How the young can do a lot more to help the world use its water resources better

The Asian Age.  | Asma Bachikh

India, All India

In the international water community, bottom-up youth engagement comes through a variety of civil society networks.

Eight-year-old Sunita Kol draws water from a hand pump, for her mothers bath at the Khapar Bhatua (headache) village, India.

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. This new development agenda propagates an all-of-society engagement and partnership as a main driver for transformation. It is a collective action plan that unites State and non-State actors, whereby adequate opportunity and space is given to all major groups in society. While youth is considered as a vulnerable group that warrants specific attention (para. 23), young people are also viewed as important actors who should be educated and enabled to reach their full potential (para. 25; SDG 4, targets 4.4 and 4.6). Specific attention is given to the promotion of youth employment for inclusive and sustainable economic growth (para. 27; SDG 8, targets 8.6 and 8b) and to developing the capacity of youth to effectively contribute to climate change-related planning and management (SDG 13, target 13.b).

Young people have the potential to be effective agents of change. But unless the need is acknowledged to provide an enabling environment for youth to thrive in, this remains an empty catchphrase. The transition of youth from a target group to full partner lacks traction in many fields of the development domain. Engaging youth in the water sector is particularly challenging due to its complex nature.

In the international water community, bottom-up youth engagement comes through a variety of civil society networks. While many youth initiatives may exist around the world, structured and meaningful involvement of youth is generally hampered due to various reasons that range from the lack of widespread support to the absence of proper platforms that sustain youth participation.

In the last few years, youth have been targeted by many leading international organisations in the water sector. In fact, youth engagement has become a fashionable trend. Most organisations have their marketed youth strategies promoting an image of youth inclusion and engagement. However, these good intentions rarely reflect the reality on the ground. In practice, youth engagement sometimes simply means inviting youth representatives to participate in events. Furthermore, many initiatives led by water institutions aimed at engaging youth take place in an ad hoc manner and lack consistency.

Cleaning up of the Versova Beach in Mumbai involving the city’s youth by Afroz Shah, a young lawyer in Mumbai.

At present, the potential of youth has been only marginally realised. Knowledge and data on how to effectively engage stakeholders, including youth, is generally deficient. While stakeholder engagement is a priority to most organisations, analysis of the factors that enable their meaningful engagement is usually not high on the agenda. Programmes to strengthen their capacity and ability to engage are generally insufficient.

In comparison with other civil society stakeholder groups, youth has an additional complicating factor. While youth take on the initiative to drive change in their communities through different actions under the umbrella of voluntarism, this is often unsustainable. Most youth begin their engagement as students and by the time they graduate they shift their focus to entering the job market and starting their careers. If their voluntarism continues, this will be carried out in other segments of civil society, such as academia, non-governmental organisations, or associations that focus on women’s issues and indigenous peoples. Consequently, it is imperative to move past the convenient logic of voluntarism and recognise that sustained efforts and resources are needed to encourage, equip and support the continuous growth of young people.

Access to water and sanitation in developing countries

Stakeholder participation is at the core of effective water and sanitation management. A considerable number of countries — 83 per cent of 94 countries surveyed in 2013-2014 — now have stakeholder participation included in policies and/or laws. Therefore, investing in an enabling environment for youth as key stakeholders in the water sector is a prerequisite to successful engagement and will ensure the achievement of SDG 6.

Empowering youth and defining mechanisms to enable their engagement and integration in different political processes is critical to getting their voices heard and their needs and demands met. Many experiences demonstrate that youth engagement originates as a bottom-up effort in the form of youth networks. In June 2017, in Kyrgyzstan, I took part in the launch of the Central Asia Youth Water Forum, a network of young water professionals that was established to support and strengthen youth participation in the regional water sector. The creation of this network is a result of a two-year coordination process led by engaged youth from the region and supported by the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) programme at the German-Kazakh University. This example shows that even in one of the most politically complex regions of the world, youth are eager to shift mindsets and contribute to sustainable water resources management.

While education, awareness-raising and capacity-building are important enablers of youth engagement, social movements come from within and are rarely sustainable when organised top-down. It is critical to break out of this narrow understanding and make space for youth-owned initiatives to actively engage society on a policy level and in the decision-making process. Failure to acknowledge such social movements will result in distrust and frustration among young people, repelling them from the water sector.

Youth inclusion in different processes in the water sector should be sustainable and needs to rely on the willingness of older generations to teach, mentor and share knowledge with the younger and eager generations. Youth cut across all sectors of society as a standing multi-stakeholder platform by itself that should be utilised. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for a society of engagement and partnership, and youth will have a decisive role to play in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs.

By now, everyone is convinced of the valuable contribution that youth can offer in the decision-making process in the water sector. It is time to persuade decision makers to invest in an enabling environment to strengthen the participation of youth.

The writer is president of the World Youth Parliament for Water