Youth River Parliament Berlin 2016

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Youth River Parliament Berlin 2016: Nurturing relations across borders for river protection


July 8th 2016: Youth river activists from 18 countries met with the German parliamentary group “Free flowing rivers” to discuss water protection issues.

It was the 4th youth river parliament hosted in cooperation with German parliamentarians, and by far the most international one. “Many languages, one water – one action for many rivers, ” said meeting moderator Rafael Ziegler (GETIDOS), pointing to the European Rivers Swimming Day. Parliamentarian and chair of the “Free-flowing rivers” group, Steffi Lemke, welcomed the participants who had come from 18 countries to discuss water protection issues in the Berlin River Camp, organized around this years’ Big Jump day. She expressed her hope that many people will join the Big Jump, including at her own river – the Elbe, a river crossing the former “iron-curtain” and the source of inspiration for the first Big Jump.

Since then the Big Jump has itself become a source of inspiration for the future. This year it is devoted to the 40th anniversary of the Bathing Directive. As over a third of the Big Jump 2016 locations aren’t official bathing spots, the big jumps also points to the next 40 years: where people would like to reconnect to their rivers, and where they demand river protection. Already in 2015, the youth river action network articulated these river protection demands comprehensively in a Youth Water Manifesto.

The first two presentations at the Parliament deepened two themes of the Youth Water Manifesto: youth inclusion and the protection of wild rivers. As the water protection goals of the European Water Framework Directive were not achieved by 2015 – the goal year of the directive – achievements of these goals becomes multi-generational task that calls for education and youth inclusion. In this context, Julie van Overmeieren from Good Planet Belgium presented the Scheldt Youth Parliament. It brings together youth from the three “Scheldt countries”: France, Netherlands and Belgium, who discuss water management issues together and make their own inputs. A current demand is the inclusion of a permanent youth representative in the Scheldt Water Commission. The idea of this parliament already travelled to Marocco last year, as Sterre van Widrum pointed out. But what about Europe’s other rivers? Could there not be permanent youth water parliaments?

Neza Poznjak, Slovenian coordinator of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe Campaign, then offered an input on the “dam tsunami” in Balkan countries. While the EU water framework directive seeks to achieve the good status of rivers, it does not specifically deal with “excellent status” and thus with wild rivers. But the recent developments in Balkan countries show that these are critically endangered with dam constructions (even in nature conservation areas) and with over 2000 dams in the planning. “Germany has already destroyed its wild rivers,” Neza pointed out “so why discuss this issue in the German parliament? Because German public and private banks provide financial support.” As she pointed out, among others KfW Bank and Deutsche Bank are involved in hydropower projects in the region. Accordingly, she appealed to the parliamentarians to ensure that there is scrutiny of public and private financial responsibility. “Only preserved rivers can provide real life quality” she said.

In response to these inputs, parliamentarian Peter Maiwald said that the primary responsibility is with the national government and the citizens who elect it. Still, there are connections he said, and hence a joint responsibility. In his view, it is therefore crucial that across Europe citizens make their voices heard – for youth inclusion, for river protection – write letters to parliamentarians and create joint pressure that creates a public for the discussion of arguments, the creation of majorities and the co-ordination of actions. Sascha Meier (Verein der Freunde des Deutsch-Polnischen Europa-Nationalparks Unteres Odertal e.V.), pointed out that it is by no means a Balkan issue only. The World Bank seeks to financially support a big project that would transform the river Oder and here too public, bottom-up pressure is needed. MP Steffi Lemke said that she is aware of these issues and currently trying to find out why publicly owned banks support such projects. With the example of the Great Barrier Reef, where financial support for a coal plant was withdrawn after much public pressure, she also argued that it is key for citizens to take action, write letters, contact the institutions and organize jointly.

The possibility of joint action in a very divided region was demonstrated by the next input from EcoPeace Middle East. EcoPeace brings together people from Israel, Jordan and Palestine to jointly work on the rehabilitation of the river Jordan. As Yoav Bar Ness and Sima Abu Beeh pointed out in the presentation, abstraction means that currently only 4% of the Jordan river is left; there is the danger that this river will entirely run dry. EcoPeace’s “Good water neighbor projects” tries to reverse this with a masterplan for river rehabilitation that combines top-down and bottom-up water protection policy. The EcoPeace participants showed the picture of a joint three country “Jordan Big Jump” and had prepared a touching movie: “We will, we will change it!

In the next input, MP Peter Maiwald endorsed the human right to water as a way to protect water and basic needs. Climate change and land use policies provoke droughts and floods, he said. Market logic pushes towards the commercialization of water. The incentive structures in most countries induce framers to use more fertilizers and pesticides resulting in additional pressure on water quality. The omnipresent use of plastic means yet more pollution in rivers and above all in oceans. For dealing with these pressures, he said, we need to put moral priorities first and make sure that the justice question behind water distribution is addressed. As the luxury consumption of some endangers the basic needs of others, Maiwald called for more sufficiency.

But what do we do if water use is required for jobs? Asked Eduard Tsikalia (Guardians of Ecology, Georgia). How is water sufficiency possible? And what do people think about an organization such as Eco Peace that puts forward such sustainability demands in a society that is already divided, asked Ariane Wrumnig from Generation Earth (Austria). Gilat Bartana from Eco Peace said that yes: there is a lot of antagonism, but this is also a strength. You need to start the discussion with people considered as “enemies” and then have patience. As she pointed out, Eco Peace’s relationship building has endured and deepened since 1994 - in spite of several wars in the region. People appreciate this effort. Baker Barakat, also from EcoPeace pointed out that with such endurance it is overtime possible for people to learn and come to appreciate the benefits of co-operation.

In his concluding summary, Maiwald stated that what he took away from the session is that youth voices offer a vision for sustainable water management and that it is not in vain to make an effort even if it may appear “small” at first. Above all, international cooperation and solidarity are important. It was thus fitting that Bela Kirkitadze (Guardians of Ecology) presented the Parlamentarians’ group with a unique river cocktail: a bottle with river water from the 18 countries participating in the Berlin River Camp 2016. Her own organization, she pointed out, emerged due to her participation in last year’s river camp in Brussels, and this year her organization in turn co-ordinated 17 Georgian youth team for water protection. Four teams were selected for the Berlin River Camp – adding to the diversity of the “river cocktail”, and beyond that to the relation building across borders in Europe and beyond.

(Source of the pictures: Justus Lodemann/Youth River Action Network)

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