As countries and regions around the world face the negative effects of climate change and an increasing demand for water resources, the need for appropriate water governance grows day by day. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water, two out of five people do not have a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation. The impacts of COVID-19 make it more urgent for securing clean water for everyone, as access to water, sanitation and hygiene services is fundamental to fighting the virus. The World Water Day, celebrated every year on 22 March, is perfect timing for us to learn about how young people can help solve issues related to water.

A drop of contaminated water is slowly poured into an ordinary filter, which at the bottom contains chemicals such as silica, magnesium carbonate and biochar. Purified water comes out of the bottom end of the filter, which is then put into contact with a flow sensor. After transmitting relevant data to a cloud server, the sensor comes back with a “green light”, indicating that the water has been purified and is ready for consumption. This process takes less than ten minutes, and removes over 94 per cent of pesticides and 95 per cent of microplastics.  

This process is astounding in two ways. First, this filter has the potential to run under the cost of US $1 a month, made possible by integrating environmentally friendly components such as biomass in the filtering process. Secondly the author, Eshani Jha, was just a high school student when she submitted this idea to the Stockholm Junior Water prize, and ended up as its winner in 2021. Eshani said in her presentation, "This kind of research is especially important in today's world, with antibiotics and microplastics on the rise due to COVID-19 - disposable masks, gloves and packaging." She has already begun working with a large automobile manufacturer to have the filter mass produced.

The Stockholm Water Institute (SIWI), a non-profit institution based in Sweden, has held the Stockholm Junior Water prize every year since 1997 with the aim of encouraging more young people to take part in solving water challenges. In a report published in 2021, SIWI stated that “Broadening the group of current decision-makers to include youth perspectives is important – not just for representation and the right to participation, but also to ensure continuity in policy and long-term success.” Elizabeth Yaari, Operations Team Lead for Transboundary Water Cooperation at SIWI, believes that “these young people will be emerging from universities and education backgrounds that have given them up-to-date technical skills, which are highly sought after in the field of water”.

Today’s youth are not only direct beneficiaries of the existing policies concerning water governance, but they are also the ones that need to work to ensure access to clean water in the coming decades, if not centuries. It is to this end that many institutions around the world are redoubling their efforts to saw the seeds for the next generation.

At the forefront of this type of effort is the Young Water Diplomats (YWD) Program, a six-month lecture programme run by IHE Delft, a research institution in the Netherlands. Their objective is to educate youth with basic understanding of technical and hydrological knowledge to become “water diplomats”, who will be the ones in the future to work with various stakeholders to promote international cooperation in the field of water resources. The 2021 edition of the programme invited lecturers including Professor Aaaron Wolf, a world-renowned water expert and negotiator, as well as Dr. Shreedar Maskey, an engineer with expertise in modeling water resource systems and mapping climate change assessments.

Jenniver Sehring, an organizer of the Program says, “If you want to change a mindset or encourage people to think outside the box, it is often easier to start with young people.” The participants, upon completion of the Program, are expected to take these skills back to their countries of origin and apply them in whatever career they go into, be it the public sector, the private sector, a non-profit organization or academia.

Providing better access to water is one of the key priorities of the United Nations. The UN designates “Clean Water and Sanitation” as its Sustainable Development Goal 6 and encourages stakeholders to ensure availability and sustainable management of water. Moreover, the UN General Assembly in 2016 declared 2018-2028 as the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development as a wake-up call to the world which is due to face a 40 per cent shortfall in freshwater resources by 2030. Despite all the dismaying projections, the future of water governance may not be so grim with the wave of youth willing to take on this challenge.