Activist Elisabeth Wathuti: 'The climate crisis is escalating'

The Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti is working towards COP27. Her message to Zuhal Demir is clear: 'People with a seat at the negotiating table have a responsibility to be present themselves.'

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The day after Walk for our Future, the climate march of Klimaatcoalitie, we met Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wanjiru Wathuti. She has had to face the consequences of climate disruption in her own country and now calls on world leaders to convince them to finance the loss and damage already suffered.

Open letter

Elizabeth Wathuti published an open letter on the website of OXFAM to call on world leaders to pay for the damage suffered because of the climate catastrophe. This letter has been signed over 100,000 times.

We spoke to her in light of COP27, the annual climate conference celebrating its 27th anniversary while taking place in Egypt. In 2021 the world got to know Wathuti when she addressed the collected world leadership at COP26 in Glasgow. In 2022 she published an open letter to make clear the importance of support by organisers and world leaders to affected communities .

How did you become a climate activist?

Elizabeth Wathuti: 'I grew up in one of the most forested areas in Kenya. When I was young, the waterways flowing through our forests were still clear. Systematically, however, the water levels in my area went down. So from a young age, I really saw the ecosystem I lived in change.'

'Currently, we have been experiencing persistent drought for five rain seasons'

'Later, when I was working with children, I started to appreciate nature in my area more and more through those children. For example, I helped children plant trees on the playground and taught them how to grow their own food. That way those kids could feel themselves a part of the solution to climate disruption.'

How did that ecological awareness evolve into activism?

'I began to see that not everyone felt part of nature in the same way. It became increasingly clear to me that it was essential to give what we were doing locally an international platform. After all, the trees that I planted with those kids back then won't survive either if we go to a planet that is, say, 2.7 degrees Celsius warmer.'

'I have personally experienced how the climate has become increasingly unpredictable. Crops fail more often in my region and people no longer know when to plant which crops to survive. I travel the world to give an international audience to the voices of the people who are greatly affected by climate change. Hopefully in this way I can encourage world leaders to take much-needed action.'

How bad is the situation in Kenya right now?

'Currently, we have been experiencing persistent drought for five wet seasons. The lives of nearly two million people are threatened as a result. In particular, the Wajir community in the Northeast, where I have spent a lot of time. That community depends on their livestock for eighty percent of their food supply, but have lost hundreds of animals in recent years. Now only the carcasses of those animals remain lying on the roads .'

'Everything that is happening now is the result of too many years without appropriate climate action'

'In addition, the drought also makes it more difficult to grow crops. This increases the risk of malnutrition even more. Everyone is affected by this, but children have a particularly hard time. For example, babies also suffer directly as well as through their mothers' malnutrition. When mothers are malnourished, they cannot produce enough milk to suckle their children.'

'Those effects on their livestock also mean that children's education is often abruptly interrupted. Parents who have no other form of income stop their children from going to school. For example, I know a 10-year-old girl who has to go searching for water for miles on end every day with her family's remaining goats. If she doesn't find enough water along the way, she sometimes has to return with fewer goats than she left with.'

'Moreover, for girls like her, life becomes much more unsafe. The water crisis and food security increase violence. As people are forced to look for water in other areas, they often come into conflict with other communities. The climate crisis is really escalating there.'

How are politicians in Kenya dealing with the problem?

'We just got a new government that seems promising. They believe that the climate crisis will be at the top of their agenda in the next few years and have immediately put that promise into practice. Two days after that government was formed, they have already started distributing food packages to drought victims. We will have to wait and see how their approach evolves.'

How can Global North governments help countries like Kenya?

'Everything that is happening now is the result of many years without appropriate climate action. Despite warnings from scientists and communities already affected, the climate crisis has remained ignored for a long time. Governments from the Global North therefore have a responsibility to help those most affected by the climate crisis.'

'What they are experiencing now in Wallonia has been a reality for many of us in frontline communities for years'

'Now that countries in the Global North are also beginning to feel the impact, I hope those countries will finally wake up and grab their responsibility with both arms. For example, I went to visit the flood victims in Wallonia. I had tremendously interesting conversations with those people. What they are experiencing now has been a reality for many of us in frontline communities for years.'

'Victims receive hardly any support despite the fact that those who are most affected are often the least responsible for the climate crisis. So it's important for rich countries to start supporting communities that are affected immediately.'

What do you think that support should look like?

'The beginning of support is recognizing that the situation we are in now was created by their lack of action. People who are suffering now need support from all over the world. We need international solidarity. We need to show that we care about those people.'

'Having to pay for disasters you didn't create yourself is simply unjust!'

'Promises around Loss and Damage funding (term used by the UNFCCC to name the damage caused by human climate change, ed.) have already been made and now we need to make sure those promises are kept. Not every rich country finds this problem as urgent. It is an ongoing fight to put it on the agenda.'

'Some countries want to address this by strengthening existing financing, but it has failed. Now loans are often given to countries that have suffered damage. Those loans make it impossible for people to recover as they are pushed even more heavily into debt. Having to pay for disasters you didn't create yourself is simply unjust!'

Are you optimistic about what COP27 can achieve regarding Loss and Damage?

'This COP will be decisive, although I don't know if I can be optimistic. Leaders should seize COP27 as an opportunity to put international solidarity and climate justice at the center. We will continue to pound on that nail.'

'It is important that the funds that such an organization can distribute go directly to the affected communities'

'It is impressive how organizations and young people are coming together to put and keep this issue on the agenda. Leaders should take an example from that. I have written an open letter that I am going to personally hand over to the president of the COP to hold this example up to them. The letter already has over 100,000 signatories and signatures keep coming in.'

When will COP27 be a success for you?

'At the previous Conference of the Parties, world leaders decided to keep talking about loss and damage. Such an outcome is obviously insufficient for this COP. We demand that an organization be set up to distribute the funding and be clear where the funding for that organization will come from.'

'It is important that the funds that such an organization can distribute go directly to the affected communities. We also want people who have just been affected to be helped, so we can miss unnecessary intermediate steps like a toothache.'

'Conferences like the COP have the potential to really make a difference'

'We have been talking for years about the need for such an organization, but there is still nothing that even comes close. Funding mechanisms do exist around averting climate problems and adapting to climate change (the other two components of the fight against climate change according to the UNFCC, ed.). Although not enough is happening there either.'

What do you think of the whole system of the COP?

'The COP, like many other conferences, has the pattern that many things are promised, which then end up not being delivered. I think that is the great tragedy of climate conferences. World leaders after they return do something different from what they promised before.'

'But the COP could look different. Imagine if leaders didn't just represent the interests of their countries, but really came together to take collective action. Conferences like the COP have the potential to really make a difference.'

'If the people who have decision-making power shirk their responsibility, who will make the decisions?'

'Currently, however, no one is willing to take the first step. Everyone is looking at each other and waiting. But that's not what climate leadership looks like! People are dying, people are suffering, and we really need to do something to stop that. If leaders show leadership and just take that step, we can show the world that we care about this crisis and their lives.

Zuhal Demir, the Flemish Minister of Energy has decided not to go to COP27 because she believes nothing will be decided anyway. Is that the right response?

'No. The people who demand justice and change do not have a seat at the negotiating table themselves. Not because they don't want to, but because the system is so developed that their voices are not represented.'

'And while their voices are partially represented, it is the result of a long struggle. Indigenous peoples, women, frontline communities and people of color have all had to fight to be present in the places where they want to be heard.'

'So the people with a seat at the negotiating table have a responsibility to be present themselves. If the people who have decision-making power shirk their responsibility, who will make the decisions? How can the climate crisis be solved if even the ones we trust to make decisions for us will not be present?

Last Sunday you attended the climate march in Brussels. What would you like to say to the people who walked alongside you?

'It was really great to see those thousands of people. It was a wonderful sign of solidarity with those already affected and a strong signal about the urgency of the problem.'

'We have to keep raising our voices until something really changes'

'My main message to those people is to keep fighting for climate justice. The climate crisis is far from solved. Governments are still not responding hard enough. We have to keep raising our voices until something really changes.'

'Because the real change will not happen during that two-week conference. It is when those world leaders return to their countries that we have a duty to continue to remind them of their responsibility.'

'In addition, it is very important that we maintain the momentum of the climate movement and continue to grow. We must continue to support communities on the front lines of the climate crisis and show our leaders what collective action looks like. I am convinced that people have the power to change the world like this.'

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