Sunday, 9 April 2017

Connecting with the environment - written by Lis Bernhardt

My passions have always naturally revolved around conflict resolution, human rights and international relations, not the environment per se. I cared about human development, and when I was going to high school and university in the Great Lakes region of the Midwestern United States, the stereotype about people who studied the environment was that they were the “science nerds” who cared more about plants and animals than about people.

There were a couple of incidents early on, however, which opened my eyes to how interrelated human development and the environment are. First, as an undergrad at university in Chicago, I was involved in a community action to help a high school in an underprivileged area write a proposal to the city alderman to get more funding for their school. The school wanted more resources to help its students, who were behind in test scores. Then we dug a bit deeper and realized where the school was located – on the grounds of a former paint factory. There was lead contamination, which obviously can affect health and concentration; they got funding to test and clean up the soil in addition to other resources. That was one of the first moments where I realized that environmental issues often underlie development issues. 

Another defining moment for me came later, as a graduate student in Geneva, when I was doing research for my Masters thesis on human rights and development issues of an indigenous population in the US. I spent time on their reservation in the Four Corners region. I had gone into the research thinking the issues were about the right to access to education, development, practice their religion and culture. But after witnessing their ties to the land, which was facing environmental and land degradation including severe water scarcity, I realized once again that development problems often have environmental issues at their base – especially in the case of indigenous peoples. I realized you can’t just move these people to a new part of the country, you have to help them solve their problems where they are. In the same way, on a bigger scale, we only have one Earth to live on. I was fascinated, frustrated but also galvanized by this experience.

Shortly thereafter I started work at my first “real job”, for an environmental science organization. This was the early 2000s, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had just been passed. While inspirational and hugely influential, I felt that they had two major drawbacks which I had noticed during my Masters work: first, they didn’t cover people in “rich” countries who were living in developing country conditions (e.g. many indigenous populations), and secondly, they kept environmental and traditional human development issues, wrongly, on separate tracks.

In 2009 I moved from environmental issues in general to freshwater in particular, a topic I find fascinating because it cuts across and ties together all areas of development, including also my traditional loves of conflict resolution and human rights. I was hugely privileged to have been able to be in New York throughout 2015 and 2016, as part of UN-Water’s work to coordinate the UN input to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water and sanitation. It was a crazy but very exciting time.

Now, with the SDGs, we have finally brought together the environment with social and economic development, and acknowledged their interdependence. It is a wonderful opportunity for UN Environment, and I came to Nairobi in 2016 because I wanted to be part of helping this organization implement these ambitious new goals. In a way, the environment has a lot of work to do to “catch up” with the other areas of sustainable development, which got a 15 year head start with the MDGs. We have to better make the case to show how the environment underpins (or undermines) human development, peace and security.

Looking towards 2030, in the Freshwater Unit we’d like to see UN Environment help countries to monitor and report on targets related to freshwater quality, water resources management and healthy freshwater ecosystems. I’m excited about how technology is likely to help us get a much better understanding of what is happening in the world over the coming years, including the role of small gadgets and citizen scientists. We’ve also been talking to NASA and the European Space Agency. We have UNEP Live, which can show patterns and pictures using Big Data. With maps and time series you can see the changes; you can map where conflicts are and may occur in the future. There is growing understanding of the role that water can play in conflicts (or their prevention) - many believe, for example, that the conflict in Syria leading to mass migrations of people has water at its base. It would be great to bring all this information together to help policymakers understand these connections, help people better manage their water and perhaps even prevent conflicts from flaring up in the first place. 

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