In the wake of the most serious flooding in recent memory, politicians and communities across the Rhine basin are discussing how to build back better following this devastation. The answer may lie in the better inclusion of the youth and their perspectives in decision making processes.
The unprecedented rainfall across areas of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in July have led many to conclude that human-influenced climate change has played a significant role in these events. However, the scale and devastation of the rainfall was beyond what many models predicted, with even climate scientists being surprised at the scale of the flood. Germany was the worst hit of the affected countries, with previous daily rainfall records being nearly doubled, leading to nearly 150 deaths and thousands of homes destroyed.
With such “once in a century” extreme weather events primed to become “once in a decade”, the community that will be most impacted - and therefore will need to be able to adapt the most - is the youth. While the challenge is significant, these recent events also indicate that a significant change is needed in climate adaptation planning across the Rhine basin. As part of these changes, the youth must be given a prominent voice to influence the future of the Rhine basin.
What’s the key to engaging youth?
Due to their increasing occurrence, extreme weather events will disproportionately impact young water users. It is therefore essential that their perspectives and priorities are allowed to influence and guide policy of today. In order to do this, we first need to ensure that three key goals are achieved: that youth are aware of the challenges posed by climate change; that they are empowered to form and share their perspectives; and that these perspectives are heard by decision makers.
Building awareness: Extreme weather events (such as the recent flooding) naturally shift the focus of discussion to the topic of climate change and adaptation. While this helps to raise awareness of these issues amongst the youth, it is essential that climate adaptation remains a central topic within the Rhine basin. Education naturally forms a central pillar of awareness raising. But again, education does not always have to take a traditional format. For example, involvement of the youth in citizen science projects or climate networks can also allow young people in the Rhine basin to develop their knowledge of the changing climate. Youth for the Rhine, a youth-led initiative, aims to do exactly this via its Pilot Project, by analyzing the current perspectives and knowledge of young inhabitants of the Rhine region, as well as establishing educational outreach initiatives throughout the basin.
Ensuring Empowerment: Youth empowerment can be supported in a variety of ways. It is particularly important to encourage transboundary communication amongst the youth. The policies and adaptation measures that have been implemented across the various countries of the Rhine basin have had varying levels of success, as have the attempts of the youth to influence these measures. It is vital that the lessons learned by the youth can be shared across the region. The Online Youth Consultation of Youth for the Rhine ensures that young end-users across the Rhine Basin are connected, and empowered (through online events and consultations) to identify their priorities and perceptions on issues related to climate change and adaptation.
Voicing Perspectives: Finally, the perspectives of youth should significantly influence the international discussion of climate adaptation. Platforms and pathways for the youth must be available, so that their perspectives reach key decision makers nationally and internationally. For this stage in particular, bottom-up initiatives originating from the youth are essential. By working bottom-up it ensures that the undiluted voice of the youth is heard and that young water users are empowered and engaged.
There are already a variety of platforms through which this can be done, through initiatives such as Youth for the Rhine, or through youth representatives at national or regional water associations. These recent events, therefore, offer an opportunity to reset the current status quo, and allow youth to influence climate policy. This is one of the key aims of Youth for the Rhine, to ensure that the voice of the youth can be heard at the national and European level.