Meet Rebecca Peters from the United States



Rebecca Peters was born in San Francisco, California and will graduate from the University of California, Berkeley with degrees in environmental science and international development. She leads numerous campus and community water education and action groups, including the Berkeley Water Group and the Water and Human Rights DeCal course. Additionally, she works with the #GlobalPOV Project at UC Berkeley to direct, produce, and package videos about poverty action. This September, she will begin graduate work as a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford for an MSc in Water Science, Policy, and Management and an MSc at the University of Manchester in Poverty and Development. She hopes to be a public service leader in sustainable development and global water security while simultaneously confronting issues of poverty and gender inequality.

What is your motivation in water sector?

Learning that equal access to safe water is a social justice issue that concerns everyone, not just a technical issue for scientists and engineers, motivates me to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to the water sector. Gender equality and environmental interventions in neglected communities requires more than a scientific approach; they require an understanding of the synthesis of theory and practice in a normative context. Sustainable development and water security are topics worthy of youth engagement and political investment in order to ensure future peace, health, and international stability. While there are many paths to approaching the problems that I hope to confront in my career, I believe that engaging interdisciplinary academic fields and youth is critical to achieving meaningful and lasting change.

What projects/campaigns/works related to water you are leading (or you have led)?

During my second year of college, I traveled to Guatemala to cooperatively develop sustainable development projects with a rural community. While I witnessed the improved health outcomes that clean drinking water can deliver, through discussions with community members I also learned that a scientific approach is not enough to comprehensively address the social and political barriers faced by the two billion people without access to safe water and sanitation. The realization that safe water is a prerequisite to achieve lasting global environmental and human health inspired me to to seek an education that would better prepare me to confront long term international development challenges.

I am passionate about water policy because it is a powerful tool to set management norms for a resource essential to sustaining life and building healthy economies. My successful partnership with Water for People to improve water availability in twelve rural schools in Cochabamba, Bolivia from May to August 2012 prompted me to return this summer to lead a yearlong collaborative water access and gender equality project focused on improving girl’s school attendance. Working with local government, schools, and non-profits in Mexico and Bolivia to address the barriers that a lack of water access and high poverty create for girls’ health and education demonstrated that creative partnerships, patient tenacity, and a sense of purpose are required to make lasting global change. This fieldwork is crucial to inform the abstract academic theories behind the water security policy making processes that I hope to be a part of in the future and keep me embedded in the human interactions that constitute meaningful relationships, improved health, and community building. After completing my graduate studies, I hope to design policies that empower governments to fulfill their obligation to provide water to their people, thereby making access to and control of water resources a more inclusive, transparent, and equitable process.

 What are your success, failures and learning?

I bring the lessons from my fieldwork back to my campus and community, where there is a need to forge creative policy regarding water security and improve partnerships capable of addressing sustainable development challenges. Although a significant amount of my work has been focused internationally, I also love sharing my experiences and engaging other students at my university. I have facilitated a special undergraduate course on water and international human rights for the past five semesters, educating over one hundred students and driving interest in the Water Science, Sustainability, and Policy minor that I have worked with professors across countless academic disciplines to start. Leading the Berkeley Water Group and transforming it into a prominent think tank to foster opportunities for student research and activism on campus and internationally has also been rewarding. Participating in several international water summits including the Water Youth Forum in Budapest and the World Water Forum in Marseille were particularly formative experiences from the incredible and inspiring youth I met.

Several failures, particularly in my fieldwork, have been memorable learning experiences. After testing drinking water in Cochabamba, Bolivia in several rural schools for bacterial contaminants and being confident that UV treatment would be effective, I worked with a local NGO to install the systems. We worked for weeks to set up a series of hoses and pipes to ensure a stable water supply, only to find that the groundwater was contaminated with sulphur and heavy metals which the UV system could not treat. I was crushed that all of the work seemed wasted, but it was a valuable learning opportunity. Many circumstances are outside of our control, but preparing as best as possible, being flexible and adaptable to challenges and keeping an open mind helps when confronting seemingly endless frustrations.

What do you think is the greatest water related challenge in your region and how can it be addressed?

The United States as a whole faces serious climate change and energy challenges with implications for water availability. The use of hydraulic fracturing techniques which require massive amounts of fresh water for processing is a threat to drinking water quality just as droughts have significantly imposed additional limitations on supply. My home state of California faces additional issues with nitrate contamination due to massive agricultural production, particularly in the central valley, which disproportionately impacts immigrant and Latino communities. Seriously incorporating environmental justice into the work of policy makers, engineers, and scientists must be a prerequisite to achieve sustainable growth and resilience as California becomes increasingly urbanized and less responsive to the pressures of climate change.

What one message you want to share with other water youth leaders?

Persistence and patience are necessary to achieve ambitious long term goals. Efforts in water, environment, and health often fall “somewhere between the hubris of benevolence and the paralysis of cynicism” when we think we have many solutions, then encounter the complex challenges that can keep us from moving forward. Embracing tenacity and resolution, while not being single minded, would be the ultimate achievement as an inclusive leader who wants to motivate, inspire, and invigorate other people. Change in the water sector will not happen without long term engagement, and maintaining motivation, energy, and perseverance will pay off in the long run.