Less blah, more dancing
Moving beyond the greenwashing blah and stepping into a world where we not only act together, but move in coordinated synchrony.
Arjen Naafs is the content lead for Water Resources and Climate Change at IRC. With over 20 years of sector experience, he is passionate about mapping and eager to share WASH knowledge and facilitate learning.
What were some of the beams of light coming from the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in 2021 (COP26)? In this frank interview by Hajar Yagkoubi, former Netherlands youth representative to the United Nations and Toilet Talks interviewee, we evaluate this major climate conference through the eyes of a water expert.
Hajar: Arjen, you’ve been following the climate discussions for some time. For those who haven’t, can you tell us what your impressions were of COP 26 in Glasgow?
Arjen: The youth energy is showing one thing: they've really, really had it now. And responding to that energy should be what informs and sparks a change in the path towards COP 27. It's clear that if we just wait for the right people to have the decision-making power, it will be too late. I think that became more apparent than ever.
Hajar: I follow a lot of young people online. I saw the demonstrations at COP and the intensity of their activities before and after. How is youth participation different and how will it influence the next COP in Egypt?
Arjen: It’s not by sheer chance that youth voices were able to be physically present at COP26. We are seeing it’s all over the world: it's a global movement. The movement started already from the Fridays for Future for the last two years and they're now happening in almost every country. This will only become ever more pronounced between COP 26 and 27.
But they’re not just about putting political pressure. I do think people are changing their ways. They're living the choices they make. And that is sometimes not even political. It’s about what people can do by themselves and about influencing the people around them, regardless of what a politician does between COP 26 in COP 27.
Hajar: So, you're hopeful. What excites you about what happened during COP 26?
Arjen: What makes me most happy is that water featured much more prominently in the adaptation agenda. I have been working with colleagues in Malawi. So, it was particularly good to hear the Minister of Malawi speaking about the importance of water in adaptation, giving examples of how it's affecting the lives of people in Malawi. Having such a dynamic Minister talking about this reality and how it is already affecting people is rare. I found that very positive.
Then there was the speech from the Prime Minister of Barbados, which was just phenomenal. We should actually put it on repeat.
Hajar: I also saw the speech. It was amazing. I also thought the one of David Attenborough was really really strong. What was something that frustrated you about what happened during COP?
Arjen: An obvious thing is that not enough has been done. And there was a lot of what is called greenwashing. I was very disappointed about that. You know, I live in the UK and [as the host country] it had an opportunity to show some real leadership on a couple of things. There was an opportunity for significant change and that simply didn’t happen.
There was also a lack of inclusion. Many people didn't make it there and a lot of people didn't have any influence. Journalists weren't allowed into sessions. There were a lot of closed meetings. It wasn't an open and transparent process. Those things are disappointing and frankly, a disgrace.
Hajar: I heard the same thing. What I heard from young people that a hostel or hotel in Edinburgh at the time of the conference was up to €1,600 a night! In your view, how could we unite the people who are fighting for water justice and the people who are fighting for climate justice?
Arjen: Both have a lot in common in terms of what they’re ‘fighting’, although I’m not sure that’s the best way of describing it, because it gives the impression that we’re opponents. Using those words is not always constructive.
In my view, it is about coming and working together. For me, climate is water. That's from the standpoint that when you talk about climate change, most of the things which are going to affect you will be changes in the water cycle: there's either going to be too much, or too little of it. It's going to be too dry, too many forest fires, freshwater melting from all the icebergs, rising sea level, salt intrusion. In urban areas drinking water will be much more difficult to get.
90% of disasters are water related. So, I don’t view them as two separate worlds. To me they are very much intertwined.
The one thing that we have seen during COP is the shift from the thinking about the ideal world, where we would have avoided climate change. Everybody is recognising that it's already happening and we have to, while also mitigate further damage as much as possible, find ways to live with climate change.
We need to adapt to climate change and it’s about coordinating that adaptation. There is now the understanding that there is a common goal and target. If you're concerned about climate change, you are concerned about water.
We're all wanting the same.
Hajar: It's with the solutions that things get interesting, but there is still a lot of blah. How do people working on climate and the people working on water move beyond the blah and work together?
Arjen: Basically everybody will say they’re doing more than just talking, but I'd like to make another comparison. I would like to suggest we go from talking to dancing.
We have to dance together. We all have different moves. We all already move to the same beat, in a way, we're all dancing to influence each other. So how about we all coordinate better.
Find out how we can start moving to shake away the shared roadblocks that are in the way and move towards not just towards talking together, but actually moving and doing things together. Plus, dancing is a great source of energy and joy.
Hajar: When we talk climate change and water. What would you want to flush out of this world? What do you not want to hear at COP27?
Arjen: Probably more broadly, I’d like to flush away all the greenwashing. You know, the “if I plant trees, I can continue polluting whatever I want”. I’ve got difficulties with that; the hypocrisy of it all. That you assume that you can pay off your guilt, while you know you have to change. I really would like to see that changed.
Hajar: If we would do another episode of Toilet Talks, who would you like to pass the roll onto? Who would you like to see us interview?
Arjen: I want ‘normal people’ to get a platform to share their urban African circumstances or their rural African circumstances. How are their lives affected by climate change? To what extent do they see things becoming more difficult? How is a farmer’s life affected? What are their lived consequences of climate change? These stories are very powerful and we can all relate to them.There are also influential people that I would like to hear from, but they are already have a prominent voice.
Hajar: A lot of policymakers are stuck in their ivory towers: They studied these issues, know about them in theory, but climate change has never really directly affected them and never will. How do we get the voices of the persons who are directly affected by climate change to be included?
Arjen: Here's my solution.
[Arjen shows a mirror]
What I mean is we need you. We need storytellers. We need people who can communicate. We need people who are able to formulate issues in a way that people are able to understand and able to relate to. If we want to get people out of their ivory towers, it doesn't necessarily help to attack them. It is about finding things that relate to them and find a link for them to see the bigger picture you've got.
Toilet Talks is brilliant because everybody goes to the toilet. Everybody goes and sometimes sits and thinks whenever they're there. And sometimes it stinks, but it's a relatable point, so you've got something that's universal!
And it's finding ways of telling messages that people can understand.
Hajar: That's a wonderful point. Indeed, the change starts with us. Any final words?
Arjen: Yes, one last thing. My message to everyone is to keep going and don't lose heart.
Keep being constructive. Keep reaching out. We're into this together.