UN water expert says disasters are learning opportunity for climate change

Stockholm (Sweden), Aug 31 (EFE).- At a time when drought and floods are becoming the new normal, Henk Ovink, United Nations Special Envoy for International Waters Affairs, stresses that natural disasters are an “X-ray” that exposes human problems from which we can learn to better tackle the climate crisis.

This is what this Dutch specialist, who advised former U.S. President Barack Obama after the impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, said in an interview with EFE during World Water Week 2022, which is currently being held in the Swedish capital.

Ovink, who also worked in Peru after the 2017 floods, stresses that Latin America can exert a “collective force” to put water security on the agenda and, at the same time, “relearn history” shared by communities, where “water always was and remains part of the culture on how to develop economies.”

In this sense, he believes that, with the region being particularly vulnerable to floods and other water-related natural disasters – the frequency and virulence of which, he says, have been aggravated by the climate crisis – it can seize the opportunity that disasters provide to “rethink and embrace the future.”

“In Latin America, rivers are polluted and overflow, coasts are overcrowded and therefore face the impacts of environmental disasters as much as climate-related ones, with longer periods of drought and heat events battering economies and food security,” he stressed.

But, at the same time, he argues that water “provides the best solution” because if you invest in water security, and “focus on understanding the complexity and how it relates to everything, value water for all the different values it brings us and manage it from the bottom up in the community,” he said “water can be a driving force for sustainable development, for inclusion, for equity and for resilience to climate change.”

The expert regrets that “we find ourselves too often in a post-disaster context, where we see the impacts of these disasters crippling our communities, our economies and the environment, and then we tend to only pick up the pieces and build back a little bit, sometimes a little better.”

However, while “a disaster is the x-ray that tells us all the interdependencies of what was lost, it also provides us with a way forward in a very holistic and comprehensive way that can be innovative and catalytic,” he explained.

In Peru, for example, the flooding caused by El Niño, which caused the country’s largest rivers to overflow, affecting cities and rural communities, allowed experts to take “a very progressive, forward-looking, comprehensive, collaborative approach based on that X-ray assessment,” he said.

Ovink also spoke about the “Water as Leverage” initiative, a project that the Dutch government has promoted in 30 cities in different Asian countries and which has just arrived in Cartagena (Colombia) to promote the role that the resource can play as a “catalyst for sustainable development and climate action.”

In the South American country, the program focuses on expanding water security by working with local communities, the private sector, innovators, institutional and international partners, as Ovink insists that water management “does not start with engineering infrastructure” but by generating partnerships between groups at the social level.

At World Water Week, where the multiple challenges of the water crisis – drought, pollution, universal access to the resource, efficiency and fair pricing, among other issues – “water governance” and democratization are common topics.

“Valuing water is about attending to all the values of water in society: protecting our natural resources, focusing on education, empowerment and innovation, and it’s also about empowering inclusion,” Ovink said.

This is one of the conclusions drawn from his experience in New York, which was hit by Hurricane Sandy -a phenomenon that claimed the lives of more than 40 people and caused some 19 billion dollars in damage to the city. Ovink highlights the need to involve the whole of society in “building coalitions, overcoming distrust and trying to find and identify opportunities that can have a real impact.” EFE


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