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Water crisis in Africa. (Photo by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash)

Looking at water through a global lens

Augsburg alumna leads a team of water security experts in solving access issues around the world.

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Whether for sanitation, drinking, growing crops, or even putting out a fire, everybody in the world relies on access to water. Many don’t have to think about it. But for some, water security is a constant concern that affects their everyday lives. 

<strong>Kate Edelen</strong> in 2011, during her time as an Augsburg student (Archive photo)
Kate Edelen in 2011, during her time as an Augsburg student (Archive photo)

Kate Edelen ’11 is one of those people consumed by water security issues—it’s her job. Throughout her career, she’s worked in the world of water, climate, and conflict in more than 15 countries. In her current role as global director of water security at Mercy Corps, a global non-governmental humanitarian aid organization, Edelen leads a team of water security experts who provide support for project implementation, technical design, management, capacity development, and policy and advocacy work in 50 countries worldwide. 

“There are many users and demands on our water resources,” she said. “There’s human consumption; water you need for the environment to sustain the ecological flows of rivers and streams; and water needed for economic development, whether that’s industry, agriculture, or livelihoods. I think of it as a triangle. It’s about balancing across those three different areas most efficiently and effectively, now and into the future.”

One example she cites is the group’s work in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, which has experienced humanitarian crises driven by the impacts of climate change. An extended drought has led to the loss of crops and livestock. Water access is challenging because the aquifers are drying up, and the water boreholes (deep shafts drilled into the ground to extract water) aren’t working, said Edelen.

“The big challenge is you’ll have a drought, but then you’ll have flash floods,” she said. “And because you have drought, the water can’t penetrate the groundwater—it just slides right off and takes everything with it, resulting in flash flooding.”

Mercy Corps is designing a water security project for the area, including a water treatment plant and watershed management system.

Edelen works with Mercy Corps, a global non-governmental humanitarian aid organization. (Facebook post)


“By doing some of these watershed activities,” Edelen said, “we’re stabilizing the riverbeds and understanding how the sedimentation flows, which then affects the water treatment plant because cleaning the water will take much more energy and resources. If you can reduce the sedimentation, you can also reduce the costs and burden on the water treatment plant downstream and allow their capacity to function at a higher level and provide more water to more people. It’s coupling the provision of water with an ecosystem service.” 

A global outlook

Edelen attributes her curiosity about world issues to growing up in Madison, Wisconsin. Her mother was pursuing her PhD in Middle Eastern history at the University of Wisconsin then, and they lived in a student housing apartment complex.

“Most people living there were students from abroad, so I grew up in a global community,” she said. “We had giant community potlucks. It was full of hope because education was a formative part of everybody’s belief structure and values. It was an education for a greater life. Even though we came from different cultures and places, there was a common bond and thread with education.”

Edelen was drawn to Augsburg for her undergraduate education for several reasons, including its science program, focus on the community, and location in the heart of Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. A soccer player and a triple major in biology, chemistry, and environmental studies, Edelen went on to become a Fulbright Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway; a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, D.C.; and a graduate of the University of Oxford with a master’s degree in water science, policy, and management as an International Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.  

She cites several experiences at Augsburg as helping her get to where she is now, including her research through the Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity (URGO) overseen by Director Dixie Shafer. Professor Joseph Underhill, environmental studies program director, also worked closely with Edelen during her time at the university. 

“She’s one of those students who comes ready to learn,” Underhill said. “It was this great combo of working in the sciences but then being interested in the political side of it.”

He remembers having her in a class that studied the Mississippi River (a precursor to his River Semester, in which students spend 100 days traveling down the Mississippi River by boat), and an environmental politics class that featured a section on global water issues. 

Professor <strong>Joe Underhill</strong> [back] and students paddled hand-crafted catamarans during the 2021 River Semester. (Photo by Courtney Perry)
Professor Joe Underhill (back) and students paddled hand-crafted catamarans during the 2021 River Semester. (Photo by Courtney Perry)
“We talked about issues around water privatization, water conflict, and water scarcity problems in many parts of the world,” he said about the environmental politics class. “It clearly resonated with her. It was one of those things that clicked.”  

At Augsburg, Edelen said she learned that failure is necessary to reach success. 

“You have to keep trying different things and talking to different people,” she said. “You should never allow somebody to dictate what you can and cannot do. When you see someone’s success or abilities, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everything below is all the people who pushed, helped, and supported them. I think about how a lot of luck is involved in success, but there’s a lot of community, too. At Augsburg, one of the biggest things I’m grateful for is my great support from people who believed in me and told me to keep going.”

The importance of water

When Underhill talks about water security, he starts at the beginning. He said that water has a long history of being the “cradle of civilizations,” with many cities built around rivers. It’s led to numerous conflicts, including battles over who controls the water, as well as several peace agreements. 

“Water is one of the main areas in which countries or factions have realized that they have a mutual interest in safeguarding, and it’s a basic human need,” he said. “It’s often something that neighboring countries have realized that if they go to war over it, both sides will lose. Some of the very first peace treaties ever signed in the modern era were around the joint management of water.”

With climate change and water sources drying up, people are forced to migrate—to become climate refugees—leading to shifting populations. This can lead to conflict, he said.

“It’s not directly over water, but it’s related to changes in water access that have brought communities into conflict,” Underhill said. “It’s something the U.S. military and other militaries around the world are beginning to pay attention to—water and climate change as a contributing factor to conflict.”   

Edelen said the world is becoming less secure with more protracted crises, which can lead to water insecurity. 

“Climate change is really exacerbating this experience and pushing migration,” she said. “It’s shifting some of the previous informal relationships that communities have around natural resource management. You’re seeing some of these conflicts come into play with migration and the different challenges it brings. When you have fragile institutions that aren’t responsive to the populace, and then add the layer of climate change, it becomes harder to manage resources even for functioning institutions. That’s an exacerbating cycle.”

Mercy Corps is looking at building resilience in those communities so people can adapt, cope, and thrive. But it’s not just fragile institutions that are dealing with these challenges, she said.

“The U.S. is dealing with this. India’s dealing with this,” Edelen said. “People sometimes think water is such a specific sector. It’s not. It’s in everything—our economy, food, and energy systems. It’s going to be the largest constraint on the world’s economy.”

Keeping the faith

When she’s not traveling the world for work, Edelen’s home base is Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, son, and two dogs. She admits that sometimes climate change and inequity across the globe keep her up at night. But she doesn’t let herself get bogged down in the negative; instead, she focuses on creating solutions. 

Edelen urges people to educate themselves about their country’s contributions to international development—which currently stands at about 1% of the U.S. federal budget, she said. She’d like Americans to talk to their senators and congressional representatives about more funding for international development and financing for those most impacted by climate change. Less than 1% of total climate adaptation financing has reached the most fragile and conflict-affected countries, she said. 

From an early age, Edelen was taught to use any opportunities or gifts she received to make the world a better place. She’s determined to do just that with her work at Mercy Corps. Underhill said Edelen’s spark combines passion, caring, and pragmatism. 

“It’s a sense that there are solutions that you can pursue,” he said. “That it’s not necessarily a matter of just throwing up your hands and bemoaning an awful situation, but that there is something that can be done about this. And then there’s a certain kind of determination on [Edelen’s] part along with being capable and bright—that’s powerful. That’s a big part of what accounts for her being where she is today.”

Top image: Water crisis in Africa (Photo by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash)

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