Anya Wahal
Cecilia Cassidy
Climate Change
Food & Water
Madhura Shembekar
Spring 2024

Revisited: Alumni Environmental Researcher, Anya Wahal

Portrait of Anya Wahal. Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

Common Home. In Issue 5, Anya Waha (SFS ’23) wrote about her work as a Green Commons Award recipient focusing on water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin. In this piece, Common Home Editor Madhura Shembekar (SFS ’26) and Wahal revisit her work at Georgetown and discuss her biggest takeaways as an environmental researcher.

Anya Wahal graduated from the Walsh School of Foreign Service with a degree in Science, Technology and International Affairs (STIA) in 2023. She is currently a Fulbright-Nehru Student Researcher in Delhi, India, where she is conducting ethnographic and policy research exploring how women in Delhi’s low-income communities are disproportionately affected by poor water quality. As a Marshall Scholar, Anya will pursue a Master of Philosophy in Water Science, Policy and Management at the University of Oxford.

For online version: You can find Anya’s past contributions here.

MS: You often talk about your hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, which sowed the seed for your interest in the environment. Just last year, you researched and produced a documentary on how the Colorado River Basin water shortages have affected Arizonan farming communities. Now, you’re a Fulbright-Nehru Student Researcher exploring water quality and maternal health. Could you share a little about your journey with environmental research, and water, specifically?

AW: Like every kid growing up in Arizona, water (or rather, the lack of it) was always on my mind. Every time it rained, I’d beg my dad to take me on car rides to see the thunderstorms and the water seep into our desert washes. In school, we’d learn about why it was important to be water-conscious and about the resiliency of our desert cacti. It was only through my Georgetown education in international affairs, though, that I truly recognized that the water crisis facing my home — the worst drought since the year 800 — was a global challenge.

Now, as a burgeoning water researcher, I’m driven by my upbringing in the Sonoran desert and committed to uplifting communities most affected by water crises. 

Coming back to Arizona to research and film the lives of farmers facing water scarcity taught me the importance of community-based solutions. For example, many farmers mentioned that they wish they had funding to switch to more water-conscious agriculture and resented being villainized for a worsening water crisis. Understanding that community perspective can inform policy — like encouraging government subsidies to help farmers transition to water-conscious agriculture. As a Fulbright Student Researcher in India, and beyond, I’m continuing to research the disconnects between policy and practice to empower communities and improve water policies. 

MS: You often define yourself as an “environmental researcher, storyteller and activist.” How did your time at Georgetown encourage the adoption of these labels, or ascribe them new meaning altogether?

AW: To me, identifying as an “environmental researcher, storyteller and activist” carries with it a sense of duty and responsibility, beyond the title. Each, but especially research, has a history of extraction, which is why I think it is so important to work with communities, not conduct work on communities. I think Georgetown’s focus on public service was especially conducive to prompting that realization — public service and working for others has always been embedded in a Georgetown education. That means building relationships with people to create climate solutions. For example, in my work in India right now, I haven’t even started formal interviews yet. Why? Because, given India’s colonial history and particularly the history of research in low-income communities, I believe it is critical to build relationships with people first. That’s what I’m doing now: simply asking questions like “Tell me about your family!” and “Where does your son go to school?” Throughout these conversations, observations and questions about water supply become apparent and inform future interviews, but the primary goal is developing trust by also sharing my own life story and learning the language in which people are thinking and communicating.

MS: As part of your research on Arizona’s water crisis, you produced a documentary film entitled “Water in the West: The Story of Farming in the Colorado River Basin.” Why were you drawn to this format of storytelling? How did it differ from other, more traditional formats of communication, such as academic papers or data visualization?

AW: Don’t get me wrong — I think that written research and written stories also have incredible power to influence and inform the discourse and policy solutions. For example, I’m really proud of my thesis (written) on the impacts of Colorado River Basin shortages on Arizona farmers and of all of the environmental research I’ve done through STIA. But I think my mini-documentary was uniquely able to capture the feelings and emotions of farmers. You could see the tears welling up in Nancy’s eyes, for instance, when she talked about her family farm. And you could see Tim Mazich’s kids running around the farm, learning from their dad. That kind of visual connection is special; it is often able to relay emotional messages to policymakers more effectively than words on paper. The D.C. Environmental Film Festival (DCEFF) has many excellent films that helped me learn how to best capture those messages.

MS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

AW: If you are a young person passionate about alleviating climate change, there is a niche for you. When I first started in this space, I felt a lot of imposter syndrome, and I didn’t quite know where I fit in. But the truth is, there is never a shortage of people working to address the greatest challenge of our time, so if climate is a space you’re thinking about entering, my advice? Don’t hesitate. And don’t ever hesitate to reach out for help (to me, or anyone else)!

climate change
Colorado River Basin
Water Crisis
water scarcity