“I have done a lot of soul searching about what to say here today,” Elizabeth Wathuti told delegates at the opening ceremony of the world leaders summit at COP26. “I have asked myself over and over what words might move you. Then I realised that making my four minutes count does not rest solely on me.
“My truth will only land if you have the grace to fully listen. My story will only move you if you can open up your hearts. I can urge you to act at the pace and scale necessary but in the end your will to act must come from deep within.”
While the COP26 delegates “sit comfortably” at a conference centre in Glasgow, “over two million of my fellow Kenyans are facing climate-related starvation”, Wathuti said, adding: “In this past year, both of our rainy seasons have failed and scientists say that it may be another 12 months before the waters return again. Meanwhile, our rivers are running dry. Our harvests are failing. Our storehouses stand empty. Our animals and people are dying.”
Wathuti relayed how she had seen young children crying at the site of a dried up river in her East African country after walking 19km with their mother to find water.
“This is not only happening in Kenya. Over the past few months, there have been deadly heat waves and wildfires in Algeria; devastating floods in Uganda and Nigeria. And there is more still to come.
“By 2025, in just four years time, half of the world’s population will be facing water scarcity and by the time I’m 50 the climate crisis will have displaced 86-million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone,” she said.
Wathuti asked the delegates to hold a moment of compassionate silence for the “billions of people who are not here today, whose stories are not being heard and whose suffering is not being felt”.
“If you allow yourselves to feel it, the heartbreak and injustice is hard to bear. Sub-Saharan Africans are responsible for just half a percent of historical emissions. The children are responsible for none. But they are bearing the brunt … It is our responsibility to ensure that the children have food and water,” she added.
The 26 year old is the founder of the Green Generation Initiative, which is focused on nurturing young environmental enthusiasts in Kenya and which has planted 30 000 fruit trees.
“Every day we see that when we look after the trees, they look after us but these trees and the life-saving fruit they bear, will not survive on a 2.7°C warmer planet. The decisions you make here will help determine whether the rains will return to our land … whether the fruit trees we plant will live or perish … whether children will have food and water,” she said.
She said she believed in “our human capacity to care deeply and act collectively … and our ability to do what is right if we let ourselves feel it in our hearts”.
“So for these next two weeks let us feel it in our hearts. Children cannot live on words and empty promises and are waiting for you to act,” Wathuti added.