Unlocking youth potential in water resilience and climate action


Three young climate leaders argue that impactful water resilience and climate change adaptation depends on meaningfully supported and empowered young people across all sectors and levels. Michelle Meaclem (World Federation of Engineering Organisations/Tonkin + Taylor), Rianna Gonzales (Global Water Partnership), and Elysa Vaillancourt (International Secretariat for Water) report.

The world is shaped by the people who live in it, and 49% of the world’s population is under 30 – young people have the motivation and opportunity to define our present and future.

Climate change adaptation is the most important challenge of our century. It cannot be accomplished by a single actor, a single country or a single generation. It is a relay race where every generation must build on each other’s strengths and work together to reach the finish line.

Climate change is impacting the water environment and all who depend on it. This ultimately impacts all aspects of life, including food and energy security, health and sanitation, the economy and governance (the political, social and economic and administrative decision-making systems in place that influence water’s use and management). The Māori, the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, whakatauki (proverb) “Ka ora te wai, ka ora te whenua, ka ora ngā tāngata” (if the water is healthy, the land is healthy, the people are healthy) expresses one worldview on the importance of protecting water bodies (which will be increasingly threatened in a changing climate).

Young people will be amongst the most affected by climate change and must be meaningfully engaged in water resilience and climate change adaptation – the future of our planet depends on it. The youth are already mobilised in water resilience under climate change – leading movements and initiatives, policy-making, conducting academic research, and undertaking design and construction of water infrastructure. Despite showing capacity and capability, young people continue to face barriers to access knowledge, innovate, prove their competence, and adapt to the complex and dynamic nature of water resources and climate change.

What are the barriers for young people to contribute meaningfully to water resilience? 

Young people face inevitable technical and financial gaps because of barriers such as access to finance, support from organisations involved in the water sector, marginalisation from decision-making and planning processes, access to policy-making opportunities, access to education, and data transparency, quality and availability.

Youth-led initiatives can be limited by restrictive reporting requirements and prescriptive approaches. Gideon Commey from the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement reflects:

“In most cases, you work with international organisations, and within their head they have an idea of how the project should go… and how the reporting should go… [and] you don’t even enjoy the project you are doing because all that you are thinking about is finishing the project and the reporting”. 

Bertha Yau, a young Environmental Consultant from Hong Kong, notes that some technical barriers are because “[the] climate change situation around the globe is ever-changing and [the] data available is limited… As youth, we sometimes do not dare to voice our opinions that are different from the “traditional way of doing”, which in turn hinder[s] our participation.”

Without increased mobilisation of and access to finance, the youth cannot contribute their full capacity. Juana Andrea Orozco Martinez, a leader from the Proyecto Madre Tierra project described below, highlights that many young people lack resources for their initiatives.

“Setting up initiatives around climate change adaptation and mitigation, [and] the preservation of water sources, requires the investment of economic resources which many young people in their different countries do not have.” [translated from Spanish]  

What are the solutions?

Unlocking young people’s full potential in water resilience requires commitment from everyone. Areas that will allow the youth to fully engage in water resilience include:

  • Inclusive actioncollaborating with the youth in all aspects of project design and implementation, including policy- and decision-making.
  • Data strategies and sharing: making water resources’ data and the impacts of climate initiatives transparent and available for young people (particularly in developing nations) to act, collaborate locally and internationally, and allow for effective evidence-based decision-making.
  • Finance: inclusive financing opportunities that are easily accessible and empower youth to successfully implement their initiatives and community projects.
  • Listeningputting aside preconceived ideas and solutions to hear what youth have to contribute and working together to achieve these ideas.

Alex Cartwright, a climate and risk consultant based in New Zealand, reflects:

“Often our brightest ideas come from passionate and driven youth, yet the success of their ideas is so often in the hands of experienced individuals who may or may not have time for youth. Through listening to [the] youth we are listening to our future.” 

Unity is the only way we can adapt to climate change. Recognising the barriers faced by youth and working towards full inclusion will take us a step closer to the finish line.

Investing in youth capability reaps multiple benefits 

Investing in young people financially and in their technical skills improves community resilience and empowers future generations. Initiatives, such as the Youth for Water and Climate platform initiated by the International Secretariat for Water and the Global Water Partnership, have proven that giving youth financial and technical support truly impacts their communities.

Let’s explore some projects where young people are passionately leading, while developing and using their skills.

Proyecto Madre Tierra (the Mother Earth Project)

Young women in the Zenú Nuevo Caribia Indigenous Ethnic Community of the municipality of Necoclí, Colombia contribute significantly to their community’s food security, economic prosperity and social wellbeing. They provide home education and housework, agricultural services, and artisan work with their own grown cane materials. This project, which will run until the end of the year, will help the 93 families in this community protect their water sources through reforestation. 20 young women in the community aged 18-35 will lead and implement this project through promoting nature-based adaptation solutions (for example reforestation, pruning, propagation of forest cover along the shores of the El Corcobao stream) and undergoing leadership training. Through this ecological restoration, the project will contribute to climate change adaptation by reducing overflow from the stream due to heavy rain and floods. Overflow from the stream also leads to drinking water contamination and affects public health. This project was funded and supported as part of the 2nd Global Youth Take Action call for projects on the Youth for Water and Climate platform.

Climate change adaptation of infrastructure in rural Alaska native communities

Jessica Taylor’s (Civil Engineer and PhD candidate, Iowa State University) research focuses on climate change adaptation of infrastructure (including water infrastructure) in rural Alaska Native communities. Many small and rural communities are adapting at a community scale by planning entire or partial community relocation or protect-in-place through physical barriers, such as sea walls. Through engagement with Tribal, governmental, non-profit, practitioner, and community stakeholders, Jessica’s research identified socio-cultural, institutional, and economic barriers to infrastructure adaptation. Jessica is also co-producing research with an Alaska Native community to understand community perceptions and priorities for addressing concerns to support community-based participation in the adaptation process. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation through the Navigating the New Arctic programme and aims to support community-driven adaptation and research in partnership with Alaska Native communities.

Stakeholder meeting (community, Federal and State government, Tribal, non-profit, and private stakeholders) in the YK Delta region to address environmental concerns. Courtesy of Jessica Taylor.

Join us at COP26

We, the International Secretariat for Water, the Global Water Partnership and the and the WFEO Young Engineers Working Group on Climate Action, look forward to exchanging with youth and technical and financial experts during the “Enhancing Climate Resilience by building the capacity of Youth in water” event on Friday 5 November at 19h00 (GMT). We will explore the capabilities of young people, host an intergenerational panel to discuss challenges and solutions, and release our joint youth statement to COP26 parties. Please join us online by registering here.

Featured photo: Proyecto Madre Tierra project