Water Works

A School of Public Policy alumna discovers her calling as an activist for global water conservation.

August 2, 2013  | 3 min read

An increasing number of environmental issues threaten the health and well-being of humans worldwide. Among them are water scarcity and resource allocation, top priorities for Sabrina Abu-Hamdeh (MPP ’11), a foreign affairs officer for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Conservation and Water. Her most recent project, working on the margins of a World Bank event, exposed Abu-Hamdeh to the issue in a whole new way.

It proved to be one of the defining moments of her State Department experience thus far. Not because of its scale—it involved gaining high-level government support of the North African Partnership for Economic Opportunity from five economic and finance ministers from that region—or that it aimed to meet the State Department’s overarching goal of addressing global water challenges, but because it signified the journey that led her to this prestigious opportunity, what she now refers to as her ultimate calling.

But Abu-Hamdeh’s trajectory did not always point to public policy. “I went from L.A. actress to graduate school student to Presidential Management Fellow to landing this position,” she says.

After spending nine years driving to-and-from auditions, she realized that her true passion lay in diplomacy and foreign affairs, an interest she attributes to her lifelong fascination with people and countries. “I have always had a really large worldview,” she explains. “It is so important for us to have perspective on our own lives and for the context of how we fit into the greater world.”

Coupled with a longtime interest in efficiency, organization, how things work, and unintended outcomes and consequences, this outlook ultimately led her to Pepperdine. “I decided somewhat last-minute to go to grad school,” she recalls. “It was one of those things, where it seemed like a snap decision, but it had been brewing in my head for years.”

sabrina-abu-hamdehAt the School of Public Policy (SPP), Abu-Hamdeh focused on environmental policy, specifically water. “It is infinitely interesting. Infinitely fascinating. It affects everybody and in so many ways,” she explains. “Socioeconomically, politically, environmentally; it’s one of those topics that touches on everything and a great way to look at one area and see how it affects another.”

Sharing her enthusiasm for the field with SPP dean James Wilburn, he suggested that she design a capstone project that aligned with her policy interests. Abu-Hamdeh developed the mission, strategic plan, and an implementation plan for a major public program focusing on the issue of water scarcity and water rights in California. Among her varied experiences, she had the opportunity to visit the water municipality for Calabasas, California, and analyze the proposed California water bond that was coming up on the fall 2012 ballot.

This experience with local water policies and resources management led her to pursue a two-year Presidential Management Fellowship following graduation, working first at the Small Business Administration on financial systems, then in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs on a public- private partnership that promoted entrepreneurship in the Maghreb (northwest region of Africa).

The program was designed to foster the next generation of public servants and allowed Abu-Hamdeh to enter the federal government at mid-level and secure her current position as foreign affairs officer.

“My agency knew that I was hoping to transfer to the State Department,” she explains. “I didn’t have a lot of foreign affairs experience and didn’t have security clearance, but I understood the dynamic of starting something on my own and had enough water experience to get me in the door.”

Since taking on this role, Abu-Hamdeh’s particular focus has been working on water policy in Pakistan, as well as the U.S. Water Partnership, a public-private entity between the State Department, NGOs, and the private sector. She has also applied her expertise to the transboundary water issues surrounding Ethiopia’s plans to divert the Nile, a decision that would affect all bordering countries.

Abu-Hamdeh’s current project involves updating the World Bank’s safeguards and communicating the U.S. government’s foreign policy on drinking water. “It’s interesting to see how things play out,” she says. “How government input goes into creating goals or different safeguards in these international organizations like the U.N. or the development banks.”

From completing routine tasks such as coordinating with embassies, to the high-profile, advising State Department principals on talking points for major foreign ministerial meetings, Abu- Hamdeh could have never imagined her career following the course it has.

“Once in a while, amidst running around, taking the bus, and walking through the doors of the State Department, I realize I am where I always wanted to be,” Abu- Hamdeh muses. “I am constantly thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really here.’”