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Blog // Interview with first-ever NL Regional Envoy for Water & Energy Security in MENA

Tessa Terpstra is a Deputy Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, currently dealing with protocol and host country affairs. She has over 15 years of experience working within climate and security issues within the MENA region, most notably Jordan and Egypt. Until March this year, Tessa was based in Amman as the first-ever MENA Regional Envoy for Water and Energy Security for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over the past four years, she has been engaged in activities and policy dialogue on resource efficiency and climate change with governments, private sector, civil society and donors in the Arab region. As part of PSI, Tessa established the PSI MENA Regional Chapter with the American University of Beirut.

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© International Labour Organisation/ Flickr, Abdel Hameed Al Nasier​/ILO, 2018/09, Jordan

You spent four years living and working in the MENA region, how will climate change impact regional security?

Given the calculations of the Max Planck Institute in 2016 that the hottest days in the region now will be the coolest by the end of the century, I think the impact of climate change on security in the region will be serious. And it is already tangible today. I remember when I started in Jordan as a Dutch Regional Envoy in 2016¸ a young female engineer working for the Jordanian Ministry of Water said to me: ‘Climate change might be some future notion to you, but not for us. We live climate change today.’ She was talking about rising water scarcity due to climate change.

Many people, including myself, expect tensions over diminishing water availability to increase between water stakeholders and between states. The agriculture sector, as one of the biggest water consumers, will come under stress, leading to potential food insecurity and loss of livelihoods. In the Syrian conflict, we have seen that severe and prolonged droughts might lead to internal displacement, putting stress on recipient communities that might be under-resourced themselves already. It then depends on the context of how those tensions play out. There are some interesting studies suggesting that a country can absorb these rising tensions if social safety nets are in place, to compensate farmers for the loss of harvests for instance.

Tessa Terpstra, Deputy Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Tessa Terpstra, Deputy Director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Do you see an increase in collaboration amongst MENA countries? How are these synergies contributing to greater regional stability?

I do see an increase in sense of urgency. Relevant ministries see the need for reform and university departments are developing courses to educate a new generation in sustainability. Civil society organisations work with school kids as climate ambassadors and run projects to work with local communities on waste collection and environmental awareness. Municipalities participate in EU funded projects to install energy-efficient street lighting and businesses see there is money to be made by investing in a green economy.

These are good and promising developments within countries, but they are fragmented. Much more could be achieved if there was more regional cooperation between countries, such as water-sharing agreements or regional food trade. Or generation of renewable energy in one country and trading that for desalinated water from another country. Concerted efforts to address shortages regionally could have a huge impact and lead to much more stability in the long term.

How do you evaluate the regional governments' responses to the climate security issues within hard security? How can this be enhanced and what role can the Netherlands play?

All countries in the Arab region have climate action plans. These are the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, under the Paris Agreement. So governments have serious plans for climate action. Implementation sometimes lags behind, which is why the Netherlands helps some of these countries to implement their NDC. Perhaps in some countries, it would help coordination within government if climate change and climate-related scarcity such as water would be proclaimed a matter of national security. I haven’t seen this being the case.

Regarding hard security, I agree the climate is not seen through a hard security lens. And I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. Securitisation might hinder a public debate about climate change and stop people from being engaged on climate action. And that is exactly what is needed in the long run if we want a transformation to take place. We need broad engagement and a larger role for women and youth. The Netherlands provides knowledge and expertise, for example through cooperation between the IHE Delft water institute and Wageningen University with academic institutes in MENA countries. We introduce farmers and other businesses to sustainable technology and advise ministries on policy reform. And we facilitate interaction between green entrepreneurs and activists. We try to show what works to all those who are interested, including the security community.

How do you evaluate the EU efforts in supporting initiatives of climate change mitigation or adaption in MENA?

The EU has a longstanding engagement with its Southern neighbourhood when it comes to climate mitigation, such as through a multi-year project for energy efficiency. The EU also invests heavily in green economies through its country programs and in climate adaptation infrastructure through the European Investment Bank. And the EU has many regional projects working with civil society, youth and media to raise awareness about sustainability.

Furthermore, the EU created networks of academic institutes to do climate-related research. With the new Green Deal, I expect an even larger push from the EU for investment in green economies and climate mitigation as well as adaptation. If anything could be improved, it is the programming of the multilateral development banks and the other international financial institutions, which should use the post-Covid financial aid packages for green recovery. Now is our chance to build back better, as UN Secretary-General Guterres has urged us to do. The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for multiple security crises coming our way, due to climate change. The response to the pandemic is our chance to really reform our systems.

How do you think dialogue and research could bring more awareness and action from the security community in MENA? And how can the Netherlands support it?

I think you are doing a great job already. The Planetary Security Initiative was a new way of looking at climate and, for a lot of people, still is. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was ahead of the curve in 2016 by establishing both the Planetary Security Initiative and the MENA regional hub for climate and security, which we built over the past years. Over the next five to ten years, I am sure we will see the security aspects of climate gain momentum among different communities, including the security community. Dialogue and policy-oriented research help build that momentum.

More awareness among the security community could definitely lead to a stronger sense of urgency among governments and place climate change higher on the political agenda. Also, in my experience living and working in the Middle East over the past four years, it is easier to mobilize political will if intervention strategies are clear, realistic and affordable. This means getting the most relevant actors around the table, agreeing on a way ahead and attracting the money to finance it. Your dialogue and research can support that approach by bringing local voices to the table and giving them access to the policies and programs developed in multilateral fora and institutions. The Netherlands helps these dialogues further with expertise and networks as described above, and possibly project funding.

You have worked with different sectors on energy, food and water security in MENA, including civil society. What is the biggest challenge, aside from funding, civil society is facing when working on the issue of climate change and the climate- security nexus?

Apart from PSI, not many civil society organisations focus on the relation between climate and security in the broader sense. In the region itself, there is Ecopeace Middle East with offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Amman, working on environmental peacebuilding. The West Asia and North Africa or WANA Institute in Jordan work on security issues, among others climate change. And there are a few local organisations working on local concerns about climate and environment. For most organisations, however, the silos are simply too strong: security is seen to be for the hard-boiled, the climate is left to the softies. But there is hope: younger generations get it. They see both the threats of climate change and the vast opportunities of a green economy. They don’t make a distinction between higher politics and development aid. They do see the connection between climate and security. Give them the floor and your initiatives will fly.

This article was originally published on the website of the Planetary Security Initiative and was republished with the kind permission of the authors.

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