What Does Our Water Need? A new generation of young waterkeepers

How can we support and encourage today's youth to solve tomorrow's water challenges? Banner image: Shutterstock/Pentium5
What Does Our Water Need? A new generation of young waterkeepers

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Since the start of the Syrian refugee crisis, Lebanon has seen an exponential increase of informal tented settlements—many of which lack access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. UNICEF’s sector-wide WASH Assessment Platform measures WASH-related vulnerability in informal settlements; it’s 2020 report details the stress faced by Lebanese camps due to limited water and sanitation services of 62% and 52%, respectively. One way in which UNICEF seeks to address these issues is by engaging youth in Water Innovation Labs (WIL), an approach created by Canadian non-profit Waterlution. This partnership enabled innovative, youth-led solutions to Lebanon’s lack of WASH services. In 2021, Waterlution Lebanon's initiatives are providing an opportunity for young leaders across the globe to collaborate on solving WASH challenges in Lebanese informal settlements. 

When we founded Waterlution in 2003, we envisioned a new generation of waterkeepers: young people around the world actively working towards shifting our relationship with water. Through a participatory capacity-building approach, we equip youth with the skills to work together to evolve our collective understanding of, and innovative responses to solving complex water challenges. By curating diverse learning spaces—bringing together young professionals, artists, activists, engineers, scientists, indigenous, students and marginalised communities—we have learned that the solutions to “the big problems” are often not technical or expensive, but instead made possible through collaborative innovation.

Read the OECD report: "Toolkit for Water Policies and Governance: Converging Towards the OECD Council Recommendation on Water" —providing high-level policy guidance on the management of water resources and the delivery of water services

Youth are on the ground, and not only passionate about making a difference but savvy about on and offline ways to engage and motivate stakeholders. They are spurred on by an urgency unseen in many generations before them: for example, even during COVID-19 young water leaders have taken virtual field tours in British Colombia, Canada exploring water level fluctuations; initiated educational action programmes in public high schools on urban water systems; invented mobile constructed wetlands; and created eco-performances on the future of rivers. Youth are one of the biggest untapped resources in the global water agenda. 

Committed to the challenges of basic sanitation in Brazil, BRK Ambiental (the country’s largest private wastewater and sanitation company) entered into a multi-sector collaborative WIL Brazil to engage young people to address water security, drought and other thematic areas. “In 2019, this partnership contributed to the acceleration of three startups, all with initiatives directly related to the operational challenges of our company”, says Carlos Almiro, Head of Sustainability at BRK Ambiental. Manuella Curti, Director of Europa Purifiers shares in this podcast series (in Portuguese): "When we can bring together a lot of people who trust in a well-constructed process, well directed, and with a consistent strategy, the results are very impactful, not only for the projects that were generated, but mainly in what it generates inside people, which enables them to be agents of change in the environments where they are”. The upcoming WIL Danube invites youth changemakers to engage with issues across the Danube watershed to contribute to solution building for local and regional challenges and advance the SDGs, specifically SDG 6.

More on the Forum Network: Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-based Solutions by Robert Brears, Founder, Our Future Water

More on the Forum Network: Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-based Solutions by Robert Brears, Founder, Our Future WaterMore on the Forum Network: Achieving Water Security through Demand Management and Nature-based Solutions by Robert Brears, Founder, Our Future Water

While the world debates what to do about climate change—and how to convince each other what to do—the next generation is hard at work. WIL Lebanon has spurred the exploration of youth-led innovations to address climate change and mitigation approaches across the MENA region. This presents an opportunity to further develop youth capacities, empower women and nurture innovative leaders within the sector.  What if policymakers, funders, NGO and private-sector leaders could see the opportunity of youth entrepreneurs worldwide as an essential element of these strategies? What if we could harness and learn from the experiments that point to the future? What does our water need us to do? ​​

  • Equip youth to create and lead the future of water
  • Facilitate and energise global collaboration around youth-led initiatives to care for our water
  • Deepen local communities’ water appreciation 

Lebanon is not the only country that has been hard-hit by myriad issues in recent years. What we have learned is that even in the midst of chaos, there is also space for the new to emerge. “There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”, sings Leonard Cohen on Anthem.

Over the last 18 years of Waterlution’s global learning programmes, we have witnessed a generation of waterkeepers grow to produce over 125 innovations. We are convinced that the talent, imagination and resourcefulness of youth-led water and climate innovation are a worthwhile—and necessary—investment. Together, we can advance progress towards water security, climate and equity while unleashing the creativity and drive of the next generation.

Find out more about the OECD's 8th Roundtable on Financing Water —taking place on 23-24 September 2021, striving to mobilise finance and investment to accelerate the transition to net zero carbon emissions and to strengthen climate resilience

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