Water Heritage and Youth: Official Side Event of The UN 2023 Water Conference Tuesday, March 21, 2023

United Nations of Rivers with CBIPS and The CSU

At Columbia | Center for Buildings, Infrastructure and Public Space 

Jakob Ollivier de Leth and Matteo D’Agostino

Water, Heritage and Youth was the subject of today’s side event of the UN 2023 Water Conference, organized by Matteo D’Agostino and Jakob Ollivier de Leth. Three group discussions, on Activism, Art and Young Professionals, took place in the Studio Lab of Columbia University’s Center for Buildings, Infrastructure and Public Space. Opening remarks from the sponsors included observations from Matteo and Jakob along with remarks by Gizem Karagoz and Rick Bell from the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization.

Gizem Karagoz

The Activism discussion was moderated by Loay Alatrash, and highlighted the thoughts of Mert Kumru, Laura de Vries and Youri de Koomen. Specific comments included Laura’s thoughts on the choices about where we will let the water flow, and where we won’t. She said “Every country will make its own decisions and develop its own strategies. What is important is that youth participate in creating these strategies.” Mert opined about not wanting to be cynical, but said “My problem with youth statements is that it means you are not at the actual business table. It infuriates me. It’s not the same level of importance.” Geert Peels of Let Lake Victoria Breath Again said, “I haven’t heard the word  responsibility” and discussing the problems facing the lake, he added “We created the problem, so we are the only ones to solve it, if we create a new heritage, it we take responsibility.” Carola Hein put the question of a youth or intergenerational statement in perspective by saying “Let’s look at where we are going. Today is yesterday’s tomorrow. A youth statement brings a different perspective on the future. Everyone has a heritage and some baggage. We are here to activate each other’s spaces and bring them together – to listen to what we all have to say. What are the concrete action topics? Let’s bring these different perspectives together in one place on the ground.”

Carola Hein

The panel on Art was led by Matteo D’Agostino and featured the work of Charlotte Qin and Maud van den Beuken. Rotterdam-based visual artist Maud van den Beuken touched the cinder block walls of the Columbia Engineering building and said “I am glad we are in the ‘Mudd’ building. The river is surrounding us, we are in the river.” Charlotte Qin said “Art is not a tool but an answer. Yesterday people were talking about art as a tool. It is more than that.” Maud replied “For me art is the language of the hear. It is absolutely the answer because it makes manifest what is hidden. There is another concept, because we are talking about heritage, and that is intergenerational debt. We all carry a lot of heritage, back to where we come from on this planet.” Charlotte answered “I have a theory that everyone is an artist. My whole family are engineers. I studied physics, and finished my course, but made my way back to the arts.”  Silvia Amann, from Inforelais in Engerwitzdorf, Austria, said “There are many ways of including art. It can be for better connecting with nature. It can be for better connecting with people.” Maarten Ouboter concluded “Art is not only for a break in an official meeting but should be at the table.”

The discussion of the role and challenges for young professionals was led by Mert Kumru, with the participation of Ayman Kassem, Carlien Donkor and Loay Alatrash. Carlien, an architect from Ghana trained in Milan and Delft said “In Ghana, there is a cycle of flood, complaints, and doing nothing about it. In Milan, there is a discussion now about re-opening the covered-up canals. In the Netherlands, People are very aware of their water. The contexts are very different. In Ghana there is a community that lives on the water. There are good examples everywhere, but our responses are different.”

Ayman Kassem continued “Many things are happening in Jordan. There are a lot of volunteers. We need the seniors and the young together. Seniors can help guide which way to go. I hope we can involve young people to a greater degree in water issues.” Loay Alatrash stated “In five years we may not have water. We need to raise awareness, to talk to government. It is the same as climate change. We need to raise awareness and expand the discussion and work together.” Isabel Wallnoefer said that this was ultimately about intergenerational conflicts, stating that “I spoke with someone yesterday who said I’ve given up on seeing older people giving up power.” Loay replied “They don’t like the change, they are scared.” Silvia Amann added “It is about being represented. At the very end it is about the governance system. The key question is who has the right to decide.”

LaPora Lindsey, the author of The Bottom of the Food Chain: A Fresh Perspective on How Your Career Impact Goes Beyond Your Job Title, shared her thoughts on engaging young people in the water and heritage sectors from a human resources perspective. She illustrated her thinking with a few stories, about young people, Dan and Jessie, who felt that they didn’t have a seat at the table or weren’t always heard when they expressed opinions. By persevering, and taking a seat, they found that everyone liked the new perspective they brought, and respected their new ideas. She said “Here’s the thing. When you look at nature’s ecosystem, the bottom of the food chain is plants, call them power producers, they create their own energy. Going back to Dan, the story tells us we have to create our own opportunities.” She concluded with “Even if you are at the bottom of the food chain, it doesn’t mean that you have no power.”

The concluding roundtable brought together Eriberto Eulisse, Executive Director of the Water Museums Global Network; Isabel Wallnoefer, Program Manager at the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); and Maarten Ouboter, Technical Water Manager at Waternet. Eriberto counseled all present to “Try to think about how to expand the dialogue.” He continued “In history we have made a lot of mistakes. There are different ways of representing the past and looking at the future. There is often a sense of hopelessness, but we can take our theories into action. You have the ability to transform across different levels of the food chain. You can consider nature, and the natural cycle of water.”

Isabel Wallnoefer spoke of ‘the value of the water journey’ and how this related to water governance and water management. She spoke of action based research and the restoration of rivers by countries who are committing resources, stressing the need to get involved in the design process and “to try as much as possible to collaborate” citing the successes of UN1FY (the United International Federation of Youth for Water and Climate, which is being honored at the CSU 2023 Awards Dinner) and the World Youth Parliament for Water, which works with young leaders across borders to implement sustainable and practical solutions to global water issues. Maarten Ouboter concluded the discussion saying “I feel like what I can offer is to serve, whether in designing a road or preventing us from running into an abyss. Let’s try together to make the right connection to action. We need to create an exit platform of action. We should all be ‘free radicals’.”

Isabel Wallnoefer

A graphic summary of the proceedings was done in five remarkable ‘live visualization’ panels by artist Mark van Huystee, based in Delft, and included takeaway comments and conclusions, among which were the following:

  • Frustration about not being invited for the actual decision-making
  • Things first might have to go seriously wrong before leaders take action
  • Remaining optimistic – even small actions can help
  • Intergenerational discourse – combining dreams and memories
  • Include voices of people we haven’t heard
  • Art can serve as amplifier and catalyst
  • Taking insights about heritage to the future
  • We are creating the heritage for the future
  • Creating awareness
  • Elements of hope

Jakob and Matteo brought the program to a conclusion, with the goal of working together more collaboratively on the issues identified.

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