Bridge-builders: Gender perspectives of bridging the inter-generational gap in the water sector

Author:Louise Bryson from YWP-EC

Young people have a key role to play in addressing current and future water challenges whilst working hand in hand with senior water practitioners.

Based on this premise a collaborative workshop entitled “Bridge-builders: Gender perspectives of bridging the inter-generational gap in the water sector” with IWA Young Water Professionals and the Water Youth Network was organized during the Gender, Water and Development conference in South Africa. The workshop was facilitated by YWP (Inga Jacobs who was the part YWP chair and Louise Bryson from YWP-EC).

According to Louise Bryson, we need to take cognisance of the changing face of both water users and water practitioners as both are important when addressing significant water challenges. The younger generation are moving up the ranks as water users and they are bringing with them a different take on value. Growing up with evolving technology has meant that they have learnt to value round the clock service and accessibility. This provides an exciting opportunity for technology in water services. The water sector desperately needs practitioners with technical skills, but at the same time there is a startling lack of strategic or “soft” skills necessary for the demands of a changing environment. With many experienced practitioners retiring, there is an important gap in the sector that needs to be filled. Experienced practitioners will not necessarily have their “shoes filled” by the younger generation, as this is a generation which does things differently. They are happy to challenge authority, demand feedback and question everything. Again this is an exciting opportunity for the water sector as it is a fresh way of thinking, when aligned with experienced practitioners’ know-how that may be important when addressing challenges. There are plenty of young graduates out there who are more than capable, but the trick is how to engage them effectively. Both parties need to bring something to the table as active partners when addressing water challenges.

Certain questions the audience was asked to consider during the talks were:

Question 1: What is the role of the youth as bridge-builders in the water and sanitation sector?

Question 2: What are the challenges faced in this regard?

Question 3: What are the tools and the enabling environment to help bridge this gap?

Ms Eiman Karar (WRC) kicked off the session by providing her personal reflections of the changing world of the water sector, and the role that young people may play in it. Water issues need to be looked at within a system scale and with systems thinking it is important to embrace complexity. It is possible that the younger generation may be more in tune with this type of thinking and it should be encouraged that they “challenge authority”, not in the traditional sense, but the linear way of thinking that the water sector has used to face problems in the past. The younger generation needs to be bold enough to bring new ideas to the table as to bring about real change we need something faster. We have a responsibility to future generations to participate and change the landscape of water challenges. It is important to partake in structures which influence decisions as people need to speak up and not just be spoken to. We also need to take the theme of gender in context: in the boardroom gender is an issue of female participation in decision making, whilst in rural areas gender becomes an issue of traditional participation. It is difficult to challenge the traditional system as it is necessary to conform to traditions in order to engage. In the same sense quotas and numbers may address the issues at a high level but this is not seen at the grassroots. Eiman left us with some advice she would have liked as a young professional:

1. Don’t be shy!

Being shy and doubting your own ability is the worst thing you can do. We need to articulate new ideas and provide a “community” of ideas.

2. Experienced people don’t have all the answers

Again don’t keep your new ideas to yourself as the experienced people don’t have all the answers. It is also not possible to be mediocre and survive in the water sector.

In conclusion Eiman left us to ponder “are we fit for the future in the way we are doing things?”. I think the majority of the audience would have to say no.

Sakhile Khweka from WaterAid spoke about the role of the youth in water supply and sanitation.There are many programmes out there to help young graduates in the water sector but the important thing is that they need to focus and do the “grunt work” too. Graduates need to gain experience and an understanding of work before they can hope to make any significant changes.

The role of the youth in Transboundary Water Management was addressed by Moa Cortobius (SIWI). Water security is serious and fragile and it is necessary for all stakeholders to be involved in discussions. The power of youth networks allows engagement on issues that leaders are not engaging in. It is also important to have a unified, articulated goal for how to engage on such issues as Transboundary WM is highly political and very closed. There is a very real “soft” power that can be provided by youth networks.

During discussions we covered many of the initial questions posed by the workshop:

Question 1: The role of the youth as bridge-builders in the water and sanitation sector is to get involved, share ideas and actively contribute to the water sector.

Question 2: Challenges faced may be that there is a lack of knowledge about the working world, and little desire to do the “grunt work”. Younger practitioners may also be overlooked and struggle to find the confidence to participate in weighty discussions.

Question 3: The tools necessary are first to value your own ability and get involved in the water sector. Sharing your ideas with others (peers and experienced professionals), networking and mentorship may also be useful concepts to follow.


In summary the important points that came across from the workshop were:

1. Don’t be shy; and embrace complexity.

2. Find a mentor and articulate what you want to be mentored in.

3. Understand the working process and what learning programmes are available.

4. There is “soft” power in youth networks.

In general it is up to the younger generation to work hard, prove their value and actively hunt down opportunities.

Thank you to all who participated and began unravelling this idea. Whilst this workshop was a notable start the questions are posed to a wider audience, perhaps presenting something to be discussed in the future.

SA conf

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