Acclaimed Hamilton-based UN think-tank celebrates 25 years studying water security

Acclaimed Hamilton-based UN think-tank celebrates 25 years studying water security

Originally published by Sebastian Bron, The Hamilton Spectator, 12 October 2021.

Did you know there are more people in India with access to a cellphone than a toilet?

Or that burning the world’s annual human waste output could yield the equivalent of $9.5 billion in non-renewable natural gas?

Or that, every day, about 2,020 hectares of irrigated land worldwide becomes unfarmable because of salty soil?

These findings, on water scarcity and environmental health, are considered groundbreaking in the scientific community.

They also offer a snapshot into the extensive resumé of a Hamilton-based think-tank.

The United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) — one of 13 UN universities and the only one in Canada — has guided the global discussion on water security for a quarter century, publishing cutting-edge research that’s helped mould critical sustainable policies in dozens of developing countries.

But its beginnings were a little less flashy.

The institute — now located at McMaster Innovation Park — was founded in 1996 after years of funding disagreements between federal and provincial officials.

“I took an administrative officer and a secretary and the three of us ended up in a small, little cubbyhole in the engineering building on the edge of McMaster,” said Ralph Daley, the institute’s first director. “Very small, humble beginnings.”

Daley took the job on a whim. Then head of Canada’s esteemed National Water Research Institute, he said he never actively applied for the role. It was instead a UN University official, flown in from New York to conduct interviews, who pitched him the idea.

“I was working in Sheila Copps’ department,” said Daley, referring to the former federal environment minister who was a catalyst behind bringing the institute to Hamilton. “The UN (official) told me, ‘We’ve gone through all these interviews and we’re not really happy with anybody. Would you be interested?’ ”

It was only a year or two before Daley and the institute made tangible differences in developing nations. There was the plan developed for managing biosolids in Juarez, Mexico; the solar-powered groundwater pumping stations in rural villages of the Sahel; the groundwater remediation project in Doha, Qatar; and the environmental training of several counties in East Africa that border Lake Victoria.

These types of initiatives remain at the core of the program today — not just to research water scarcity, but to help countries address the topic and use unconventional resources to solve it.

“There’s a lot of knowledge (about water) in the knowledge books, but it’s not being applied,” said current director Vladimir Smakhtin, who took the job in 2016. “Our idea is we actually digest that knowledge into messages. We assess existing bodies of knowledge and identify existing trends and possible risks in the water sector.”

The institute’s policy-relevant discoveries have been broadcast to millions of people, Smakhtin added. One 2019 study — about desalination plants producing astronomic amounts of toxic brine — was covered by media in 84 countries and published in 24 languages.

“That was probably our biggest study, in terms of reach,” said Smakhtin of the analysis, which called for better brine management from the world’s 16,000 desalination plants that convert saltwater into freshwater.

Another more recent project, released in October, is a tool that maps out world floods since 1985 down to street level. Smakhtin hopes it will help locate gaps in global flood defences.

It’s one undertaking in a long list of accessible research pumped out by the Hamilton institute. But Smakhtin said more needs to be done to solve the water crisis — there are still four million people who die every year from water-borne diseases.

“It’s been 25 years and there’s still a significant need for think-tanks like ours,” he said.

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