A voice for the world's young people

Sudanese climate activist Nisreen Elsaim tells CIWEM Junior President Emily Shipton what drives her to speak out on behalf of less developed countries and youth, and why listening to people’s real needs is so important

It is November 2021, at COP26 in Glasgow. The UK Prime Minister is chairing a session for world leaders about climate action and solidarity. Next to him, in the middle of the panel, sits Nisreen Elsaim, chair of the UN Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change.

She addresses the room with the authority of a world leader: “I have zero doubts that the climate movement around the world will succeed and come to a very good result. What I’m actually worried about is you. You have to choose the right side of this battle”.

Nisreen recounts the experience to me 18 months later.

“A newspaper article came out the next day contrasting the Australian Prime Minister who was sitting at the edge of the panel not able to get anyone’s attention, whilst I was sat in the middle next to the Prime Ministers of the UK and Italy.

All the lights were on me; not because I'm someone important, but because I was taking the ‘right’ side of this battle against climate change, while the Australian Prime Minister was not. So, it is true that we are not prime ministers. But as youth we are taking the right steps and making good decisions when it comes to our fight against climate change”.

In her two-year post as the Youth Advisory Group’s first chair, Nisreen was not afraid to speak up on behalf of less developed countries and youth.

“Our main mandate was to advise the Secretary General on his climate priority, his climate strategy and on engagements with various countries” Nisreen says.

“Whenever I spoke, he went from variable facial expressions to very serious facial expressions. They called it the Nisreen effect.

This may seem very small and very simple. But for me, it's huge because it means that I brought the real problems to the table; topics that even the Secretary General of the UN had difficulties in addressing.

We are talking about the things that are reality for people, and to the young people who are fighting climate change every day. They are challenging, but I am not afraid of bringing them to the floor.’

Nisreen tells me about her journey into climate activism. Growing up in Sudan, she felt surrounded by political insecurity. The turning point for her came in 2012 while she was studying physics at university.

“The students held demonstrations against some of the dictatorship’s actions. The next day, some people from the regime came to our exam hall where we were taking our first semester exams. They tore up the exam papers and they threw two students from the window. One of them died. One of them was seriously injured. It was terrifying”.

The university was forced to close for several months and it left Nisreen reeling. She had so much knowledge about science, as did thousands of others, but she had no power – the politicians were the ones making decisions. She began researching the ways in which scientists in different countries were part of decision-making processes and discovered science diplomacy. In particular, she tells me that two big topics stood out to her: transboundary water management, and climate change.

She began volunteering with the Sudanese Environment Conservation Society. In 2016 she established the Sudan Youth Organisation for Climate Change and by 2018 had become a junior negotiator with the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change (AGN), and part of the Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance. In 2019 she was invited to the Abu Dhabi Youth Voices conference and subsequently asked to co-organise the first ever UN Youth Climate Summit held at the same time as the UN General Assembly in New York. Her nomination onto the UN Youth Advisory Group was born out of years of hard work and determination.

Nisreen believes that the Advisory Group has changed the culture around youth engagement: ‘I think we influenced the general perception about youth participation; sometimes it can be tokenistic – there are young people in the room, but they are just there for decoration to look young. We changed that to actual meaningful engagement for young people in different places.’

But her experience wasn’t without its own frustrations, one of which was needing to follow UN protocols rather than work as independent activists.

‘It was really hard to make any changes’, she explains. ‘Change doesn't arise from routine. It doesn't come by doing things in the same way. If we carry on with business as usual for the climate, it is like breaking your leg repeatedly and then expecting a doctor to heal it every time. You can't keep doing that because at some point the bone will not be able to heal anymore.’

Nisreen’s experience of politics has in many ways been one of restriction – from the extremes of a dictatorship to the bureaucracy of large international organisations. She says this is what’s driven her to now focus on the links between politics, insecurity, and the climate in a new documentary.

“There are a lot of current situations where climate change is causing conflicts and threatening the security of populations. When I say security, I mean securities; energy security, food security, water security amongst others.” The ultimate wicked problem.

Nisreen explains that political insecurity is a huge barrier to finding lasting solutions as people are impacted twice: ' They are impacted from climate change, but they are also impacted because they don't have governments to care for them.’

She explains that countries governments in countries like Sudan often underplay the urgency of environmental problems and that they rely on donors who are put off by the risk involved in working with unstable countries. “If donors do commit funding”, she explains, “then they often pour it into one specific area such as human rights as dictated by them instead of really asking people what their needs are”.

Nisreen goes on to tell me why this is so important when designing solutions:

“There is a refugee camp in Sudan where living conditions are poor. I wrote a proposal for a small project costing $5,000 to plant some trees and create artwork with kids in the area to improve the environment.

However, when I visited, I discovered that they don’t have running water, but instead have to purchase it which takes up more than 80 per cent of their income. One of the refugees said to me “I am thirsty, my children are thirsty, so how do expect me to be able to irrigate a tree?” It was just a miserable situation. So, we also worked with other organisations to provide water for them. But what started as wall painting and tree planting ended up trying to solve far bigger problems way beyond the $5000 that we proposed.”

If there is a message in this to water and environmental professionals across the sector, it’s that unless solutions really address the needs of the people they are supposed to benefit, then we will never truly design wicked solutions. Engagement with local communities should be key to identifying solutions and benefits, and funding should place value on those benefits.

Just weeks after I interviewed Nisreen, terrible news hit that another civil war had broken out in Sudan. Nisreen’s final remark to me is poignant: “If we continue discussing one problem without discussing other related problems, it's not going to be enough. Finding holistic, wicked solutions to a problem is the only way we can survive.”

Emily Shipton GradCIWEM is a flood modelling team leader at the Environment Agency and is CIWEM's Junior President

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