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First President of UN Environment Assembly: Everyone Needs to Be Part of the Solution

September 11, 2019

Last night in San Francisco, Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren of Mongolia was awarded The Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Award, which honors the late U.C. Berkeley chancellor and chairman of The Asia Foundation’s board of trustees. Dr. Oyun is known for her leadership in promoting Mongolian democracy and stewardship of the environment. She is founder of the Zorig Foundation, named in honor of her late brother, who was a pioneering campaigner for democracy and clean politics.

Environmentalist and democracy advocate Sr. Oyun Sanjaasuren, recipient of the 2019 Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Award

Dr. Oyun, you were the first president of the United Nations Environment Assembly, and you are a prominent advocate for social and civil rights. Do the challenges facing the world today make it difficult to stay motivated and inspire others?

I think the challenges that we face today do feel overwhelming—and not just for the young generation—because they are so immense. That’s why we need integrated and holistic solutions. The silo approach will no longer work. In trying to come up with holistic solutions, it’s very important to find the right places to intervene, the right leverage points, places where small shifts can bring major changes in the system—like leapfrogging. I work now for the Green Climate Fund, which is trying to help developing countries leapfrog to greener development, so that they can develop in a different way than industrialized nations developed in the last 200 years.

Currently, what humanity uses in one year, the earth can regenerate in a year and a half, so we’re already consuming much more than the earth can regenerate. It is one of our biggest challenges. In the 20th century, the world population tripled, but what we use in resources has gone up many, many more times. Water consumption rose twice as fast as the world population. The use of other natural resources also escalated. So, it’s not just the sheer increase in population. It’s a much more exponential increase in consumption. We need to completely change the way we live and consume, and we just have to go a different way on development.

I like to use the example of food waste. One third of all the food produced globally is wasted. We just discussed water consumption. Water security has become one of the major challenges in the world. Well, 70 percent of all fresh water use is to produce food. If we waste one-third of all the food, from farm to fork, then one-fourth of all the water used for agriculture is lost with that food loss.

So, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t enough resources; we’re just wasting too much. If we reduce food waste even by half, we’re saving a lot of water. So, I think there are a lot of things that we can do and change. It’s just that the way we have viewed development, the way we have thought about well-being in the past decades, if not centuries, is completely different than the way we should be, going forward.

The 2019 Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Awards

Before you entered politics, you were a geochemist. What was your path to becoming a leader in politics?

It was actually under very sad circumstances that I went into politics. Mongolia was for 70 years part of the communist bloc, so until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, we were a very isolated country. When Mongolia became a democracy and a market economy, people wanted to see the world and see what’s “beyond the Berlin Wall.” Right?

So, I went to study in England, and I was very happy getting my PhD and then working in geosciences. But then my brother Zorig, who was one of the main leaders of the prodemocracy revolution in the early nineties, was murdered in 1998. He was a very well respected statesman, and because of that I went back to Mongolia and entered politics. One of my early calls in politics was for cleaner politics, for good governance, especially because of what happened to my brother under very opaque circumstances. Later in my political career I led the Civil Will Party. Our platform called for greener policies and green development. I spent 16–17 years in politics, being a member of parliament and also at some point Minister for Environment Protection.

Your brother Zorig, who was murdered, was a leader of the democracy movement in Mongolia. Today, the ideals of liberal democracy are embattled in much of the world. Do you find that discouraging?

Well, no, we just have to work on it. I know there have been a lot of challenges, especially in a country like Mongolia, where democratic changes were introduced in the early nineties. Of course, people embraced it as a great ideal, and I thought, okay, it will bring us a lot of freedom—of expression, travel, and freedom of private ownership as well. But at the same time, after almost 30 years since the first democratic changes, there are still a lot of challenges. There has been progress, of course, a lot of economic development, a lot of freedom, a lot of civil society, a lot of People’s Power I would say, but on the other side, one-fourth of the population still lives below the poverty level. People are not very happy with political decision-making and the power of vested interests. Greed is still a big problem.

But even now, if you look at different opinion polls, a majority of the population is still supportive of democracy. They will say, no, no, we don’t want to give up democracy. We don’t want authoritarian rule. But the devil is in the details.

Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren

I guess the discouraging thing for me, going back to the Berlin Wall, communism was a philosophy with very high ideals, but the contradictions within communist societies ruptured them. And I think a lot of us thought that liberal democracy was going to prove to be the End of History, but these contradictions are bubbling up now that are frightening and depressing.

Indeed, there are a lot of depressing things. But the good thing I see in Mongolia is a whole new generation of young people, and their way of seeing the world, and their way of being much more proactive and dynamic and trying to be the owners of their destiny.

Many young people also try to contribute to something meaningful. Even finding a job that makes sense and contributes to finding solutions. That was completely different 30 years ago, when our politburo would decide on everything. There was a lot of blind trust in our leaders and politicians. I think now it’s going to the other extreme, where you mistrust all politicians, right? Which I don’t think is right, because when I was in politics, I could see for myself that a lot of politicians tried very hard to contribute. It’s gone, now, from one extreme to another.

I personally think the way to go forward, especially in politics, is to be moderate, and this is not a very popular thing. If you are moderate, you don’t get too much support. That’s why I think we’ve been yo-yoing, not only in Mongolia, but also in other countries, electing either too much to the right or too much to the left. It’s very attractive to say very strong things and that one needs radical changes and radical solutions, and it’s not very easy to be moderate these days in politics.

Let’s talk a little bit about water. What should be our global priorities as we look at water sustainability in the future?

As I mentioned previously, water consumption is growing faster than the population. On one side, of course, it’s how do we save water, and one example is by wasting less food. But solutions also have to be local, right? So, for example, in Mongolia, when I was Minister for Environment, we introduced very high tariffs for water usage, but not for households. We introduced very high tariffs for industries, like mining and other industries, because we could see that the water royalties were very low. And of course we did some economic analysis as well: we could see that, even if you increased the rate fivefold, the companies could still afford to pay for the water. And at the same time, of course, they would start conserving water because they wouldn’t want to pay so much.

Have those policies been effective?

Yes. I had a tough battle in the cabinet, but it went through. The other component of the policy was that all the fees from water royalties would be used locally to protect the environment, to protect water sources, and to introduce maybe some other environmentally friendly solutions as well, like new reservoirs and wells.

I think the important thing with water management is that everybody uses water. That’s why everybody must come to the table. It’s called multi-stakeholder platforms. When I left politics, I was on a number of boards and steering committees and I was very privileged to chair a Global Water Partnership, which is a multi-stakeholder platform of almost 3,000 organizations in more than 100 countries that is trying to promote what’s called integrated water resource management. And integrated water resource management means, basically, that everybody has to be part of the process. You just have to understand the whole picture.

Well, doctor, you speak very eloquently of the political process and the nature of the work that has to be done to make progress in politics. What is your advice to young leaders today who are working on the front lines, looking for those locally driven solutions that you spoke of? What is your advice to them?

Well, first of all, to be active and involved is very important. I think the Development Fellows, whom The Asia Foundation has been nurturing, are a very good example, where you motivate young people and they’re trying to be part of the solution. The other thing is: Be brave. Aim high, and don’t be afraid of taking risks. Be brave with your aspirations.

Especially when I speak to young women, I use my own example. When Mongolia became open to the world, just after 1990, it was very exciting, but it was also a bit daunting. We had been so isolated that we didn’t have any reference points. So, I said, okay, it would be really great to go and see the world. So, I said to David, my English-language teacher in evening classes, I said, “I have a friend from my previous university who went to London, did six months babysitting, learned English, and earned a little bit of money, and it was apparently great to be in London. Can you find me a babysitting job?”

Of course, the internet didn’t exist then. So, he went home to London for the Christmas holidays, and he brought back two application forms. One was for Cambridge University, the other for Imperial College of London. We managed to fill out the applications—of course, it was snail mail—and after two or three months I received a letter saying, “You are conditionally accepted to our PhD program.” So, I ended up becoming the first Mongolian to have a degree from Cambridge University.

You must have been incredibly excited.

Of course, nowadays it’s completely different, a lot of young people know where to go, what to do. We have a lot of Mongolian graduates who go to the best universities. But I use this example to say, “Aim higher. Especially women. Don’t underestimate yourself, and don’t be afraid to take risks.”

Otherwise, I would probably have been very happy just to do six months of babysitting.

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