Meet Mr Simon Damkjaer from Denmark



Simon is a Doctoral Researcher of Water Resources and Policy at University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources where he researches on the role of surface and groundwater stores in water scarcity assessments in Eastern Africa. With degrees from UCL and the School of Oriental and African Studies, Simon’s career focuses on the intersection of hydrology and law in developing countries.  Simon has since 2006 been involved in the field of water and has worked with advocacy, development assistance and research in Ghana, Uganda and Zambia across various NGOs and multi/bilateral agencies.

What is your motivation in water sector?

In Danish, my middle and last names translate into the words for lake and pond, so my engagement in the field of water lies inherently in the blood. Jokes aside, my fascination with water as a natural resource is its irreplaceability and its role in sustaining life.  When I worked in Zambia, I experienced the fundamental role that water plays in society, life, culture and faith.  Here, I realised that I am one of the lucky and privileged people who have been fortunate to have grown up with a reliable and safe water supply. I am thankful for such a background, and its associated advantages should never be forgotten or taken for granted.  Thus, I feel that attached to such preferential circumstances are responsibilities that relate to working for a just world, through the medium of water, where everyone have equal opportunities.  Water has the key to unlock societal inequalities, such as those relating to gender issues, and it is the ability to contribute to the continuous turning of this key in order to fight such imbalances which motivates my work day in and day out

What projects/campaigns/works related to water you are leading (or you have led)?

Simon has worked as Head Freshwater Resources Researcher for The Environmental Justice Foundation; a Legal Researcher for ClientEarth; a Freelance Environmental Consultant; and is a permanent Member of the International Secretariat of think tank WaterLex.  The latter organisation got Simon involved in the launch of a legal database on the realization of the human right to water developed with UN Special Rapporteur.   In 2012, worked at the Danish Embassy in Uganda, where he functioned as Secretariat to the Danish Chairmanship of the Water Development Partner Group and advised on the drafting of the Danish International Development Agency’s (Danida) Programme Document for continued Danish  support to the Ugandan Water Sector (2013-2018) getting approval of a budget grant of USD65 million.

In relation to water youth engagement Simon held a seat at the 2013 Stockholm International Water Institute World Water Week Young Scientific Programme Committee and functioned as Youth Rapporteur during the 2014 World Water Week.  Simon also had the role of Team Leader at the 2014 Young Water Leaders Summit during the Singapore International Water Week.

Recently, Simon joined the Editorial Board of The Journal of Water and Gender which led him to launch Y2H2O: Youth to Water a bulletin which bridges correspondence between youth and young water professionals engaged across the water and sanitation community, where he serves as Editor-in-Chief.

What are your success, failures and learning?

Success: When advising on the drafting of the Danida Programme Document for continued support to the Ugandan Water Sector (2013-2018) my work led to the human right to water and sanitation being specifically incorporated as a guiding principle during the next phase, and endorsed by the Ministry of Water and Environment, which gave legitimate life to this constitutional right.

Overall, the greatest failure in the process of my work is often manifested when getting too caught up in solely focusing on the hydrological component of the water sector, despite the fact that water underlies all facets of society and the environment.  It is at this point it becomes important to step back and look at the bigger picture of what water entails.  Thus, I have learnt that successful implementation and realisation of any programmes, projects, policies or laws that relate to water and sanitation starts with the recognition of multi-stakeholder engagement, a concept which is not only defined by considering all levels of human society, but also considers the environment and its ecosystem requirements which serves as a regulating factor in maintaining ecosystem services.

What do you think is the greatest water related challenge in your region and how can it be addressed?

In my current field of research, the biggest challenge to the water sector is how water scarcity and stress is defined.  Global Water Balance Models and indicators that that attempt to assess human and climatic impacts on water resources are hydrologically flawed.  Their reliance on Mean Annual River Runoff (MARR) to derive water availability focuses solely on hydrological fluxes, assumes global hydrological stationarity and thus neglect important stores such as groundwater, dams, soil moisture and water quality status, environmental flow requirements and society’s adaptive ability to import virtual water. Assessments that rely on MARR further undertake such studies at the inter-annual scale, neglecting the seasonal intra-annual variability of precipitation in (semi)-arid and humid areas.  As such, the recurring application of measures which do not consider water availability across the full hydrological cycle for over thirty years has led to a situation where water leaders has managed to “naturalise” a state of global water scarcity, through the use of flawed hydrological metrics which automatically show an increasing an impending crisis.  The consequences of such misapplication has led to a discourse where water issues can only be tackled by treating water as an economic good, which risks undermining the existence of a human right to water, whose affordability clauses trump any pure economic approaches to water.  As such, water scarcity needs to be redefined, from being considered as an imbalance between demand and flux-derived annual supply, to occur only when stores (surface and ground) are unable to meet the proportion of demand that is in excess of those supplies derived from discharge, and must be measured at the intra-annual temporal scale.

What one message you want to share with other water youth leaders?

Although we are geographically, culturally and linguistically very diverse, water youth leaders speak and understand a common language: the language of water.  Our ability to come together via the medium of water is truly fascinating.  When attending Senior Water High Panel Levels I can’t help but think of the high possibility that in the future, some of us may be seated in such a situation side-by-side.  What differentiates our generation from other water leader generations however, is the emergent and demonstrated ability by the water youth community to unite from the earliest of stages in their careers, and come together to discuss water-related issues.  Furthermore, the gender divide within the water sector, was very apparent at the High Level Panel at the Singapore International Water Week, with no women on the panel.  Thus, the highest of respects to my women colleagues involved in the field of water and I am confident that future senior High Level Panels will have bridged this gender-gap through our joint efforts.