From Lima to Dresden: Natalia ‘Gets Dirty’ for Food Security

  • 2019/06/03     Dresden, Germany

    Image: Cristian Rivera Machado

    By Atiqah Fairuz Salleh, Communications and Advocacy

    Natalia Jiménez Contento has always been fascinated by nature. Growing up in Bogota, she loved the school excursions to the countryside in the city outskirts where she felt free to enjoy the wilderness. Recalling her childhood, she remembers being the “kid who liked getting dirty”.

    Her fascination with nature and the environment combined with the desire to “get dirty” were probably the perfect combination of factors that led her to a career in the water sector – and particularly, wastewater.

    Upon her graduation with a master’s degree in chemistry, specialising in water treatment in Lille, France, Natalia started working in Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. On her return to her homeland, she signed on with the Ministry to support policymaking processes as a water specialist. Little did she know that this was to be the start of her journey in the pursuit of the Safe Use of Wastewater in Agriculture (SUWA).

    “To improve people’s quality of life, we need a solid, inclusive, and holistic environmental policy.”

    In 2016, the Ministry received an invitation to a capacity building workshop in Lima, Peru on a safer and more productive use of wastewater. Organised by UNU-FLORES, the workshop explored good practice examples and future research needs in SUWA. Already working on issues of wastewater use at the Ministry at the time, Natalia saw this as a great opportunity to network and exchange knowledge with regional and international experts. She made the trip to Lima. While her involvement in policymaking had exposed her to its associated challenges, the SUWA workshop gave her the opportunity to reflect on the bridge between science and policy.

    Fast forward two years. In 2018, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded Natalia with the Climate Fellowship. This was the gateway for her to join the UNU-FLORES team as she sought to work first-hand on this very science-policy interface. In particular, as a visiting scholar Natalia pursued several questions at UNU-FLORES: as a promising avenue to increase productivity and resilience of agriculture, why is SUWA not prevalent in Colombia, where agriculture is growing in importance?

    SUWA as a concept looks at wastewater as a resource instead of an excess that is of no use. Or worse, in face of water scarcity, it may be used to grow food without paying any attention to whether it is even safe to use. SUWA thus looks at certain standards and criteria that are to be met so that the use of wastewater in agriculture in fact promotes food security instead of threatening public health and the environment.

    “SUWA is attractive for two reasons: it is practical for farmers and by ensuring its safe use, SUWA helps unlock the potential of nutrients found in wastewater.”

    With agriculture expected to grow 2.5% every year and the water demand in this sector also rising progressively, SUWA is a key opportunity for Colombia in its pursuit of sustainable development.

    At UNU-FLORES, Natalia investigates why SUWA is still uncommon in Colombia and how that may be changed. Going full circle, Natalia’s fellowship in Dresden brought some lessons home. In November 2018, together with colleagues at UNU-FLORES, she organised a capacity development workshop in collaboration with the Ministry where she had worked before to facilitate knowledge exchange on SUWA and present some of her findings from her research stint. A record participation from environmental authorities across the country took part in the workshop.

    Beyond her work engagements, Natalia also furthers her pursuits in nature in her free time. Together with her husband, she co-founded a non-governmental organisation Lumbilá to work with communities in advocating for sustainable development. Just as in the spirit of Lumbilá – which means full moon in a native African tongue – Natalia’s journey to preserve nature’s precious resource took her through a full cycle. When she started her civil service job in Bogota, Colombia five years ago, she did not imagine her career was going to land her in an international organisation in Dresden, Germany. Now, it’s all history.