Despite the flatness of his home country, the Netherlands, Onno Ruhl was drawn to mountains early on, trekking in Austria at the age of six and spending time in Switzerland. After completing his education, he joined the Foreign Service, and later the World Bank, working on Eastern Europe’s development after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He spent time in the former Soviet Union, the post-war Balkans and East and Southern Africa.
Finally, he was asked if he might be interested in leading an agency focusing on the quality of life of people living in mountain areas. Sixteen interviews later, Onno became the General Manager of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH).
Although AKAH was established as recently as 2016, it continues the work of institutions including FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, which helped communities prepare for and respond to disasters, and the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services, which works to ensure the structural integrity, and therefore the safety, of the built environment. “AKAH is a great name by the way, because in the local language in the mountains, it means big brother, so nobody can mistake it,” says Onno.
Mawlana Hazar Imam noted that a combination of climate change and human-made pressure on scarce resources were increasing risk. AKDN would need to be more ambitious and synergistic in its activities.
“There wasn't a head agency with an intellectual capacity to back it up. That's why he created AKAH,” explains Onno. “It's both beautiful and visionary, allowing people to live a better life despite the moving threat of climate change.”
“We realised that what we are is an agency that works on adaptation to climate change, right at the frontlines of climate change because the mountains, and of course, the coast are the two frontlines.”
The agency is supported by 40,000 volunteers, 40 percent of whom are women, which Onno attributes partly to the forward-looking nature of the Ismaili community. The senior leadership team are 50 percent women.
AKAH works closely with other AKDN agencies, whether to share knowledge, as with its green building guidelines or respond in emergencies. Beyond its sister agencies, AKAH works with institutions such as MIT, Harvard, the California Institute of Emergency Management, Johns Hopkins, and Karakoram International University.
“AKAH is a combination of two things that His Highness has always pushed. One is community engagement, local knowledge and volunteerism. And the other is to use science.”
AKAH has traditionally assessed sites for immediate risks such as avalanches, landslides and localised floods, and has added monitoring of remote risks such as glaciers. Now, it is collaborating with partners to assess the risks 30 and 50 years ahead, to gain evidence about the long-term viability of habitats.
The partners appreciate AKAH’s community links, volunteers on the ground and staff local to each area. “It’s basically a gigantic field lab for innovation,” concludes Onno. “So it's actually quite easy for us to get researchers interested and that way advance our own learning and with that advance science. Because the AKDN doesn't learn for itself, it learns to share with others.”
The full interview is now available to watch on The Ismaili TV on demand.