Water, Public Health & Environmental Justice — Hear from our next generation of sustainability leaders
Carolyn Duong and Xiaolin Luo, Imagine H2O’s 2020 Fall Associates, joined us through the Emerson Collective FirstGen Intern Program, connecting College Track college students from underserved communities to internships at California-based companies and non-profits.
Carolyn is a senior majoring in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Her experience growing up in a food desert as a first-generation Asian American woman inspired her to pursue her studies and now a career in food systems, agriculture, and environmental justice.
Xiaolin is majoring in Human Biology and Society while earning a Global Studies minor at UCLA. She originally started as a pre-med student, but changed course to pursue her passion in utilizing technology, healthcare, and business to create a more equitable and sustainable future.
After months of virtual learning, they both jumped at the chance to join the IH2O team and explore their interests in technology, sustainability and justice. We recently caught up with Carolyn and Xiaolin after completing their time with Imagine H2O and before final exams.
Carolyn and Xiaolin, tell us your water story!
Ever since farms have adopted the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, agricultural runoff has been significantly degrading our world’s water resources. I witnessed this first hand during my participation in a two-week waste management course at Earth University in Costa Rica as a second year undergrad. Part of the course involved field research at Tortuga Island, a top tourist destination of Costa Rica. The island was gorgeous, but this once beautiful getaway was marred by the dead, bleached coral covering almost the entire surface of its beach. This grim picture has been stuck with me ever since and has made me realize that I wanted to focus my future work around environmental sustainability.
Back home, through working with community organizers, I gained a deeper understanding of how environmental degradation disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color. Issues like pollution, lack of food availability, flooding, and droughts don’t affect all communities in the same way. Interestingly, all these issues are related, in one way or another, to water. Water is the way we see, feel and taste climate change. I was drawn to IH2O because they are fully utilizing the power of innovation as solutions across the different challenges water touches — from food systems to access to affordability.
Growing up, I never thought twice about turning on the tap or flushing the toilet. When I visited rural villages in China in 2017, I was faced head on with the reality of living without running water. The locals relied on packaged bottles as their only source of water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. When the village’s convenience store ran out of water bottles, they struggled with dehydration and basic hygiene.
Upon returning, I discovered that this problem isn’t just in China. In fact, 785M people live without access to safe water and 2bn people live without proper sanitation. Without access to reliable services, it is almost impossible for these communities to grow and thrive. There are no silver bullet solutions to our global water problems, which is why it is so important for people from diverse backgrounds to work together to develop solutions.
The two of you probably research over 100 startups each during your time with us. What solutions excited you the most?
The pandemic has showcased the importance of access to safe water for handwashing to stop the spread of the virus. It is clear there is an urgent need for low-cost, rapidly scalable hand hygiene solutions for vulnerable communities NOW. In the long term, I am excited to see the role that decentralized systems can play in improving access to clean water and sanitation to rural villages like the ones I visited in China.
I was also very impressed to see how water technology companies are adapting their business models to meet the immediate needs of the crisis. From companies using their operations to distribute masks to essential water workers to modifying wastewater quality detection for the virus.
Ag tech! Farming accounts for up to 70% of the world’s water usage, so researching startups that are tackling water efficiency in agriculture was exciting. I also thought innovative urban farming was super neat, especially since I grew up in San Francisco. With much of the world becoming urbanized, it’s interesting to see how alternatives to traditional farming, like indoor vertical agriculture can use less space and fewer resources.
What excites you about 2021 and beyond?
Innovation has a vital role to play in developing solutions to our biggest challenges — whether that be fighting a virus or tackling water insecurity. While the world is full of uncertainty, one thing is clear; I want to be a part of the solution. I’m especially passionate about lasting solutions, not band-aid fixes, that will reshape society and create a more sustainable and equitable future.
My time at Imagine H2O has given me an introduction to the water industry, a glimpse of the world’s upcoming innovations and technologies, and an experience working with a group of people who are creating change.
A mentor of mine encouraged me to explore as many passions and interests as possible. So far, my work has been centered around community building organizations. As I continue towards my graduation in the upcoming months, I hope to diversify my work experience and explore a variety of career paths within the food, agriculture, and environmental justice sectors. Though 2020 has provided much uncertainty around what is to come in the future, I remain determined to be a changemaker in my community.
People play a central role in Imagine H2O’s efforts to accelerate innovation in the water sector. Thus, cultivating the next generation of Changemakers and entrepreneurs in water is central to our mission. Thanks again to College Track, and we look forward to following Carolyn and Xiaolin as emerging leaders.