Empowering youth for a resilient future

Floods. Droughts. Calamitous storms and wildfires. These are just a few of the immense challenges facing our planet as climate change intensifies. So, with COP26 approaching, the focus of World Water Week 2021 on ‘building resilience faster’ was a welcome opportunity to underline the centrality of water in solving these and other climate problems, and to take stock of our progress. A key sub-theme was the role of youth in building resilience.

According to the UN there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15-24 years, accounting for 16% of the global population – a number projected to rise 7% by 2030. These young people didn’t cause climate change, yet they will inherit a heating planet. They are not to blame for increasing water scarcity, but they must live with its consequences.  

It is clear then that any new resilience agenda must have youth at its heart – both as beneficiaries and protagonists. To many, this idea might seem self-evident; of course, we must empower the next generation! Who could argue otherwise? Too often though, young people are still underrepresented and disempowered in water governance and decision-making.

That was the conclusion of a study carried out this year by the Water Youth Network, supported by the Dutch Government’s Valuing Water Initiative. It found that young people starting out in the sector are often faced with technocratic barriers, language barriers and hierarchical decision-making that can leave them disenfranchised. Another common problem is tokenism and box-ticking, where young people may be included in conferences or decision-making processes but only superficially, without the chance to meaningfully contribute or influence outcomes. The study also identified fragmentation between youth initiatives and limited opportunities for training and professional development as further barriers to empowerment.  

These challenges don’t just disadvantage young people, but also hold back progress in the water sector as a whole. Fortunately, empowering young people isn’t just a moral imperative – it can also be a practical solution to the problems we face. We just need to know how to do it.  

This was the focus of the WWW session ‘Youth Engagement: Why It Matters and How to Do It’, which the Government of the Netherlands and Water Youth Network organised together with a large group of co-convenors. A panel of young and senior professionals set out some of the concrete ways different stakeholders in the water sector can engage and empower young people:   

First, civil society groups can promote internal youth candidates for external representation activities, explained Viviana Franco Hernandez from Youth for the Rhine. This is a simple and effective way of helping strengthen the leadership skills of young professionals. Civil society organisations can also tackle the technocratic barriers to youth engagement by setting up demystification initiatives in order to make water policy and science simpler and more accessible, as has been done successfully on climate issues by organisations like the Youth Climate Lab.  

Neil Dhot, Executive Director of AquaFed, called on policymakers to support the meaningful representation of youth at the international level as a new norm, bringing to an end the symbolic participation of youth as an exercise in box-ticking, which still too often prevails. Inspired by the global youth response to UN-Water’s Water2Me campaign, he argued for young people to be given greater responsibility at all stages of policy development and implementation as a means of achieving more sustainable outcomes.  

Carla Muller-Zantop, Water Stewardship Engineer at Danone, called on the private sector to tap into the immense entrepreneurial potential of youth by entrusting them with greater responsibilities and directly involving youth in, for example, review and decision-making processes. She encouraged private sector decision-makers to be receptive to criticism and to establish more intergenerational working groups and mentorship opportunities.  

Entrusting youth with more responsibility will also benefit research and academia, said Prof Kees van Leeuwen, KWR Principal Scientist, who argued powerfully that the problem-solving capacity of young people must not be underestimated, and that the establishment of mentorship programmes and the elevation of work done by young people are concrete ways that youth potential can be harnessed. 

Donors can also make a difference by adopting a systems approach to problem definition before funding projects and identifying where they can support existing good work that is already ongoing but may be fragmented or disconnected.  

That’s why the Valuing Water Initiative will soon be launching a Youth Engagement Action Plan. It seeks to address some of the obstacles identified in the Water Youth Network’s study by building on some of the excellent work that is already happening in the sector. Working with likeminded partners, it will support concrete action among a range of stakeholder groups to empower the next generation of water professionals, advocates, and leaders.  

If we’re serious about building a resilient future, we need to empower young people – and all of us have a role to play. The time for platitudes is over.  

Find out more about the Action Plan on the Valuing Water Initiative website. If you’d like to become involved, please contact Joe Ray, VWI Advisor at joe.ray@rvo.nl

This article was authored by Joe Ray, Government of the Netherlands; Miriam Salomons, Government of the Netherlands; Lauren Arendse, Water Youth Network; Philip Kruse, Water Youth Network. 

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