Pursuing the link between people and water

Elise Allely-Ferme has been shaped by the water in the places she has called home. From childhood memories of the rivers of Mali to the looming snow-capped mountains of Switzerland. From her studies on water-stressed East Anglia in the UK, to the marshlands of Normandie in France; water, and the complexity of how it is managed, has been a central feature of her life so far.

Elise has followed her passion for wetland conversation and understanding the social dynamics around water to join the IWC in Brisbane, Australia as one of three international students selected to study the Master of Integrated Water Management (MIWM) on a full scholarship in 2018. Below Elise shares with us what led her to the water sector, what her passions are and why she came to Australia to study the MIMW.

From Elise

I was born in France and raised in France, Mali and Switzerland. I pursued my studies in the UK and Spain, and frequently visited family in the USA. I like to think that all these “homes” have shaped who I am today.

My interest in water began in Mali when I moved there at the age of seven. Mali is an arid country with the main urban areas located along the Niger River. Access to clean water, especially in rural areas, is not easy due to the uneven geographic distribution of water resources. As a seven-year-old though, my memories are mostly concentrated on time spent with my family exploring Mali from Bamako to Gao along the Niger River.

Six years later I moved to Switzerland and became increasingly aware of the lack of fair and sustainable water use, particularly the different levels of access to water and sanitation. I grew more and more interested in the human right to water and carried this interest with me as I went to study at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In my final year of my Bachelors of Environmental Science I chose to explore water use behaviours and water meters in the East Anglian region – the driest region in the UK, which was characterised at the time as being under ‘serious water stress’.

Work, wetlands and Ramsar

Right after graduating university I joined the Secretariat of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands based in Switzerland as the Assistant to the Regional Advisor for Europe. This experience gave me insights into the conservation and sustainable use of water-related ecosystems and water resources at different levels of management – from the local to trans-boundary scale, and across different user groups.

After gaining exposure to international governance processes around wetlands and an initial experience working with stakeholder groups, I wanted to gain further field experience to explore water dynamics at a more local scale. I came back to France and joined one of France’s Regional Natural Parks – the Cotentin and Bessin marshes in Normandy, as an Environmental Educator. A critical part of the economy and livelihoods of the region are determined by water management in this complex environment, where different needs for water can come up against one another, but also thrive from working together.

I really enjoyed exploring the marshes of the Cotentin and Bessin region in Normandy – equipped with wellies and a flashlight monitoring crayfish in small streams in the middle of the night or taking pond samples to demonstrate to school children the small living beings that inhabit our ponds and streams.

From international meetings, to being knee-deep in the marshes, growing up in a family working on aspects of water and sanitation, and my experiences in governance and nature conservation, I have gained a deeper insight into the diversity of water-related challenges and the different types of water security issues.

The journey to Australia

My first steps in the water sector were through Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). I was marked by the difference in access to water around the world, and the lack of fair and sustainable water use. What struck me most was how access to water can change a person’s life. Conversely, I disliked seeing the amount of water we waste in some parts of the world and how much we take it for granted – myself included. As I pursued my Bachelor of Environmental Science I grew increasingly curious about the relationship between water and people. I also grew much more aware of the importance of wetlands in supporting local ecosystems, particularly in maintaining and improving water quality and river health.

This is one of the reasons I applied for the Master of Integrated Water Management. For me the MIWM connects the dots! It combines the different experiences I have had from an initial WASH experience at the University of East Anglia, to delving into the realm of wetland conservation, environmental education and youth engagement in France. It brings these experiences together in a holistic manner. Not only are we learning about key concepts and theories behind Integrated Water Management, but we are also developing our skills in leadership and project management.

One of the aspects that really attracted me to the MIWM was the teaching approach through the range of practical experiences and opportunities to interact with students from all around the world and different professional backgrounds. Australia’s long experience in water-related challenges also provides a great learning opportunity for me.

Water, Land and People

I’m interested in water resource management at the catchment level through stakeholder engagement. I want to develop my collaborative planning skills and better understand the opportunities and constraints on stakeholders at that scale, and my ability to assess potential trade-offs. I’ve chosen to study the Water, Land and People stream of the MIWM as to me this stream has many applications, especially with regards to how to reconcile development needs with environmental needs. As the pressure on our natural resources are increasing, I see the pressing need to address these conflicts.

I am also passionate about wetland conservation! I seem to follow Ramsar Sites wherever I go. From the Norfolk Broads in England, to the Cotentin and Bessin Marshes in Normandie (France), and now to Moreton Bay near Brisbane. I’m fascinated by the social dynamics around water and constantly seek experiences to acquire further insights into the relationship between people and water. This is the reason I joined the Ramsar Culture Network as Lead for the Youth Engagement Thematic Group, bringing together individuals from around the world with different backgrounds to discuss the role of youth in the management and wise-use of wetlands.

The Master’s program is also an opportunity for me to broaden the scope of the Thematic Group, strengthen the network and explore new dimensions of youth, culture and wetlands. With a friend from the Master’s program we explored the art of film making and the engagement of youth around culture and wetlands by hosting a screening of the Chasing Coral documentary with the support of the IWC here in Brisbane– an ideal location given its proximity to the world’s largest coral reef system!

I’ve been surrounded by passionate and dedicated people who have given me the motivation and support in pursuing the causes that I care about. Although I am still actively shaping my vision of what kind of water professional I want to become in the future, I have taken a strong interest in building collaboration around multi-stakeholder projects related to the sustainable use of resources.

I believe that looking at wetlands through a cultural lens provides a great platform to discuss the dynamics between water, land and people, especially among the young decision-makers of tomorrow.

Elise Allely-Ferme is a graduate of the Master of Integrated Water Management at the International WaterCentre.

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