Blog.Mar 22, 2023

Water wisdom from SIWI’s most senior staff member

Malin Falkenmark shares her wisdom as the UN 2023 Water Conference approaches. She was the General Rapporteur at the first and only UN Water Conference so far, in Mar Del Plata in 1977.

Brown woman with a smile, multicolour scarf over an off white sweater
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Radhika Gupta
Communications Manager,
Andreas Karlsson (Communications)
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Andreas Karlsson

Aged 97, Malin Falkenmark, is SIWI’s most senior staff member, and she has a lot to share with the world as the UN 2023 Water Conference approaches.

Together with SIWI colleagues Torgny Holmgren and Andreas Karlsson, I recently visited Malin, who is Senior Advisor to SIWI, to film an interview ahead of the conference. Torgny jokes that it is time to renew her contract for another year.

She was sitting on the sofa of her living room, having ‘fika’ as we set up lights and camera. The room was filled with books about water, and photos of distinguished people she has worked with over time.

She complained about weaker hearing, yet, she delivered messages with precision and coherence. She glanced at her notes every now and then, only to make sure that she got the facts right from 1977 when she attended the first and only UN Water Conference as a rapporteur.

Malin said her strongest memory was a “peculiar one”. She had fallen extremely ill in Mar del Plata, and said, “You cannot function without the General Rapporteur, as there won’t be any report from the meeting, causing it to fail completely.”

“The young people have the right to be informed about what climate change means. There is a need to make the young generation prepared for [climate change].”

Prof Malin Falkenmark, Senior Scientific Advisor, SIWI

Main outcome in 1977 and the greatest challenge today

In the end everything worked out and, fully recovered, Malin produced a brilliant report.

The main outcome, according to Malin, was the discussion around the term ‘desertification’, which changed international cooperation in the following decades. A key example is the attention it brought not only to groundwater, but to water in soil itself.

The moisture held in soil is fundamental to the survival of vegetation during dry periods, especially in drier regions such as Africa. Dry regions, she said, must not be confused with desertification. “Nothing had gone wrong, it was just the way things operated and had to do with the characteristics of the rain system in the atmosphere.”

According to Malin, more work needs to be done in order to improve soil condition and harvest rainwater.

She added that the greatest water challenge is rapid population growth that will likely pose problems for future water supply, especially in cities. ”You have to find the water, and you have to get the water to the people.”

She expressed concerned that there is very little attention going into this problem, but it needs to be addressed urgently especially in the context of climate change, that will exacerbate the problem further.

What is the solution?

There are no simple answers. The red thread in Malin’s interview was to find out how things operate and to define the problem instead of creating assumptions or what people simply think about them. “It may cause large misunderstandings”.

Similarly, she believes that we do not yet fully know or understand the real impacts climate change will bring. Her message for the 2023 Conference is directed towards young people.

“The young people have the right to be informed about what climate change means. There is a need to make the young generation prepared for [climate change].”

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