Barer Fellow leverages fellowship to combat global water crisis
Back home in Nairobi when she wants a glass of water, Marjory Mwangi LL.M. ‘19 turns on the tap in her house, which responds Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The tap is dry the rest of the week.
For Mwangi and her neighbors, this kind of access is a luxury that comes with living in Kenya’s capital city. But for millions of others throughout the country — and some 2 billion around the world — families are lucky to get a drop on a regular basis, which is why Mwangi is leveraging a prestigious fellowship opportunity to research and address the global water scarcity crisis.
“When I came here [to UW Law] to study, it got me looking at water access issues more broadly all over the world and seeing the net effect,” Mwangi said. “Exploring access issues and how it affects different people — women and children especially — it just really moves my heart.”
Mwangi is one of 2019’s three Barer Fellows. Each year, the Barer Institute for Law & Global Human Services awards fellowships to three to four emerging lawyer-leaders in UW Law’s Sustainable International Development (SID) LL.M. program. These future change-makers are meant to be at the vanguard of developing and implementing innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. The Barer Institute was established in 2010 by Stan and his late wife Alta Barer.
Mwangi’s journey to UW Law began in Nairobi, where she spent most of her life. The bustling city of 3.1 million people is the heart of Kenya’s government and home to the University of Nairobi, where she earned her J.D.
She soon joined the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, which provides water and sewerage services to Nairobi City County, as the organization’s in-house counsel. It was there that she began to take in the full scope of the water scarcity crisis.
In addition to the 2 billion who live in a region that lacks reliable water access, 1.8 billion gather water from a source contaminated with waste; 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation.
“Access” usually doesn’t mean in the home. Every day, families — predominantly women and girls — journey for miles to gather water. Every day, an estimated 200 million total hours are spent by women traveling to and from water sources. By 2025, 1.8 billion will be living somewhere in a state of absolute water scarcity, which the United Nations defines as an area that receives less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per year.
“If we don't deal with the issues now, we’ll be dealing with them when it's too late,” Mwangi said. “It will get to a point where water will be a commodity for a few very privileged people.”
As in-house counsel, Mwangi spent long hours drafting opinions, building contracts and providing legal advice. But in terms of the water crisis, she felt like she was spinning her wheels and wanted to equip herself with the tools to do more.
“There’s a part of me that always really felt like I wanted to use my law degree, skills, knowledge and experience to make more change,” she said. “I just really wanted to get in there and understand the issues and find possible solutions that will be ongoing.”
Mwangi set her sights on UW Law, and in 2019, she earned her LL.M. in SID — one of UW Law’s flagship graduate programs that provides lawyers with the tools to promote social change and a sustainable future for people and the planet.
In her final year at UW Law, Mwangi was awarded the Barer Fellowship that she used to research and identify solutions for the growing global water crisis. She took an internship at an NGO and plans to take the knowledge and experience gained there to implement new ways of thinking about water access.
Exploring access issues and how it affects different people — women and children especially — it just really moves my heart.Marjory Mwangi
She identifies a number of important opportunities, such as improving governance of water agencies; rebuilding a policy and regulatory framework that covers public and small-scale private sanitation services; investing in data collection at the national and county levels; implementing of urban planning in informal settlements. She said these are just a few ways to start making change today.
If it seems ambitious, it most certainly is. But this issue is one for which Mwangi has found a passion, and as she returns to Kenya with a deeper legal knowledge and foundation, she finds herself in a unique position to make lasting impact at an institutional level.
Despite the very real challenges, Mwangi has hope for the future, and she believes that Kenya can someday be a model of success for other countries in crisis.
“In Kenya, we have very good laws, very good policies — we just don’t always put them into action in a way that creates change, and I think that’s what I want to be able to do,” Mwangi said. “And for that, the education I’ve gotten here has just been priceless.”