Tom Middendorp on climate adaptation: from words to deeds | ministries

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Blog entry | 18-03-2022 | Others about the work of BZ

The greatest challenge of this century? Dealing with climate change. As Commander of the Armed Forces, Tom Middendorp saw how drought and water scarcity can lead to conflicts. In his book Climate General he describes how climate and security are related and what individuals can do about climate adaptation and mitigation.

Image: just diggit

‘Think big, act small, start somewhere’, is the motto of Tom Middendorp. Climate change is a big, complex problem, but we can all make a difference. ‘Even if you only do something small within your environment. If billions of people do that, things will really change. And some people can do extraordinary things.’ Before we move on to these inspiring examples, let me tell you a little more about the relationship between climate and security.

Development and security

During military missions abroad, Middendorp learned that development and security cannot exist without each other. The former Commander of the Armed Forces describes how things went in Iraq, where Defense worked on security in one province and BZ carried out projects in the field of development cooperation in another province. ‘How sustainable is security if people have no perspective? And what are the options for developing development if an area is not safe?’

Conflicts due to water scarcity

Middendorp also sees that climate change is playing an increasingly important role in international security. ‘The world population will double this century, while we already have shortages of water and food. Climate change means we have less arable agricultural land at our disposal. Crops fail due to drought or flooding. If we don’t adapt sufficiently to the changing climate, many conflicts will arise.’

Migration and extremism

In the vulnerable countries where climate change hits the hardest, governments are often more limited in their options to do something about adaptation. At some point, people lose hope, and tensions and frustration arise. Some people will migrate. The World Bank predicts that there will be hundreds of millions of migrants by 2050. Others seek refuge in extremism and organized crime. ‘For people who are desperate, the step has been taken quickly. If there are also ethnic differences in a country, it can become heated and lead to conflict. We are now seeing that in Mali. This country has been suffering from an internal conflict for 8 years, which is partly fueled by the effects of increasing drought.’

Time to offer a hopeful perspective. In the second half of his book Climate General, Middendorp outlines how individuals can make a difference. Three inspiring examples:

EXPO Dubai green

Image: Dutch Dubai / Fatima Benhaddou

At the EXPO in Dubai, Ap Verheggen’s invention waters the plants in the Dutch pavilion

Water from the desert

‘What if I can get water from the air in the Sahara?’ Artist and inventor Ap Verheggen addresses Middendorp during the Future Force Conference† “I have an invention and I need help.” It sounds too good to be true. Middendorp wants to wish him success, but realizes that he can also offer him a chance. A week later, Verheggen is on a plane to Mali. He is allowed to test his technique in the Dutch army camp. The inventor manages to remove 1 glass of water a day from the air using cheap technology. Many tests later, there is a device that produces 30 liters of water per day with a solar panel. ‘So you can support a family with one device.’

During the EXPO in Dubai, Verheggen shows a larger model that produces 1000 liters of water per day and even creates a waterfall. Middendorp: ‘We have to move towards new concepts for water and food supply. Just imagine what a powerful tool this could be in the development plans for the Sahel and what problems we can avoid with it.’

Ice Stupa in Ladakh

Image: The Ice Stupa Project

Ice stupas in Ladakh provide villagers with water in summer

Water from ice all summer

The Indian region of Ladakh is also noticing that the climate is changing. Snow falls more and more irregularly. By the time farmers need water in the spring to plant their fields, the snow has already melted. Mechanical engineer Sonam Wangchuk came up with a solution. In winter, he uses a sprinkler system to create high ice hills with steep walls. These ice stupas, sometimes up to 30 meters high, thaw so slowly that they provide villagers and farmers with water all summer long.

Digging holes Tanzania

Image: just diggit

Digging holes makes bare plains in Tanzania greener

Digging holes for greening

The non-profit organization Justdiggit visits places where the top layer of the soil has become so hard that rainwater cannot properly penetrate the soil. As a result, the water evaporates or causes erosion and flooding that wash away fertile soil, as happens in Kenya and Tanzania. Together with the local population, the organization digs tens of thousands of holes to collect the rainwater, giving it time to sink into the ground. This allows the seeds still present in the soil to germinate and bare plains become increasingly green. Farmers can let their herds graze again, work their land again and it provides cooling. This makes Middendorp hopeful: ‘With smart, simple interventions you can offer people in dry areas perspective and prevent them from being forced to migrate.’

Working together as an ecosystem

How do you tackle the climate crisis on a larger scale now? Middendorp argues for a different way of working together. The Future Force Conference that Middendorp organized on behalf of Defense in 2017 was a different kind of conference than usual. Normally people from ministries, knowledge institutes and the business community come together. This time people with diverse expertise were invited, such as anthropologists, architects, terrorism experts and aid workers. ‘It was brimming with ideas and the urge to work together’, says Middendorp. ‘Not only because people saw opportunities for diverse projects, but also because they want to contribute to a safe, stable and sustainable world in which everyone has perspective.’ That is the idea behind the ecosystem approach. Everyone has a well-meaning self-interest, which is served by the overarching interest: a safe world.

Inspiration and practical solutions

‘Because people become aware of the mutual coherence, they discover mutual dependencies, but they also see where activities overlap and can complement each other.’ According to Middendorp, an ecosystem approach stimulates different thinking and innovation. ‘Cross connections become visible; people are given ideas and inspired by cross-pollination. Practical solutions come into view more quickly and innovations can be stimulated.’

Middendorp hopes, also through his book, to call on people to work together. “None of us has a solution, but we all have a piece of the solution in our hands. The trick is to bring that together.’

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