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The view from Sweden

Woman standing in front of body of water
St. Olaf College alumna Katarina Veem ’86, director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, on the island of Djurgarden in central Stockholm. (Rob Schoenbaum/POLARIS)

As director of Swedish Water House and International Policy at the Stockholm International Water
Institute (SIWI) in Stockholm, Katarina Veem ’86 is laser-focused on the universal issue of water. It’s long been her vocation, having previously served as the CEO of Baltic Sea 2020 and program director at World Wildlife Fund Sweden.

Her worldview was shaped early in life. She was born to Estonian parents in Sweden, where her father — a pastor and archbishop in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church — worked with Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Through his vocation and her family’s immigration story, Veem gained an awareness of vulnerable populations and the interconnectedness of the peoples of the world. This perspective made her a good fit for St. Olaf, which she learned about from her father. He’d known of the college through his relationships with St. Olaf Professor of Philosophy Howard Hong ’34, a former director of the LWF Service to Refugees, andProfessor of German Gertrude Sovik ’31, a tireless advocate for Asian immigrant resettlement.

In 1982, as a first-year international student from Sweden, Veem found the diverse interests of students on the Hill thrilling. “I loved being surrounded by young people who were truly interested in the various topics that you have in a liberal arts college. The discipline and the excitement of all the intellectual pursuits — I loved it.”

Stockholm, Sweden: St. Olaf College alumna Katarina Veem, Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute on the island of Djurgarden in central Stockholm. (Rob Schoenbaum/POLARIS)

Though she spoke English as a first-year student, Veem struggled to take notes during lectures, jotting down a mishmash of English, Swedish, and Estonian. The advantage of studying abroad is “to really understand how small and insignificant you and your life are in the great scheme of things,” Veem says. “It’s a really humbling experience, while at the same time it is so exciting. But bottom line, it makes you understand that your perspective is only one perspective.”

Gradually, her written language ability improved. But her salvation came in St. Olaf’s Paracollege, the forerunner to the current Center for Integrative Learning, which allowed students to develop individualized majors. “That one-on-one learning was absolutely instrumental for me,” she says. “It was a really rigorous but enormously educating and inspiring way of learning.”

Pursuing her interests in history, theology, and art history (“I studied things that were entirely non-Swedish. Swedes tend to study practical stuff, such as economics or engineering.”), Veem returned to Sweden knowing that her liberal arts education at St. Olaf had not only instilled in her a love of learning and critical thinking, but it also had prepared her for any number of careers.

“The advantage of studying abroad is to really understand how small and insignificant you and your life are in the great scheme of things.” — Katarina Veem ’86

She took an entry-level job at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in scientific exchange programs and found herself working on preparations for the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, during which the concept of sustainable development emerged. “Sweden was really a driver in that process,” she says. For her own part, Veem helped to arrange conferences and seminars for the academicians at the summit, an experience that sparked a newfound interest in environmental policy.

After taking time off to attend Harvard Divinity School for a master’s degree in intellectual history, but now with an environmental twist, Veem again returned to Sweden. This time she took a position with the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, where she worked for the Swedish government, first on marine and fisheries issues and then on freshwater policy. It was just the beginning of what has become her life’s work and passion.

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Stockholm is built across 14 major islands at the site where Lake Mälaren — Sweden’s third-largest lake — flows into the Baltic. “Stockholm is a city on water,” says Veem. “The water quality is excellent. You can dip a cup in the water and drink it. You can fish for salmon and trout in the middle of the city.”

The Stockholm International Water Institute was the brainchild of “a very creative mayor” to pr0mote and recognize freshwater conservation through research, project management, collaboration, and other work around freshwater policy. SIWI partners with both governments and businesses around the world and offers a variety of services, from scientific research and policy advice to capacity building, training, and advocacy support. At the core of the institute’s mission is to work extensively in developing countries, where it helps to ensure that water is accessible to everyone while also seeking to alleviate poverty and address the needs of the poor and the most vulnerable. SIWI also awards the annual Stockholm Water Prize to honor “women, men, and organizations whose work contributes to the conservation and protection of water resources, and to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants,” according to the organization’s website. As Veem explains, the award is “like the Nobel Prize for the water community.”

Archipelago off the western coast of Sweden.

SIWI places an emphasis on proper and just governance, a viewpoint rooted in Sweden’s strong societal link to nature and its reliance on government to protect the environment. “When it comes to the environment, Sweden has a completely different way of addressing the challenges, because we believe that government has a right and a role in preventing negative environmental impacts, or investing in remediation of negative effects,” says Veem. In crafting solutions to environmental problems, Veem notes that Swedes look reflexively to government. Americans, on the other hand, break down in debates over “big government” and “over-regulation.” The result is that American legislation defers to business interests, or it never gets passed.

In Sweden, there’s little debate about government regulation to protect the environment, “and that’s
how you can get a strong national, regional, as well as local enforcement which will address environmental challenges. There’s this fundamental trust that the government is going to help us and work for us,” says Veem. “The method of how that is most effectively done — that is something that we dispute between the left- and the right-wing blocs. But the actual implementation is really only marginally different from left to right.”

Katarina returned home to her native Sweden to direct the Swedish Water House where the water is so clean, you can drink from it.

Swedish Water House, which Veem directs, is a department within SIWI that has a slightly different mandate than the rest of the organization. According to its website, it “connects Swedish water stakeholders from different sectors with each other and with international processes and discussions.” To accomplish that goal, it hosts seminars and workshops in the field of water and development, facilitates Swedish participation in international meetings, and engages a broad spectrum of stakeholders in focused two- to three-year dialogues regarding global challenges.

One major concern, says Veem, is the effect that climate change has on water abundance and availability. “Climate change is first known to people through too much, too dirty, or too little water,” she says. On one end of the spectrum are the populations threatened by sea level rise. Veem cites the small Pacific nation of Kiribati, whose inhabitants have been forced to evacuate due to rising sea levels, and the Marshall Islands and the Maldives, which are in danger of sinking. On the other end of the spectrum, she says, are places like California and Ethiopia, which have suffered extended droughts. “In both cases — too much or too little [water] — the quality of the drinking water is frequently affected negatively.”

After working closely on these vital issues for more than 20 years, Veem is aghast at American science skeptics and climate change deniers, who also distrust government and expert authority of all kinds.

“Science is foundational to policy and decision-making on all levels — whether it’s local, regional, or national. In the Scandinavian countries, there is no climate skeptic debate whatsoever. In Europe, there is nothing else but a focus on science in relation to environmental concerns. And there’s no other way to develop [environmental] policy. So that’s why it leaves me gaping. How else do countries make any decisions?”

It’s a challenge she hopes will soon be resolved, thereby enabling new opportunities for international collaboration to emerge that will address the most pressing environmental issues affecting populations worldwide.