Dear African and European Leaders, Turn the Tide. Now!

Article: 17.02.22, The Netherlands

Leaders of the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) will meet for the 6th  AU-EU Summit in Brussels on 17 and 18 February 2022. This is the start of 14 crucial months for the global water and climate agenda.

By Niels van den Berge,  Advocacy Officer at Simavi

There is a lot at stake, especially for local communities living near or south of the equator. While they contributed least to climate change, they suffer most. We call on European leaders to turn the tide. By opening up spaces in which grassroots water champions, engineers and policy makers co-create solutions together.

Climate change causes severe flooding in Bangladesh

Why 14 crucial months for the international water and climate agenda?

In March 2023 the second ever UN Water Conference will be hosted by Tajikistan and The Netherlands. Our partners all over the world work hard to make this a pivotal moment in fighting the climate crisis. And we are advocating with European policy makers to give them the space to do so.

Water is for adaptation, what CO2 is for mitigation. Climate change hits people through water: flooding, droughts, hunger and a lack of safe drinking water. Europe has both the means and historical responsibility to support communities hit by climate change in their struggle for resilience.

The water and climate ‘train’ will make several stops on its way to UN Water 2023: in Senegal for the World Water Forum (March), in Indonesia for the Sanitation and Water for All Sectors Ministers Meeting (May), in Tajikistan for the high-level water conference (June), in Sweden for the World Water Week (August) and in Egypt for the 27th UN Climate Summit, also known as COP27 (November). Simavi is working closely together with partners all over the world to push for inclusive, community-driven and sustainable solutions at all these conferences and summits.

Feminist leadership as the key to success

Inclusive: We strive for the human rights to water and sanitation and we believe in feminist leadership as the key to success. Women often suffer most of the climate hazards. Yet, they are also the ones driving resilience and adaptation at community level. Our message to policy makers is therefore: female community leaders shall be in the driver seat. Do not take decisions about them, but with them.

From one-way traffic to mutual learning

Inclusivity also means mutual learning. Historically, European – African collaboration has been driven by a ’We Europe will teach you how to do this’-attitude. Not only is this morally wrong, it also means we miss the opportunity to learn from each other. An example to illustrate these missed opportunities: drought problems are increasing in Europe due to climate change, and there is a lot that water practitioners in African countries can teach us about it. The only thing European policy makers need to do is listen, learn and have an open attitude.

The best solutions are developed in co-creation

Community-driven: Too often political leaders take decisions with large impacts on communities, without involving them. They for example discuss large investment packages without taking into account indigenous needs, knowledge and perspectives. Our partners in African communities rightly tell us that the best solutions are developed in co-creation. When engineers can stand on the shoulders of local water champions and vice versa, they can reach further. Because it is local water practitioners who have to own, operate and maintain any infrastructure. So, they should also be involved in the designing process, right from the start.

Sustainability at all stages

Sustainable: When the problems overlap, solutions should too. However, often policy makers try to tackle environmental, economic and health crises in isolation. The result? Solutions that are suboptimal, or even worse, exacerbate or create new problems. An example: there are too many flood protection and land development projects that either harm local ecosystems and their contribution to climate resilience, or force people to leave their homes. Let’s learn from those unintended effects in previous master plans and flagship initiatives.

Real sustainability means building with nature instead of pushing nature aside. It means developing water, sanitation and hygiene services that run no matter the weather. Indigenous communities can teach us a lot about it. So again, it starts with listening and opening our hearts and minds for (unorthodox) solutions.

How to create success?

Back to the AU-EU Summit that starts today. African and European leaders are expected to agree on large investment packages. To make these a success it’s crucial to take ecological and social sustainability into account, including historical responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and structural inequalities in the past and present world economies. The good news is that AU and EU leaders can benefit and learn from the past. They do not have to make the same mistakes again.

They can do good, better if they adhere to the following:

  • Recognise the importance of water. If climate change is the shark, then water is its teeth. We can’t tackle the major environmental, economic and health crises without solving the water crisis. And there are other synergies too. Take pandemic preparedness: handwashing is one of the most effective measures to prevent Covid infections. The water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector has been promoting handwashing since long before Covid.
  • Tackle environmental, health and economic problems in synergy. Make sure that new infrastructural projects and investment packages build on ecosystems and indigenous knowledge, rather than bypassing or even destroying them.
  • Female, grassroots leaders in the driver seat. These hands-on problem solvers know best what they and their fellow community members need. Female, grassroots champions are already dealing with the consequences of climate change in their daily life.
  • Agree on inclusive follow-up mechanisms. It is expected that the AU-EU Summit will result in flagship initiatives and investment packages. It is crucial that these are worked out in an inclusive, sustainable manner. We therefore advocate for a multidisciplinary implementation platform, in which different interests, perspectives and local communities are represented.

    This will give us the opportunity to really work together and co-create a sustainable, just and bright future.
Esther Oeganda

Everbody has the human right to safe water and sanitation.

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