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How Rotary clubs can sustainably support the environment

This keynote speech was presented at the Rotary 9211 District Conference in Kampala, Uganda on the 24th of April 2021.

By Joe Otin

I am particularly delighted to be speaking about the environment in a country that is the source of the longest river in the world, the Nile, and jointly hosts the largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria. With the Adopt-A-River Initiative we aim to go upstream to address the root cause of pollution. Going upstream means that we not only go up the river to protect our water sources, but it mostly means that we join hands at highest levels of society, private sector and government, that we use the most advanced science to address the problem, and that we go deep into the community and schools so that we can establish the kind of behaviour that will reverse the negative effects of pollution.

Thus being here in Uganda at this auspicious District Conference is the truest representation of going upstream.

Fellow Rotarians, I first stepped into this hall in 2010 when the late and great Sam Owori was was giving his inaugural address as a Rotary International Director, hosting his first Zone Institute in his home country. It was indeed a proud moment and he delivered a magnificent speech full of wisdom and inspiration and it left an indelible impression in my heart and in my mind.

Years later, I was invited to to serve as Rotary International Representative to UNEP, a role that Sam had played for several years. Sam was a friend, a mentor and the greatest Rotarian that I’ve ever known; and we remember both he and Norah fondly.

The environment as an Area of Focus

The ultimate purpose of life, with all of its complexities, is to find the conditions and resources required to live long enough to give life to others, and give them a dignified life. Thus in turn they will be able to do the same for their offspring. The most noble thing that we can do, is to help those, who may not have the means, to do the same.

Another noble thing that we can do is to look after the environment and our world, as it gives us what we need to flourish.

At the heart of what we do as Rotarians is a direct response to this. Rotarians are people who walk on the sunny side of the street, and equipped with an illuminated point of view and outstretched arms, they march through life rewarded for their refreshing attitude, and it shows in their endearing outcomes.

In a thriving society, they gather in friendship. They create powerful bonds among themselves, and they use these very networks to work diligently and in unison when they answer calls for help from an ailing world.

In life there are those defining moments that change the course we are taking. And with due ceremony and after long hard days considering the matter, The Rotary Foundation introduced the Environment as an Area of Focus. The entire Rotary world erupted in jubilation at the announcement, because the subject had for a long time been on our lips, and in the minds of potential members out there.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the defining moment that will find a comfortable place in our history. In the summary purpose-of-life statement that I shared earlier, we have now, with this action, stitched the fabric of Rotary clubs onto the garment of mankind and Mother Earth.

The Environment & Sustainability Rotary Action Group

The Environment Summit is hosted by the Environment and Sustainability Rotary Action Group, or ESRAG, every year as a pre-convention seminar held a day or two before the official opening of the main event. At the Hamburg Convention in 2019, the event attracted several Rotarians from around the world, most of whom were the very members of the Rotary Action Group. In fact, Your own PDG Ken Mugisha is a co-chair of the ESRAG Africa Chapter and has been promoting membership and coordinating events with the other leaders across the continent.

At this particular event they invited Hartwig Kremer, the Head of Global Environment Monitoring, Water Quality Alliance, Science Liaison at UN Environment Programme, to give the keynote speech. He launched the Environment Handbook which contains 11 green themes that can motivate and inspire Rotarians to run activities that support nature. There was however a dark cloud hovering about the room. The ESRAG members were crest fallen when the Environment hadn’t been accepted as an Area of Focus as anticipated.

I suggested to a rather skeptical crowd that it was inevitable that the environment be added as an Area of Focus in due course and that the supporters of the idea were not yet ready to back down. Rotary membership surveys had already indicated that a significant section of members and potential members were extremely keen on working on major environmental projects and it was clear that the world was moving in our favour. Indeed almost one year later the prediction came to pass when the environment was officially included as an Area of Focus in the Rotary Foundation.

The Adopt A River Initiative

It was also about the same time that Rotary and UNEP were considering a set of 25 ideas for projects that the two organizations could combine forces to address. The main idea was centered around the fact that the influence of two organizations extended across the globe and that there was an opportunity to take major steps together to reverse the negative effects of environmental degradation.

We wanted to ensure that the activity that we narrowed down to was going to motivate the Rotarians to act, but also that it would have elements that would get the clubs thinking about long-term interventions rather than about short-term activities. We eventually selected the restoration of rivers because water pollution was a global problem affecting many communities, and history had proven that a concerted effort could turn it around.

When we announced our decision at the Rotary UN Day held in Nairobi in November 2018 there was an overwhelming and positive response from Rotarians across our district. RI President Barry Rassin suggested that the initial partnership be confined to Rotary District 9212 in the Horn of Africa with the aim of expanding the geographic scope after proving its success there.

It is the Adopt-A-River Initiative for Sustainable Development, and we have now completed building a comprehensive structure and have set up a core fund that offers grants to Rotary clubs for projects aimed at restoring their adopted river. The first round of funding has just been announced and about 10 clubs and club coalitions will receive $40,000 to fund their projects.

As the late Sam Owori would say, if it is not happening in the clubs, its not happening at all. In order to ensure that our action on the environment was taking root, we chartered a cause based club primarily focused on environment projects. It was the first eco-club in Africa and it is called the Rotary Club of Lavington-Eco currently with 66 members. They meet twice a month — one meeting is a regular meeting and the other a project meeting where they go outdoors and collect data or carry out some action to improve the environment. Since then another eco-club has been launched in Africa and it is in District 9141. We encourage the formation of more of these types of clubs in order to build a powerful momentum that can deliver a major turnaround

Tips to Greater Success In Supporting Nature

Fellow Rotarians, I’d like to now share a few recommendations that may guide your actions to support nature.

1. With or without major grants, clubs should regularly participate in Environment Programmes.

2. Go beyond planting trees and simple clean ups, and use our extensive capacity to embark on significant and complex projects.

3. Involve the most important stakeholders including large corporations, mid-sized companies, the informal business sector, national government and the local administration, relevant NGO’s, community based organizations, residents and students.

4. Charter more more cause based clubs focused on the Environment.

5. Join ESRAG and benefit from the support and expertise of the members and the case studies that they have gathered over the years.

6. Attend the Environment Summit, which is a pre-convention event held every year a day or two before the start of the Rotary International Convention. Let the world benefit from your own experience.

7. Collect and document as much data as possible about the environment. We should have our local statistics on air pollution, river and lake pollution, solid waste management, and track any progress or deterioration, that happens over time.

8. Raise funds from local companies and individuals that are prepared to invest in support in the environment.

9. Raise money for TRF to build up the environment fund.

10. Submit at least five environment grant proposals per district on the 1st of July 2021.

11. Pursue a $2 million phase grant in support of the environment. This could be a joint project between clubs in our region covering Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

12. Incorporate Rotaractors because as young people are developing in their careers, it is crucial to establish behavior that supports the Environment early on, and emphasize that personal responsibility and advocacy can deliver the turnaround. Rotaractors are beginning their long journey to influence and success, and they will in time head some of the most significant organizations in the country. I think it is only fitting that when they get into positions of respect and recognition, that they may use their power to drive strategic and sustainable initiatives in support of the environment.

Master of Ceremonies Ssuna at the District Rotaract Representative Luncheon yesterday, appealed to all Rotaractors to act on the environment. The theme colours of the event was green and mustard. Green for the environment and mustard for a new dawn.

Fellow Rotarians, this is the new dawn of supporting the environment through Rotary.

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