on topic.

Speaking in tongues

Science and policy has its own language. It is also different from the language of social media, although this is also merging. Different speak and performance yardsticks have also left gaping holes and disconnect between scientific knowledge and policy actions.

XVIWWC_Cancun Declaration_Page_1

At the end of the Congress, a ‘Cancun Declaration’ was released. It highlights:

Water is one of the most crucial needs for the Earth and all of its inhabitants. The holistic ambition of sustainable development in a changing world needs multidisciplinary knowledge, evidence based policies, involvement and participation of everybody for a more effective implementation of solutions”.
In plain speak – Water is essential for our survival, we all (no matter who you are) need to work together so will still have this resource in the future. We all need to work harder at getting the message across.
Policy makers need “to assimilate science into the decision-making process” and scientists & water experts need “to respond to the needs of civil society and to make new knowledge available for public debate”. Translate – scientists and water people need to make it easier to understand and access important facts so that government/businesses can make better decisions.
In short, information and data needs to be digestible and credible to combat fake news.

In Asia, we face huge water & climate challenges

Our water challenges in Asia are enormous and pressing. At the Congress, Simon Lagan (from the Water Futures and Solutions Initiatives (WFaS) at IIASA) warns that future water demand in Asia may see a 30%-40% increase by 2050 from the 2010 level.

Climate change impacts 10 rivers which flow into 16 countries in Asia …

The source region of 10 major rivers in Asia, the Hindu Kush Himalayas is feeling the impact of climate change. These rivers provide water to 210 million people who live in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region but these 10 rivers also flow into 16 countries providing water to up to 1.7 billion Asians. One in three of us rely on water from these river basins.
July 1st Glacier in Qilian Mountains in Upper Yellow
We have been lamenting about vanishing ice and the lack of financing. Up close and personal time on these retreating giants are sad experiences.
It comes down to the fact that they are out of sight and out of mind of policy makers and other key decision makers in Asia. So we thought we would try bridge the gap between science and economics.

Water-nomics of 10 of Asia’s mighty rivers

Over the last year and a half, we have been working with Center for Water Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the water-nomics of these 10 river basins. We hope to publish the report later this year.

Upcoming report includes climate trends for 10 river basins

Insights from modelling results have found increased temperatures and reduced snowfall across all 10 rivers basins over the last 50 years. Unfortunately even under RCP4.5 (more likely than not to exceed 2°C by 2100), projections show that temperature will rise at a faster rate in the next 50 years across all basins.
Snowfall decrease will also be more pronounced in the next 50 years. Temperature rise and snowfall decrease vary dramatically depending on basins.
These clearly have impact on river run-off which will in turn affect the economies along these rivers. Can these rivers sustain economic growth? All will be revealed soon…

G19 vs. 1 does not exempt US from climate risks

Last week we saw the G19 breaking-off with the US position on climate change. Unfortunately, ignoring climate change will not change impending events and rising water risks. Ignoring climate change just means no plans or funds directed to adapt to such risks.

New report show southern parts of the USA will suffer first, especially Florida

Just this month, we saw a research paper released on the uneven impacts of temperature rise across the USA. The southern parts of the USA, in particular Florida, will suffer more first than the north.  Mean sea level rise alone could cost several coastal states up to 2.3% of their state GDP if temperature rise surpasses 4°C by 2100 (RCP8.5).

Current scientific research model could be the roadblock

Climate change and therefore climate related risks know no borders. Global policies should clearly cater for national as well as spatial differences. Such data should be already relayed to key decision makers but it is often not. The current scientific research model could be the unwitting roadblock. It has also in a way helped climate deniers spread misinformation and doubt…

Scientific research model needs a “business-unusual” revamp

Good research is hard to access. There are only a few water-related open-access journals. Some platforms offer an open-access option if the author/research funder pays the open-access publication fee. This can prove costly for some researchers, especially those in their early-stage careers or those in developing countries with already limited funding.

Open access of scientific knowledge is still lags  …
… public is easily flooded by fake or outdated news

So in general, those who want access to good data and new information will have to pay. The public or small businesses will hardly pay USD30-50 to access a scientific paper based on a short abstract. This means that they will only see scientific/ water related information via the news, or they ask “Uncle Google” who appears to nowadays be inundated with ‘fake news’ or outdated information.
This almost seems ‘unfair’ for consumers given many research is funded by public money. Already, the European Union has required articles from all projects receiving Horizon 2020 funding to be openly accessible.

Changing scientist performance metrics may also help

Another disconnect is that a scientist’s performance is measured by the number of papers published. Also the more prestigious the journal, the better. They are not measured on if their research feed into/influence/change policy decisions.
So just as many researchers are calling policy makers to not solely focus on GDP, the scientific community should also reflect on their current benchmarks. Surely in these pressing times both parties should seek better measurement of sustainable impacts of the knowledge generated.
Clearly with so much fake news around, it’s time to revamp the current ‘business model’ of scientific research.

Lack of research & funding despite high stakes

The lack of funding exacerbates this disconnect.

The science of climate change is underfunded & facing cutbacks … time for Asia to step up?

Across OECD countries, overall government-financed R&D has seen a 2.4% fall (in real PPP terms) from 2010 to 2015. As warned by OECD, this may ‘pose a threat to innovation given the increasing need for cross-border collaboration in dealing with global challenges like climate change. Scientific fields such as environmental research generally rely more on public money, compared to say medical research which also attracts significant private investment.
In Asia, the science of climate change is underfunded. With Trump cutting climate finance across several federal agencies such as NASA, EPA and U.S. Geological Survey, surely it is time for Asian governments/ foundations/ businesses to step up.
China appears to have emerged as the default leader in the region on this front. China-led Third Pole Environment program has been pooling multi-national resources to facilitate more comprehensive study of the region. Just recently, an international scientific conference on ‘Third Pole’ was held in Kunming. Soon, another one will be held in Lanzhou in early August.

Can China & India avoid border conflict to protect common waters?

But China cannot do this alone; India also needs to focus on its pervasive water risks by protecting their common upper watershed, the “Himalayan water towers”. The fact that both Xi & Modi avoided talking about border conflict and instead told the BRICS that member countries needed to focus on remaining committed to an open global economy and fighting climate change is a good sign.

China’s plan is … plan, plan, plan

MWR Special Session at World Water Congress
China is a planned economy and science has always played an important part in policy making. In Cancun, Li Yuanyuan, the Vice President of General Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design, gave some good examples of current policies in China that bridge science and policy:

  • 3rd round of national water resources assessment: starting from April 2017
  • Balance sheet of water resources as natural assets
  • Evaluation of water resources carrying capacity
  • Defining aquatic eco-space (e.g. rivers, lakes, drinking water sources) and redlines
  • River basin water allocation
  • Implementing the river chief system

Many of these policies were inspired by and/or gained inputs from scientific research of both domestic and international scientists and professionals.
Beyond water, there is the 3rd National Climate Change Assessment Report released just before COP21 in Paris. Around 500 scientists provided input into the report over a span of more than 3 years. This collective effort provides a solid scientific base from which policy makers can make better climate decisions.
The report is not a state secret, you can buy it on Amazon. After reading it you will get why President Xi is so focused on making sure the climate agenda stays on track.
The importance of this collective scientific effort in building consensus amongst regulators can also not be ignored with China playing leading roles from pushing renewables to green bonds in 2016.

Even empowered by science, decisions for a secure water future still lie in our hands

It is true that scientific advances can provide decision makers with more comprehensive and accurate data as well as assessment tools. But, science alone won’t help us arrive at the final decisions. Making sound policies in both governments and businesses will be affected by many other factors such as moral choices and traditions. It is ultimately up to the society to find the ‘optimum’ balance between environment and development.
Meanwhile, we will continue to work as “translators” – to ensure that water experts and economists speak the same language; to bridge science and finance in quantifying water risks; and to ensure that the business and investment communities as well as policy makers understand their water risk exposure.
Can data be better visualized and understood at a glance? Join us on our journey and perhaps in “translating” we can not only drive “business unusual” but also “science unusual”.
Finally, in times of changing climate, it’s best to avoid fake news – stay tuned for our report on Asia Water-nomics later this year! If not already, sign up for our newsletter now

Further readings: 

  • Groundwater Shortage Calls For Urgent Action – China’s groundwater is overextracted and this needs immediate tackling. Prof Asit K Biswas & Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy explore solutions, from desalination to sponge cities
  • Hong Kong: A Climate Resilient Sponge City – Hong Kong is prone to tropical cyclones, which will be exacerbated by climate change. Can the city become climate & flood resilient? Hear from Richard Leung from the Drainage Services Department on actions taken so far
  • Hong Kong’s Pricey Water Deal With China – Much is made of the DongShen Agreement’s price tag but discussions need to move onto more complex issues such as the city’s rampant overuse & leakage. Hear from Civic Exchange on HK’s ‘illusion of plenty’
  • Rise of ZLD In China’s Power Sector – Treating air pollution in thermal power plants create hard-to-treat wastewater as a by-product: is zero liquid discharge the way forward? Bluetech Research’s Rhys Owen expands
  • Green Financing For Climate Resilience – We sat down with Dr Christine Chan from the Climate Bonds Initiative working group to get the latest on green finance globally & in China. How have China’s green bonds been received? What is next for investors?
  • Key Water Policies 2016 – 2017 – Missed out on the key water and water-related policies in China over the last year? Get up to speed with China Water Risk Dawn McGregor’s review, including the latest on the water law
  • China’s Water Stress Is On The Rise – Water stress across 54% of China worsened in 2001-2010. The World Resources Institute’s Dr Jiao Wang, Dr Lijin Zhong & Charles Iceland deliver the good and the bad news of China’s latest water stress data
  • China’s Increasing Use Of Public Environmental Data – China wants a green credit rating system. Dr Guo Peiyuan of the China Financial Association’s Green Finance Expert Committee, expands on how publicly available environmental data can help
  • Financing Water Resilience: Climate Bonds for China – Green or “climate” bonds is a rapidly growing market but there are verification concerns plus gaps for water-related investments. AGWA’s John Matthews & Climate Bond Initiative’s Anna Creed & Lily Dai introduce the new water climate bond standard that addresses these issues
  • Water Footprint: The Road Ahead – Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, the creator of the water footprint concept, talks to China Water Risk about hard truths on the challenges ahead over virtual water trade, water scarcity & over-consumption
  • Quantifying Water Risk: What’s My Number? – Industries are exposed to water risks but financial valuation of such risks remain elusive. China Water Risk’s Thieriot reviews existing quantification tools & methods and highlights gaps that need to be filled to put a number on water risks
  • Water Risk Valuation – What Investors Say – See what 70+ investors have to say on different valuation approaches we applied to 10 energy stocks listed across 4 exchanges. Is there consensus? What are they most worried about?
  • 5 Regulatory Trends: From Enforcement To Finance – Since 2016, China’s environmental policy landscape has undergone a series of important changes. CWR’s Xu summarises key regulations & 5 trends you need to know, from greater enforcement to green finance
  • Can APAC Lead In Adaptation Finance? – After attending two key climate conferences, including COP 22, CWR’s Hu shares why adaptation financing in APAC is crucial though it’s lagging and how the private sector can lead this effort
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.
Read more from Debra Tan →
Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
Read more from Feng Hu →