In the middle of an intersection at the Oud-Amelisweerd estate near Utrecht, thirteen people stand in a circle. They don’t know each other (yet). The Kromme Rijn river winds its way on one side of the five-way intersection while on the other side two men with ropes are climbing a beech tree of several metres high. They capture the attention of Li An Phoa (1980), a lecturer at Rotterdam School of Management. “You can prepare a story before setting out on a hike,” she says, “but that’s the advantage to being in the outdoors: something unexpected always happens.” For her own institute, Spring College, she regularly organises hikes for those interested in participating. Present today are twelve readers of New Financial Magazine, an idealistic magazine about the financial world.
Until recently, Phoa taught the courses Companies in Ecologies and Global Sustainability Challenges in the RSM master programme in Global Business and Sustainability. But she’s not your typical RSM lecturer. Phoa’s lectures were always held somewhere outside of the university, along the banks of the Maas, or in the Trompenburg Arboretum near Excelsior stadium. She would set forth to the river with her students to teach them about the role river systems play in our lives. This year she did something different: she hiked along the entire length of the Maas River, around 1000 kilometres from its source in France to the estuary in Rotterdam, for sixty days. “The Maas holds an enormous appeal for me. I was born near the river’s mouth. And it’s a rain-fed river, which means the river was created drop by drop from rainfall. The vegetation, animals and people living along the river all literally share the same water. It’s like a family tie.”
Among the group at the five-way intersection in the woods along the Kromme Rijn river are an investment specialist, someone from the construction sector, and a classical singer. Phoa is instantly identifiable as an experienced hiker: solid leather boots, a sky-blue jacket and a large backpack bearing the words ‘Drinkable Rivers’. That’s the name of the foundation she plans to establish, and at the same time it’s her life’s goal: having people live in harmony so that rivers once again flow with drinkable water.
But we’re not there yet. During her hike along the Maas she only mustered the courage to attempt a cautious sip at the river’s source. “And I’ve had a lot experience in this area.” Of course, further downstream, water in the Maas isn’t drinkable, but she hopes that she will experience it in her lifetime: simply being able to take a sip of water from a Dutch river.
Grateful for water
Many people living along the Maas have some kind of bond with the river, concluded Phoa during her hike, but they aren’t always conscious of these ties. Every day she did experiments with children. “Each time, before we reached the water I would ask: ‘Has anyone ever given thanks to the water?’ Only one child said yes. He would thank the lake before taking a swim in it. The other children thought it was actually quite logical.”
Being grateful for water plays an important role in Phoa’s life, and it started when she was young. “I loved forest hikes, climbing in trees and also playing in a little brook with my sisters.” So today, on Thanksgiving, she asks the group what they are thankful for. “It’s something we learn in our upbringing: ‘Say thank you’, your mother would say. At the same time we forget what we are really thankful for.”
Struggle with Business Administration
She found her Business Administration studies difficult. “It was a struggle to complete the programme, not because it was too challenging, but because of the way it was taught. In the first year we were in a lecture hall with a thousand students and the lecturer said: ‘The person next to you and behind you will quit the programme’. And he said everyone is there because they want a job with a leased car. I found that a strange thing to say. I was studying Business Administration because I was interested in how people think. And if you want to learn about how people think now, you have to learn about our economics system.”
A canoe trip along the Rupert River in Canada in 2005 was a formative experience for Phoa. An RSM professor at that time, Gail Whiteman, drew her attention to a protest against the construction of a dam that would cause irrevocable harm to the river. “That experience in the remote wilderness made a deep impression on me. For example, I first thought I needed filters to drink the river water, but the people there said: just scoop it up with your hands.’ I was so moved by my first sip of water right from the river that a tear rolled down my cheek.”
No house of her own
In the years following the Rupert River trip, Phoa gradually discovered her own research method: hiking. Through her hikes, she had more contact with people along the river. Her research method became a lifestyle: for most of the last eleven years, Phoa did not have a house of her own. “That allows me to go wherever I want to go. In the Netherlands I mostly stay with family and friends. When I’m abroad, I have a tent with me that weighs no more than a kilogram. Sometimes I stay with farmers. I’ve become pretty flexible in that respect.”
The hike in Oud-Amelisweerd continues in the direction of the ‘Engels Werk’, a rolling forest landscape where many trees recently died of Dutch Elm disease. Phoa uses this as an example of how insights in nature management change: now they won’t replant so many elm trees. “The surrounding conditions determine whether a species will succeed. Today’s solutions are seldom the solutions of tomorrow.”
Tiny button cell
A little later the group arrives at a circle of yew trees. “We don’t know if these yew trees are actually a single organism, but if that’s the case, this tree could be ancient.”
Between the yew trees, she explains why water is so precious. “Imagine that all the water on Earth is in a beach ball. Almost all of that water would be salt water. The comparable amount of all the fresh water on earth would fit in the very smallest marble, you know, the ones no one wanted when you were in school. The amount of available fresh water would fit in a tiny button cell, like the ones that power your watch. And we’ve polluted that miniscule amount of water, on which all life on earth depends, in just a few generations. It’s high time we start caring for that tiny bit of water.”
Living in synchronicity
That’s Phoa’s reason for proposing drinkable rivers as a direction for society’s compass. “The quality of river water says so much about everything and everyone living along the river. All the pollution in the river system is reflected in the water. The water can even tell us which medicines we’re using. The drinkability of rivers can replace the gross national product as an indicator of a healthy society.”
Phoa thinks that drinkable rivers will become reality when we ‘live in synchronicity’. “Ecosystems have many natural rhythms and interrelationships that ensure that the air, ground and water are healthy. Imagine you plant a seed and shout at it repeatedly: ‘Come out! Come out!’ That won’t work. It needs the right temperature, the right amount of moisture and the right soil to bloom. What we’re now doing with our habitat is rapidly accelerating it, disrupting the rhythm of the entire system. Being in harmony with this natural rhythm is what living in synchronicity means.”
In her work Phoa balances between activism and science. “Right now I feel I’m more of an activist,” she says. For a long time she considered starting the process of obtaining her doctorate, but so far, the idea of academia with all its rules, hierarchy and egos has held her back. But even without a doctoral position, she can still benefit from contact with other scientists. “If I was to obtain my doctorate, I might be taken more seriously by other scientists. At the same time I’m enjoying the freedom I have now.”
Even though her course is no longer offered in RSM’s curriculum, Phoa is still involved with the faculty. “I’m currently exploring a collaboration between RSM and IHE Delft.” IHE is an institute that trains people from across the world in water management.
'The Earth could support much more'
Upon arriving at restaurant De Veldkeuken, the hike through Oud-Amelisweerd is complete. Will Phoa see ‘living in synchronicity’ in her lifetime, especially in a densely populated country like the Netherlands? “That really poses a problem, but it’s not my biggest concern. My concern is how will we achieve that? Of course it doesn’t help that we’re so densely populated, but the Earth could support many more people. Look at the amount of food we waste. We could be more inventive in how we use land, but then we would need another economics system.”
How feasible is that? “It’s a depressing thought that makes me think: ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’ But I live in the here and now and I can give what I have to give. This helps me maintain my enthusiasm. It could become overwhelming if I spend too much time dwelling on it. That’s why it’s better for me to go outside for a hike!”
Read more about Li An Phoa
‘World-changing’ EUR lecturer Li An Phoa Wins VIVA400 Award
‘World-changing’ EUR lecturer Li An Phoa Wins VIVA400 Award