A Tribute to Professor Kader Asmal Fri, Jun 24, 2011

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner pays tribute to South African politician and activist Professor Kader Asmal who died on 23 June 2011.

Professor Kader Asmal died on 23 June 2011

Nairobi, 24 June 2011 - The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) family today pays tribute to a man whose life and works have left a mark on people and politics across the world.

Professor Kader Asmal passed away on Wednesday, 23 June 2011. Citizen activist, anti-apartheid campaigner, Professor of Law, pioneer of progressive water policy, Minister of Education, loving grandfather, father and husband, impatient reformer, champion of human rights, ethics and integrity, comrade, critic, intellectual - a passionate South African - in exile - as at home.

Kader Asmal's boundless energy, impatience and brilliance coupled with a moral compass as to what is right and what is wrong left no one untouched who came into contact with him. It also explains why news of his death reached all corners of the globe in a matter of hours. With tributes and messages of condolences crisscrossing the electronic highways it is evident that the world has lost an exceptional leader, friend and mentor. Each message speaks to a chapter in his life - often "written and lived" concurrently - and to his remarkable capacity to attract, engage and motivate people to get up and become involved.

One of these chapters brought him into contact with UNEP. As Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry under President Mandela, Kader Asmal led a fundamental rethink and redesign of South Africa's water policy. Post-apartheid hydro-politics was as much about basic rights of access to water as it was about standpipes for millions of South Africans. But in true Kader Asmal fashion it did not end here. A new approach to sharing water resources and responsibility with South Africa's neighbours became as much a hallmark of his tenure as the 'Working for Water' Programme which combined the principles of watershed and ecosystem management through the removal of alien invasive species with an internationally acclaimed employment programme for tens of thousands of men and women in South Africa.

It was during this unique moment in South Africa's history that Kader Asmal also accepted to Chair the World Commission on Dams. Born out of a bitter and escalating global controversy as to the costs and benefits of large scale dams, Kader Asmal led a group of 12 commissioners through a rigorous process of study and public hearings culminating in a landmark report on "Dams and Development". Not only did he succeed in bringing together a group of exceptional yet deeply divided individuals, but his intellectual vision and command of the issues - from hydrology to human rights - enabled him to forge a consensus which continues to inform the discourse on dams even 10 years after the report was published. Neither hydrologist nor civil engineer he nevertheless earned the respect and admiration of everyone in this contested arena. It is testimony to his unique capacity to bring to any technical or political debate a principled understanding of human dignity and fundamental rights. There could - in Kader Asmal's view of the world - never be a 'trade off' in the name of economic progress.

This is but one chapter of many which make up the book of Kader Asmal's life. Much has been and will still be written about his many accomplishments. Perhaps the most important thread that will run through all these chapters is that of a person who was intensely human in his emotions and relationships. At times overbearing and intimidating by virtue of his intellectual genius and political passion, he never abandoned his compassion and respect for people.

As we bid farewell to Kader Asmal we do so with a deep sense of gratitude. We join Louise Asmal and her family in mourning the loss of a friend and proud South African whose legacy will continue to inspire communities across the world.

By Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director

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