Changes in population, the environment, and technology continue to make smart water policies a challenge.
Colette Ashley MSESP'18

Despite having an interest in the environment and ecology from a young age, Colette Ashley MSESP’18, like many Americans, never gave much thought to where her food came from or the resources, such as land, energy, and water, that it takes to produce it. 

And, just as many Americans might be, she was surprised to learn that, on average, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world's water usage. It is possibly the most challenging resource to manage, plan for, and regulate. One does not have to search too long for headlines from around the world describing the latest example of excess water from storms or flooding, scarce water from droughts, or polluted water from spills, leaks, or other human-assisted events.

How countries, regions, states and local municipalities manage and govern their water resources is an often-overlooked aspect of environmental policy, but it is one that is increasingly important, as the impact from various trends – including climate change, population growth, and pollution – continue to alter and threaten the world's water supplies dramatically.

Ashley’s interest in how countries shape policies and address the many challenges related to water resources was sparked through an internship with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). During the summer-long internship, she conducted interviews and research, and co-authored Reforming Water Policies in Agriculture, a report that aims to provide historical lessons on the adoption and implementation of effective water management solutions. 

"Farming accounts for 70 percent of water use in the world. The OECD internship was an opportunity to gain an understanding of why and how that happens," said Ashley, who interviewed government officials, academic researchers, and a variety of stakeholders involved in the policy-making process for several countries, including Australia, Israel, Denmark, and the United States.

"The interviews were vital to getting their water policy timelines correct and understanding how they evolved. It was the interaction that I enjoyed. And it was key to getting the facts straight. If you rely solely on literature and other records, it won't always reflect what happened in the room when they were making these decisions," Ashley noted.

World's Bank, Washington, DC

In May 2018, just before the paper's official September publication date, Ashley joined her OECD supervisor and the paper's primary author, Guillaume Gruère, in presenting the report's findings before the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Key among those findings was that regardless of the nature or scope of the reform, stable and growing economies appear to play a role in adoption, as did relatively favorable political contexts, such as mounting public pressure, a political window of opportunity, and government interest in environmental issues. Reforms were also more likely to succeed if previous policy changes made new ones more accessible or if existing external factors, such as continued drought or extreme pollution, acted as the catalyst for reform.

Ashley is the latest in a growing list of recent graduates who gained invaluable experience with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, where the mission is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. As outlined on its website, the OECD provides a forum in which governments can work together to share experiences and seek solutions to common problems. 

For Ashley, the internship was a defining experience that helped her narrow her focus from the broader province of environmental policy. 

“I understood that I wanted to do environmental policy, but then you quickly learn that environmental policy encompasses so many other things. It's helpful if you know a lot about a specific aspect of environmental policy. Otherwise, you're just a jack of all trades,” said Ashley, adding, “For me, water is something that I want to work in long-term. I realized that it obviously shapes our lives, but in ways that we don't even really think about a lot.” 

Ashley credits family visits to her mother’s native country of Lebanon for her initial interest in ecology, observing that the country is strikingly beautiful but struggles to realize its full natural potential because of environmental mismanagement. Things we take for granted here, such as regular garbage pick-up, present significant challenges in the capital city of Beirut, for example.

Her interest in ecology continued to evolve at the College of Charleston, where she double-majored in biology and French language and literature. She spent part of her senior year studying tropical ecologies in Bali, as well as working with the residents and businesses of Menjangan Island, located just off the northern coast of the Indonesian province, to develop and adopt more sustainability practices.

The decision to obtain a master’s degree was a gradual one for Ashley. Upon receiving her Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees, she spent a year teaching English in Paris. However, she knew she wanted to continue her pursuit of environmental work. 

“I knew I wanted to do something in terms of environmental work, but I wasn’t sure how to start, especially after just teaching English and having this strange background of majors. I decided that if I wanted to get my career started on the right foot, getting a master’s degree seemed like a good move,” recalled Ashley, who researched, tested for, and applied to graduate schools from her Paris apartment. 

“I was between going to graduate school in France or going to the University of Chicago. After talking to alumni and seeing what the programs could offer, I knew Harris was the best option. It was also the only one I was considering that offered a concentration in environmental science and policy. Having the biology background, that was really important, since I’ve always wanted to work on bridging the gap between science and policy,” she noted.

"Farming accounts for 70 percent of water use in the world," Ashley says.

In addition to the data-driven curriculum of the school, what struck Ashley was the broad interdisciplinary approach that existed not only within Harris but throughout the University of Chicago, recalling that one of her classes in the geosciences department frequently diverged from topics of science to address economics, policy, and other peripheral issues.

She would advise all current and future students to take advantage of the full breadth of knowledge and areas of expertise available to them on campus.

"Keep talking to as many people as you can and don't isolate yourself to a certain group of people. For me, talking to everyone I could was an important part of my experience. I felt with every conversation I walked away having learned something. Get involved in student organizations that you're passionate about. Talk to as many classmates as possible, because that's going to be your core network. These people are going to go on to do incredible things," said Ashley, who is already building her own list of incredible things.

In addition to her work with the OECD, she served as editor of the Chicago Policy Review. In her final months at Harris, Ashley co-authored a second paper, “Underutilized and Under Threat: Environmental Policy as a Tool to Address Diabetes Risk,” published in the May 2018 edition of Current Diabetes Reports. 

Armed with these impressive achievements, it should come as no surprise that it did not take long for Ashley to take the first step on her post-graduation career path. In October, she accepted a position at Environmental Resources Management. As part of the due diligence/mergers and acquisitions team in Washington, DC, she ensures that property transfers and purchases follow all necessary environmental regulations.