The concept of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, or “WASH”, is something that few young people are likely to be aware of, let alone be passionate about. But in a world afflicted by COVID-19, with a changing climate, and persistent problems in basic sanitation services in developing countries – some young people are stepping forward into this critical space to be the drivers of innovation and change.
UNICEF’s WASH Young Changemakers Programme was created to identify, support, and celebrate young innovators in the WASH sector, and this year launched its second edition.
We recently spoke to one of the Changemakers from the Programme’s 1st edition, Ms. Yuting Zhou, about how she got into a career in the WASH sector, and what she’s learnt. Yuting is an early-career environmental consultant working on industrial wastewater pollution management in the industrial heart of modern China. In her work, she’s learning about a critical type of environmental pollution, and finding ways to help companies be better stewards of water resources and to be compliant with changing government regulations.
We at UNICEF believe that she’s a young changemaker – someone who recognises important problems and takes personal responsibility to drive change – and that’s why her story is worth sharing and celebrating.
Finding early inspiration
When we asked Yuting how old she was when she got interested in environmental problems, we were surprised by her response. “I must have been about six years old. I used to watch an American animated TV series about an environmentalist Superhero named Captain Planet.”
This is a show in which, in every episode, there is one serious pollution event somewhere in the world, and the five main combine their powers to summon an elemental warrior—Captain Planet, who “takes pollution down to zero.” The concern about environmental issues profoundly influenced Yuting. “Even at a young age, I made perhaps the fourth revision tomy life plans: from fashion designer, fiction writer, and ambassador, to a superwoman who tackles the world’s pollution issues.”
But how does one prepare to be a “Superwoman”? For Yuting, it came down to a reflection on what she might be good at – in her case, the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects – and making considered choices in her education.
She dived into environmental engineering, and found a passion for the subject. “During my graduate studies, I researched different kinds of health effects that disinfection byproducts can have on people.”
While she developed valuable skills that would help her in her career, she also learnt more about herself and her role in the world. “I learnt that science requires a systematic and scientific verification through repeated and sometimes tedious processes. Although I completed and published my research in a top academic journal, I realized that I’m not fit for laboratory work. I needed more interaction with people, and to solve real-life problems.”
Building a career in WASH
With seven years of academic training, Yuting was well aware that solving pollution problems was going to be far more complicated than it was in her beloved childhood. But was keen to continue working towards the goal of taking pollution down to zero.
Within three days of graduating, Yuting was on a plane headed to Kenya for a six-month internship with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). “I had a lot of self-doubt and fear about this new unknown life, but the excitement of the new journey helped me overcome it.”
She was excited about working for the United Nations because there were “people from various industries and backgrounds gathering to improve the environment and create a more sustainable future” – a lot like the setting of Captain Planet which had enlightened her in the first place.
Yuting soon found herself challenged in new ways. “Despite not knowing how to code, I joined an artificial intelligence (AI) project team to investigate the possibility of applying big data technology in environmental protection. I also assisted a research project on sewage recycling in sub-Saharan countries.”
After her internship, Yuting decided to return home to China continue her career “as an environmental consultant with a focus on water management in manufacturing plants. By helping different clients find solutions to varied problems in industrial wastewater management, I’ve been able to deepen my expertise in a critical type of environmental pollution.”
Her connection with UNICEF
It was shortly after her return home that Yuting applied to be part of the WASH Young Changemakers Programme. “I started to think about what kind of vision I should work for in my consulting role, and how I can add more value. I’ve always believed in the power of building connections, and my AI experience at UNEP taught me that sharing data and knowledge is essential for the digital transformations we need to create change. So I think that there needs to be an industry-wide water management information sharing platform.”
More specifically, the innovative WASH idea that Yuting brought to the WASH Young Changemakers Programme was to make supply chains more transparent when it comes to information on water footprints. “Stakeholders in the same industry should be able to see and learn from best practices on water management. It should be easier for downstream buyers to access information on sustainable or green procurement.”
While her idea was at an early stage, she was selected by UNICEF in large part because of the sheer scale of the problem that she was seeking to address – with China’s manufacturing sector being so vast, and the challenges that China is facing with regards to water pollution so critical.
During the Programme, Yuting was introduced to peers and other young innovators in the WASH sector, worked 1-on-1 with a startup coach, and was givena platform to share her idea with senior people in the WASH sector in the East Asia and Pacific Region. “My initial idea developed into a more specific work plan.”
Importantly, during this Programme Yuting claimed to have “dropped self-doubts and the fears of being turned down, which has been helpful.” Furthermore, she found “that there are many people out there willing to support and cooperate, and the clients that I work closely with also have lots of shared thinking in this direction too.”
Reflections on the path of a “superwoman”
When we asked her what, if anything, she would tell her younger self – the one watching Captain Planet and dreaming of becoming a superhero – if she could travel back in time, she again responded surprisingly: “I’d tell her that she will meet many real superheroes.”
“For example, I met one journalist who quit a well-paid job to conduct an independent investigation on illegal deforestation and hydropower development. I met people who continue to promote environmental data transparency and government monitoring disclosure for decades. I also met people who devoted their whole lives to environmental education and public awareness development.”
So, for Yuting, the real powers of an environmental superwoman are those of integrity, and persistence. “You can be a superhero by just doing the right thing, even when you know it is hard.”
Even given the dire circumstances the world is facing today, Yuting continues to be inspired by the path she chose. She says that “the decision I made when I was six has taken me on many wonderful journeys in which I’ve met so many great people. There is still a long way to go, but I know I will continue to work and make positive changes with people who share the same passion.”
Yuting was an inspiration to us at UNICEF, and we hope that she continues to use her superpowers for good.
About the author:
Peter Silvester, was a Water & Sanitation Consultant at UNICEF EAPRO