Meet Venezia Wee, 20, an SMU law undergraduate and founder of the Global Water-crisis Awareness (GWA) International Movement, a platform through which she delivers seminars and workshops, sets up exhibitions, and organises fundraising events about water use and conservation. By collaborating with water organisations, schools, journalists and volunteers in 11 cities across five countries, GWA’s “one promotion, multiple locations” strategy has enabled Venezia to heighten awareness for her cause. In 2016, she was named one of 10 inspirational women in law by the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association. NURIN NAZIFA caught up with the young activist to learn more about her mission to provide clean water to those in need.
What first opened your eyes to the global water crisis, as you call it?
About seven years ago, while living and studying in Shanghai, I chanced upon an article about how one in every four people in China lacks access to safe drinking water. That actually shocked me, because by then I had already been living in Shanghai for over a decade, and yet been oblivious to the problem. Prior to learning about the water crisis, I was indiscriminate about my water use and never considered the wider importance of conserving water. I also realised that the crisis is not unique to China: in fact, one in every eight people in the world does not have safe drinking water and a child dies from a water-related disease every 15 seconds. I considered that if I had the privilege to become aware about this problem, then I had the same duty to act upon it. I began by promoting awareness about the water crisis, starting from Shanghai.
GWA promotional activities in various cities across China.[/caption] My awareness-creation journey took place on three levels: peers, schools and the wider community. Being a student, I kicked things off at my own high school campus, holding talks, workshops and exhibitions there, and then at other educational institutions across Shanghai and other cities in China. The Global Water-crisis Awareness (GWA) International Movement grew from that and became a platform for me to educate, build partnerships and raise funds for water projects around the world. Back in Singapore now, I am very excited about promoting awareness here—it is something that I've always wanted to do, especially after having lived abroad for 18 years.
Even though you’ve been involved in activism for seven years (GWA was founded in 2011), you’re still only 20! Did your youth make it difficult to gain credibility in the beginning, or is it still hard to be taken seriously?
Definitely. In GWA’s first year, I received constant rejections until they began to feel like the norm. But I persevered—indeed, GWA's growth would not have been possible without a "never take no for an answer" attitude. In 2014, I partnered with the “Clean Tech Club” of the Harker School in the United States to give a talk at their seminar on clean technology and importance of water conservation. That same year and in 2015, I was invited by the Shanghai Municipal Government to promote awareness about the water crisis at events such as the China Low Carbon Day and the Shanghai International Education Expo. Since then, the movement has gained more visibility through the media—I’ve been featured in online articles and newspapers, and participated in television interviews, documentaries and live radio segments.
I’m also thrilled about leveraging new technology to reach out to more people at one time. In March 2017, around the time of World Water Day, I connected with around 1,000 teachers and 800 students from rural parts of China via an online live broadcast to share the importance of hygiene education—one of the causes of water-related diseases.
GWA's online live broadcast to about 1,000 teachers and 800 students in rural parts of China
How do you sustain your enterprise financially?
My scholarship awards and fundraising have contributed to the movement's operations and awareness campaigns. Most recently this year, SMU presented me with the AMLOW Trailblazer Award, which will no doubt contribute toward sustaining the movement. Rather than donating all my scholarship awards to finance a single water project, I will use them to run GWA and additionally raise more funds for water projects. To date, the movement has helped finance over nine water projects (with three more on the way) in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
How has the awareness-building process been like? Is it difficult to convince people to care about the water crisis?
think in everything, context matters. People will care more about a cause if it directly affects them. By listening to their concerns, you also learn more about unique issues facing particular communities. For instance, in San Jose, California, the audience wanted advice on how to alleviate their constant periods of droughts, whereas in Seoul, the people were interested in “invisible water” from food and food waste. And in Hong Kong, they wanted practical advice on how individuals could do their part to conserve water.
Apart from these awareness talks, workshops and exhibitions, I realised that people tend to care a little more of the water crisis if they themselves feel included in the advocacy movement. For instance, I sell postcards—personalized with the senders’ names—that people can mail to family and friends to spread awareness on the water crisis. It’s this personal touch that makes the message all the more effective.
Personalised postcards, kindly sponsored by the Shanghai Municipal Government.
Are Singaporeans receptive to the need for water conservation?
Many Singaporeans tend to take the ready supply of clean and safe drinking water for granted. But I believe it's time to revisit this notion that water is plentiful and will always be there. According to PUB, the daily water demand in Singapore is about 430 million gallons, which is equivalent to 756 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Yes, we are using that much water every day! Action is exactly what we need now, and I believe promoting awareness is the first vital step to igniting a positive change. But I also believe Singaporeans are keen to play their part in alleviating the water crisis. At GWA’s January 2018 Forum with PUB’s Chief Engineer Wong Wai Cheng, I observed that the audience was very eager to learn more about the local water situation, and they asked many important questions about how they could do their bit to conserve water on a daily basis.
Venezia (left) with PUB Chief Engineer Ms Wong Wai Cheng (middle), at the GWA Forum hosted by Republic Polytechnic.
You're a law undergrad at SMU. Do you hope a legal career will help in your advocacy work?
I chose this course of study because I see lawyers as advocates. I think that’s not very different from what I’ve been doing over the last seven years. It is my wish to do my bit to heighten the public’s awareness of the global water crisis, especially the youth in my home country of Singapore. Whenever I meet young people at my seminars, and they tell me they want to change their water usage behaviours, I feel very encouraged.
Venezia speaking at a GWA Promotion Seminar at the Science Congress. Held in January 2018, its participants spanned students across seven secondary schools.
Speaking of youth, what’s one tip you’d give young changemakers like yourself?
VW: It’s never easy to juggle course work and “cause” work, and a lot of it boils down to time management and perseverance. Frankly, at times, it can be quite stressful. When I rolled out the movement, I was fortunate to have grade skipped in my earlier years. I consider myself lucky to get into the Dean’s List during my studies at SMU, and I am grateful to those who offered me help in my work with GWA, especially when I encountered obstacles and challenges.
Does all that advocacy work and studying leave you with very little free time?
Yes, but I still carve out personal time to catch up with friends over the weekends. I love the arts. Over the years, I have developed a series of visual artworks, which aim to draw attention to controversial global issues like racial stereotypes, human trafficking and anti-terrorism. I also love reading—one of my favourite books is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started? Any advice to your younger self?
I would’ve chosen to do less of the “general” and “standard” sort of awareness-promotion seminars, and instead focused more on delivering customised and context-driven presentations, which I try to do now. The latter sort of presentations will always resonate more deeply with an audience, because it allows them relate to issues unique to their community and therefore be more receptive to the message. To my younger self, I’d say: go and interact with those you helped and you will soon realise that every little step counts!
Top photo courtesy of the Singapore Management University. All other photos courtesy of Venezia Wee. Connect with her via email, or catch her in action at PUB’s World Water Day roadshows this March.
Nurin Nazifa Binte Mohd Yusoff is a Year 4 undergraduate student from the Singapore Management University, studying Business Management with majors in Operations Management and Corporate Communications. Keen to develop a greater understanding of social innovation around the region, Nurin’s areas of interest include youth empowerment, social inclusion, entrepreneurship and entertainment. She can be reached at email@example.com