Slovenia is a ridiculously pretty country. With a population of just over two million people, and with about 60% of its mountainous terrain covered by forests, Slovenia is one of the greenest countries in Europe. It is also water rich, with enough groundwater in its capital, Ljubljana, to sustain its current level of groundwater usage for at least another 450 years.

The tiny European country, that most Indians would probably have difficulty finding on the map, was the co-host of a workshop organised by the Global Diplomacy Lab, to which I had been invited. To be honest, a couple of months ago I would have been one of those Indians desperately trying to locate the country on the map.

The view from Castle Bled, about 60% of the country is covered by forests, making it the third most forested country in Europe. Credit: Omair Ahmad via Environment of India.

I knew of it only because of my interest in the Balkans War, but given that Slovenia had peacefully seceded from the former state of Yugoslavia, and avoided the genocidal bloodshed of the war, it remained only on the edge of my knowledge.

I was mightily intrigued. The German foreign office being a co-host of the workshop, and which houses the Global Diplomacy Lab, made sense. Germany is at the heart of Europe, but why would Slovenia be involved?

My short trip was an education in how a country, and its people, can create a politics of environmental sustainability, and carve out an entirely new space for themselves on the map. Slovenia has important lessons for India, as the climate crisis increasingly impacts our security and economy, and as we search for a new way of being.

Being water rich has not always been a blessing for Slovenia. It has a history of typhoid and other water borne diseases. Over the last half century, huge areas of its lowlands have been drained, and 40% of its reedbeds destroyed.

Bad infrastructure has meant floods and the above named spread of diseases. It has only been after its entry into the European Union that Slovenia has been able to change these things around.

While a large part of this is access to funds to restore these degraded areas, and protect its forested bits, Slovenia has gone far beyond merely asking for funds, it has created an identity that is both economically and ecologically good for it. In 2018 National Geographic Traveller cited Slovenia as the most sustainable country for tourism. This is no small thing where, despite the hammer blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for 6.5% of the gross domestic product, GDP, and employed more than 10% of the population in 2020.

Public water fountains dot the city, with the cleanest water in much of the region. Credit: Omair Ahmad via Environment of India.

This did not come out of nowhere. As the Deputy Mayor Tjaša Ficko told us, the government had decided to pursue this line of development early. This meant, among other things, reconfiguring the capital city, Ljubljana, so that its city centre has become a walk and electric vehicle space only, despite significant opposition. A huge part of the effort was in bringing the issue into the education space, so that informed citizenry could value and sustain their heritage. This has meant an interesting relationship with the government.

Two important activities by the government have borne long-term results. One was Ljubljana’s application to win the European Green Capital award. Like all European Union initiatives, this requires a great deal of documentation and evaluation, but Ljubljana fulfilled the difficult conditions, becoming the 2016 European Green Capital, the first ever capital city in Central or Eastern Europe to do so.

Tjaša Ficko said that she, and others, had expected that the award would have meant more people from Central and Eastern European countries coming to pay them a visit to learn, but was pleasantly surprised that many Western European capitals sent their teams too, to learn.

Slovenia had not just become an inspiration to countries they thought were their peers, but had become a peer to much richer countries. This was the same year that Slovenia made access to water a fundamental right for all citizens, which limited its commercialisation.

Yet, this intervention was deeper than just a government initiative. A surprising referendum in 2019 would show how much these changes were “owned” by the public, made a part of their character.

In March 2019 the Slovenian parliament approved amendments to Slovenia’s water laws. Civil society groups feared that this was done by the government led by Janez Jansa – the only world leader, incidentally, to congratulate Donald Trump on his “re-election” after the 2020 US elections – to commercialise properties near water bodies.

They launched a movement for a referendum, which requires 50,000 signatures (about 2.5% of the population), and got it. When the referendum happened, 46.15% of the people voted, the highest turnout since 2007, and nearly 90% rejected the amendments.

People drag a sign that reads "Protect the water, vote no" as they paddle through the Ljubljanica river during a protest against the government law in Ljubljana in July 2021. Reuters.

The Slovenian Constitution requires at least 20% of its voters to accept a referendum like this. In this case it was nearly twice that amount. Water security has become a perfect trifecta for Slovenia. It allowed it to advertise itself as an attractive destination, raising its revenues; it also allowed it to compete on an equal footing with countries with far greater power and resources. Lastly, it allowed a deepening of democracy that made its citizens participants in its progress, not reduced to mere subjects. It is no wonder that it continues to showcase its green credentials, and its success as a leader on water issues.

The lessons for India from this example are not immediately obvious, but if you ask a few basic questions they come into sharp focus.

These are: can the green economy be economically beneficial? Can India be an example, not just in its neighbourhood or to other developing countries, but to richer ones? And maybe the most important question of them all, who is in charge of India’s green spaces, or its green transition? Is it a space for deepening democracy, or undermining it?

The first question is easily answered with a negative example. Bengaluru, arguably India’s smartest city, with huge human capital, and a robust civil society network, was recently engulfed by floods. The losses in revenue and damages are still to be calculated, but are likely to be massive. A greener Bengaluru, one that had not steadily destroyed its green spaces and wetlands, would have suffered far less damage, even if the rainfall was far greater than average.

Mismanaged urbanisation and degraded wetlands are hardly rare, and are, arguably central to India’s current mode of development. The thing is that they do not have to be. That was Slovenia’s mode of development, at great ecological, economic and human cost until a couple of decades ago. It was costly – and Slovenia was deeply helped by the European Union’s funds – to turn this around, but instead of paying for water catastrophes, Slovenia now profits off of a reputation of good water management.

The key difference is scale, and complexity. India is huge, and hugely diverse. Managing a transition even partially as successful as Slovenia’s would require enormous resources as well as – and this is the most important – restructuring how we govern water.

One of the participants at the Slovenia conference was a professor of hydrology, who had a lovely phrase: “Water flows through government”. This is something we know, but do not understand. Every single major ministry is responsible for the management and allocation of water – the key resource impacted by the climate crisis.

Unless we restructure our governance structure to deal with this, we will always be playing catch up, unprepared for the next disaster. Due to where India stands in the process of infrastructure development and urbanisation, we have the freedom to design new structures in a way that many already developed countries do not. Their infrastructure has to be adapted and modified – ours can be invented, innovated.

India has the possibility of being the greatest innovation lab in the world, in shaping how we govern water in the climate crisis. We have the power of being an example to the world, but we persist in aping bad examples instead.

This article was first published on Environment of India.