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Karen Delfau (United States)

Karen Delfau

IWM consultant



Master of Integrated Water Management
(with IWC Scholarship)

Graduated 2010

Career path

With an educational background in geology, music and public international law, and professional experience in the fields of law and dispute resolution, research and ten years of water management experience, Karen moved to Australia to complete her Master of Integrated Water Management.

Karen's story

"Rivers and the ocean have given me so much. I feel like the least I can do is give back."

“I’ve always had a relationship with nature, and I find that this is something that many people in the environmental field have in common. When I was growing up, every summer my family took a road trip across the United States in our big purple station wagon – from California to New England. We’d stay in campgrounds along the way, and I was the official family ‘water tester’. First thing I would do, upon arrival, at that evening’s campsite is taste the water and inform my family what I thought of it. I was always swimming, every chance I had, and I loved water and the enjoyment I received from it: gazing at waterfalls, putting my feet in icy rivers, screaming as I glided down waterslides, and swimming in lakes and pools.  

“When I was in high school, I was introduced to environmental science, and I was fascinated. I started to see the world in a different way, and started to look at the relationships between living things. A love of the outdoors emerged in high school, and I would spend long hours walking along the Farmington River in Connecticut, observing, thinking and experiencing the local environment.

“Through college, my awareness of the degrading state of the environment became more acute, and I chose Geology as a major because it seemed to me the most concrete lens through which I could address environmental issues. My first professional position out of college was as a gold and silver explorations geologist in British Columbia, and I realised that most of the ‘environmental’ professions were either creating a mess or cleaning up after other people’s messes. I was seeking a more comprehensive approach, and stepped back from the scientific field. I realised that it was better to do something I enjoyed instead of feeding into the destructive patterns of land management that were being practiced to support economic development and growth. At the Los Angeles Music Academy, I learned about business, management, accounting, marketing, and how to play the gong.

“In 2000, I packed my bags and left for Europe. I had saved up $2000 making websites for independent artists and musicians, and I travelled with friends and alone through all of Europe for approximately 11 months. Throughout this time, I was drawn to the Netherlands, where I had friends and family – it was a place that felt like home to me. Within a week of deciding to stay in Holland, I was offered two jobs, and I picked the one with the friendliest people – at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Through the PCA, I was introduced to legal systems and dispute resolution, and I was offered the opportunity to pursue a LL.M. (Masters equivalent) in Public International Law at the Leiden University. Although the course focused more on issues of Criminal Law, Humanitarian Law and Institutional Law, I was able to conduct research on mediation as a mechanism for transboundary water conflict resolution, which was my main area of interest at the time.

“The PCA had a panel of environmental arbitrators, and I was interested in building this area of the court to share knowledge and address emerging areas of environmental conflict. When the plan I proposed was not accepted, I decided that it might be better to apply some of my ideas as an independent researcher, and I resigned from the court and travelled for 6 months in Southeast Asia with my fiancé before moving to France to get married.

“In Southeast Asia, we visited communities to explore the relationship that they had with water. We visited a Dannone water factory in Indonesia, we had lengthy discussions about the environmental impact of the bottled water industry and the plastic bottles that seemed to litter every shoreline. We spoke with monks in Cambodia and children in Sulawesi about their relationship with water. I photographed the terraces of Bali, the temples of Ankor, and the rituals of the Mekong. The experience made me realise the sacred and personal relationship that individuals have with this amazing resource.

“Back in France, I researched water governance and industrial pollution. Through the University of Bradford (UK), I was hired to conduct a research project looking at water governance and poverty – a project that collected and shared narratives from the field to identify pro-poor approaches to development in the water sector. 

“In 2004, I was approached by an NGO in Brazil to help set up their ‘water project’. The project had two branches – community monitoring and policy development to support Payment for Environmental Services. Working in Brazil, in the headwaters of the Atlantic Rainforest, I was exposed to simple, scalable, sustainable water solutions. Constructed wetlands filtered wastewater before it re-entered the stream (which we’d swim in). Simple pipes carried water from springs to holding tanks, leaving water for environmental flows but also providing more than sufficient amounts for communities. I learned a tremendous amount just by being surrounded by these community-operated systems.

“Of course, good things do not last forever, and visa restrictions resulted in our departure from Brazil before being able to see the project through. While visiting my family in San Diego, I applied for an internship working in air quality for a Native American tribal office. Although I did not receive this internship, I was recommended for another, which lasted two weeks before I was promoted to the role of Watershed Program Director for San Diego Coastkeeper. For four and a half years, I held this position. In addition to engaging over 400 volunteers a year in watershed testing activities throughout San Diego County, I provided technical input into policies, plans and regulations, and I launched an initiative to promote sustainable water management in the region. At the same time, I studied nonprofit leadership and management at the University of San Diego. 

“It’s strange to think that I have been working in the field of integrated water management for already 10 years. Water is such a fundamental element to life, and it cannot be deconstructed and dealt with in isolation. I think that’s why I love it so much: it is vital and flows through every other discipline of any importance. At the same time, rivers and the ocean have given me so much. I feel like the least I can do is give back.” 


Story courtesy of Karen Delfau


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