In this series of interviews we present members of our AIWW community. This time: Li An Phoa, founder of Drinkable Rivers Foundation. The Drinkable Rivers Foundation works towards a world with drinkable rivers, by raising awareness and mobilising people to protect rivers with concrete action. Recently Li An and AIWW have articulated the new Amsterdam Agreement: Mayors for Drinkable Rivers.

Li An: “AIWW2021 will be my first one to experience and I’m looking forward learning from other people, ideas and projects at such an impactful international gathering. I am very happy and proud that drinkable rivers will be a theme during AIWW 2021. For me personally, it will be an opportunity to meet a broad group of people who are part of the international water sector. I hope to bring a different way of thinking and acting. I see there is a lot of focus on technical approaches to many of our water challenges. I believe it is important to focus more on fostering a culture of care for our environment in general and our waters in particular. Such a culture of care is absolutely essential for all life on earth. Caring for our rivers means caring for ourselves, because fresh water is our lifeline.”

Photo credit: Janita Sassen

Heart and soul

Li An Phoa throws her heart and soul in the protection of rivers. “When I was 24, I joined a group of environmental activists who canoed from the source of the Rupert River in subarctic Québec to its mouth in the Canadian James Bay. All along the way, we could drink water straight from the river. Three years later, I came back and I could not drink from the Rupert anymore. The river was polluted as a result of dams and mining. Fish died, people got ill. The delicate balance in the ecosystem was destroyed. I realised that drinkable rivers are an indicator of healthy living. Indeed, when we can drink from our rivers, it means that a whole ecosystem is healthy and in balance. Rivers can only be drinkable when all actions and relations in an entire watershed contribute.”

For Li An meeting other people within the water sector is vital. “Only since a few years I have started to meet people from the water sector. I experience these people as very committed and enthusiastic. There is much knowledge, expertise and skilfulness. Outside the water sector, many people do not know where their drinking water is coming from, how it is treated, nor where their waste water is going and how this is treated. In the Netherlands I am very proud that we have these bioregional water authorities and elections, but I am shocked to notice how little an average Dutch person knows what the waterboards do and mean even though people are used to pay them water taxes. Interestingly enough, I noticed that no one really resists to the idea of drinkable rivers as of yet. Instead, a lot of people love it and want to take action to make their rivers drinkable again. The big question, however, is how. As the water quality in our rivers is the resultant of what happens in the entire watershed, all actions of everyone, every day, matter.”

From ego to eco

For Li An these are the main challenges she is facing, with regards to climate change and the speeding up of the circular economy. “The first challenge is to move from ego to eco, currently ‘leadership’ at all levels is based more on ego and personal win rather than on ecosystem health and the integrity of entire watershed landscapes. The second challenge is the conviction that it is impossible to change our economic growth paradigm and our comfortable ways of living. We need to realise that this is possible, that this can be done if we start ourselves and go step by step.The third, that the water sector remains too much an island rather than seeing itself as an integral part of all these other sectors. I see an opportunity for the water sector to cross disciplines and really take a leadership role.”

For the upcoming five years Phoa lists a few aspirations. “With Drinkable Rivers we aim to reach 100 million people by 2025. We will do so with our tv-series, a documentary, our book, and by initiating inspiring river walks, like the 1000 km Meuse walk in 2018.

Apart from raising awareness, we want to give people the tools to contribute towards a world with drinkable rivers. We do so on different levels: governments, companies and civil society. With the network Mayors for Drinkable Rivers, we want to give mayors the tools and policy ideas that can help them to gradually improve the water quality of rivers in their villages and cities. We will initiate a similar network of business leaders that want to contribute towards drinkable rivers. Finally, as I have mentioned earlier, all actions of everyone, every day, matter. So we need all people to know how they can do their part. We are working on a toolkit that ordinary people all around the world can use freely to contribute towards a world with drinkable rivers.”

Economy of care

Another important root cause underlying many of our challenges, also for the water sector, lies in the way we have structured our economy, Li An says. “Our current societal compass is pointing to economic growth. As long as the economy grows, the mantra goes, it’s good for all of us. Well, it is not. We need to establish an economy of care, instead of an economy of greed. When we care for what takes care of us, there will be enough for everyone. Think about what happened to the Rupert River. With a single intervention on the basis of a compass geared towards economic growth (electricity production and temporary job creation), the water was no longer drinkable and the quality of life in the entire watershed of the Rupert was destroyed. Clearly, that decision was not good for all of us. Instead, caring for a drinkable river is good for all life forms, and even free for everyone as well. Our focus on economic growth results in the allowance and promotion of the development and leakage of countless so-called contaminants of emerging concern. In the Netherlands alone, more than 50.000 of these substances seep into our environment every day. Some of them even end up in our drinking water as an estimated 20% cannot be filtered out. For example, at least 140.000 kilos of medicine residues (not even including metformin, a treatment for diabetes) are found in the river Meuse every year. All around the world, every two seconds a new unknown substance enters our living environment. These substances are known as externalities – side effects of a compass that is pointing in the wrong direction. Today, no one can ignore these side effects any longer. In the Meuse watershed alone, 15 million people depend on the river for drinking water. It would be great if we could discuss these fundamentals at AIWW 2021.”

Photo credit featured image: Henk Ganzeboom