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Together with experts from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, water boards and the Dutch Water Authorities, AT Osborne employees Leen Oosterom and Roel Sillevis Smitt are engaged in helping Ethiopian authorities and water users create agreements concerning water governance and water distribution in the Awash River Basin.
Ask questions and earn trust
Project Manager Leen Oosterom on his motivation
Leen Oosterom received a phone call from the Dutch Water Authorities, the international arm of the Dutch Union of Water Boards, asking whether he, given his expertise and experience, would be interested in working on a project in Ethiopia. There wasn’t much of a budget, as it was ‘for and by authorities’. Leen was interested, but would his employer AT Osborne agree? He raised the issue and immediately received an enthusiastic response: “It’s closely linked to our core activities and we’ll also be making the world a better place.” The project is currently in full swing, with Leen at the helm.
The Awash River in Ethiopia – a waterway originating in the highlands and measuring 1,200 kilometres in length – passes through the Awash National Park to discharge into Lake Abbe. It is a beautiful area, a part of which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet it is also a source of tension: “If too much water is used upstream in dry spells, there’s not enough downstream”, explains Leen. “That’s why it’s important that the federal government, the Awash River Basin Authority and the regional authorities concerned make good practical arrangements about managing and distributing scarce water.”
Tension on all sides
When Leen came on board, the starting point was simply getting all parties around the table and drawing up an agreement. “In my opinion, that was a little too linear. Ethiopia has a different culture, and relationships are completely polarised. The regional authorities there have a high degree of autonomy, so whenever you talk about the scarce water resources you quickly get asked, who’s concern and responsibility is it? Each authority has something to say, and there’s also an ethnic component at play in all of this, which further stirs the feeling of dishonest distribution and mistrust. That’s the environment we operate in.”
Following several paths
The Dutch contribution to the project team consisted of Leen, AT Osborne colleague Roel Sillevis Smitt and colleagues from the Union of Water Boards and Rijkswaterstaat. The Ethiopian part of the team was made up of local experts. Taking a bit of a chance and without being formally invited, Leen left for Ethiopia to see how the parties on site could get started. “It was about exploration, asking questions, listening well and earning trust. I then threw in some ideas for the existing structures. Follow several paths, and see what works.”
One idea came about when he heard that the local experts were heading into the field to chart bottlenecks. “I suggested that people from all the authorities involved go on the trip. But something like that doesn’t happen overnight; you need to give them a gentle push in the right direction. I did that by saying, we’ll come back on such and such a date, will that work for you? By working in this way, you create momentum. We went back in August, and all parties were present. They then spent four days in the field together.”
Involved in discussions for the first time
Leen also went on the field trip, and saw great things happening. “We were at a sugar plantation. I saw people from the regional authorities, who usually just moaned about the federal government, relax and work with them. They told me that this was the first time they had actually had a discussion with them. I thought it was fantastic that we had been able to create such an environment.” Leen believes the importance of this cannot be underestimated. “Dutch people have learnt to work together over the centuries, as it has been essential for us to join forces and protect ourselves against water. Now we are taking these skills to a part of the world where people quickly turn to violence as a deep-rooted answer to conflicts. When you can talk to each other and can seek solutions together, everyone wins. You can never be sure, but there’s a big chance that we can prevent new conflicts with the steps we’re taking. If the Ethiopians succeed in agreeing on water, they’ll also be able to come to agreements on other difficult issues later on.”
More beautiful and better
There are other reasons, too, for Leen to enjoy the Awash project. “The pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. I love working with other cultures and long-term, content-rich and edgy tasks within a complex environment. I also enjoy using my skills to make something more beautiful and better. All of those come together here. It also fits in perfectly with what AT Osborne does. We are running this project for a symbolic fee, but at the same time it’s also an interesting international study. In the Netherlands, we contribute to improving our environment, but what do we need to be able to do the same in other countries, too?”
Governance surrounding water distribution from the Awash
The 1,200-kilometre-long Awash is hugely important for the production capacity of commercial plantations as well as citizens in the region. The pressure on the river is enormous, yet the governance is inadequate. The authorities and water users hardly talk to each other, let alone trust each other. As a result, (large-scale) conflicts are always around the corner, which creates a risk for the economic and societal stability in the region. The Dutch team, including Leen and Roel, are helping the local project team to set up and achieve collaboration between the authorities and users. This process started this year.
August saw the second mission to Ethiopia. This revolved around bringing stakeholders together, a joint study of the area around the Awash and a listing of the problems involved in using water from the Awash. Several meetings with the local project team and stakeholders were on the agenda for the weekend of 11 and 12 August. That in itself was progress, as representatives from the regional water bureaus and federal water authorities and the project team came together for the very first time to discuss the possibility of cooperation in solving issues around use of the river. The Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity joined the meeting to give the project his full support. What’s more, Leen gave the group a presentation on best practices for water agreements. All in all, a good start to the week!
During the week, Leen and Roel went on the road with the same group, visiting various plantations and locations along the river together with representatives of the river users. In addition to the stakeholders and the Dutch team getting to know each other on both a personal and professional level, everyone learned about (other) water users’ and authorities’ interests and issues.
On the Thursday, the Dutch team gave the whole group a training session on the Mutual Gains Approach. Friday saw the week end with a joint wrap-up session.
It sounds rather straightforward, but the activities carried out during the mission were unprecedented for the participants – the parties had never been involved in discussions in this way. However, you have to start somewhere, and the challenge remains how to expand on this. The parties largely continue to look for the solution from a technocratic (if the numbers add up) or legal (if all legislation and mandates are in order) perspective: only then do they believe they will be able to work together well.
The future: more efficient and honest distribution
In the coming months, Leen and Roel and the rest of their team will continue to coach the local project team on the collaboration process. The aim is to give the stakeholders the tools to make arrangements so that they can arrive at a more efficient and honest distribution of water. The second mission is certainly putting them on the right path to working together!