Why Water Matters
By Roxanne Weiman
March 22, 2012
Today is International World Water Day, a time to focus on the importance of freshwater—and to advocate for the 783 million people around the world who still don't have access to it. We recently talked to Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, about how they are meeting this need. Harrison—a nightclub promoter turned charity photographer turned nonprofit leader—tells us more about how his organization gives 100 percent of its funds into well-building projects and why water can change everything.
So, why water?
Water was the one issue that seemed to touch all of the other issues that I cared about. I had seen, in my almost two years volunteering in Africa, kids who weren't going to school, villages without schools, certainly lack of access to health care. I had seen people with leprosy, I had seen people blind, I had seen people with malaria—and then I saw people without water. Water touched everything. The lack of access to clean water was a huge impediment to education. I remember coming back and hearing the statistic from the World Health Organization that 80 percent of disease in the world is directly related to bad water and a lack of sanitation. So by providing clean water, we were making people radically healthier. Half of the world's schools didn't have clean water or toilets. By providing clean water and sanitation, we were radically improving the education. I even learned that malaria was [connected to water]. Mosquitos love to breed by these unsafe waterholes, in little puddles and streams. As a well was built, you make all efforts to remove all standing water, so the mosquitos are not breeding there. By providing people with clean water, it also made them richer. The United Nations came up with a powerful study that said that every dollar invested in clean water returns $12 to the local economy. So you made people 12 times richer. It was money saved on funerals and medicine. When the kids get diarrhea, they don't have to take a taxi to the clinic. A lot of kids die because they can't afford the taxi to get into the nearest town for the clinic.
Water was also provable. I think my "why" was very much around reinventing charity and reinventing giving. For 10 years, I had been selfish and had no interest really in giving to charities. Like other people, I had the excuse that it was a black hole. I give money to a charity, and what happens to it? "Oh, it's probably going to go into some guy's salary. He's probably driving a Lexus around Africa." Everybody that I knew seemed to have a horror story and an excuse for why they weren't giving. I needed to make the finances completely clear and transparent. So that was the 100 percent model. We always use 100 percent of funds for projects, and we'll separately raise money for staff and operations.
Using technology to prove it was kind of the second [part]. I needed an issue that people could see what they'd done. So research wouldn't have worked for me. I wasn't going to reinvent charity by raising money for research. I needed to deliver tangible results to restore people's faith in charity. That was a big part of my personal mission: Restore a disenchanted generation, and bring them back to the table of giving, and then get them addicted to giving.
What surprised you about the reality of building wells? Was it more complicated than you thought?
I think the first thing that surprised me, actually, was how easy it was. That there were so many communities living on top of pristine water sources that had no access. That you could bring in a machine, and three days later the community was drinking water for the first time. It's not just wells, too. As an organization, we're solution agnostic. So we found seven or eight technologies now, from shallow wells to deep, drilled wells, spring development systems. We've done pond sand filters—cleaning pond water with bio-sand filters for personal use. The actual delivering of clean water is such a solvable issue. It's not one size fits all, but there are many solutions, and we know how to solve essentially 100 percent of the problem. Now, some of the sustainability is harder, but if your job was to deliver clean drinking water to the world, it's a possible thing. You need money, you need resources, you need capacity, you need construction teams, [you need] masons and a whole variety of people to do the work—but it's possible.
What goes into the well-building process?We've had 25 partners in 19 countries now. I think one important thing to know about the organization is that it's locals out there constructing the projects. You don't see 25-year-old kids from New York in the middle of Ethiopia. You see skilled masons and hydrologists out there. Our partners do what is kind of an industry-best practice, which is setting up water committees. It's working in the community before the water point is put in to determine where the water point should be. So the first work is done around location.
The committee is formed or appointed, and almost across all the countries [that includes] three men and three women, so you have an equal number of women and men. Unfortunately, it's the woman's job to get water throughout the developed world. This still bothers me and bothers some of our donors because we see the men lounging around while the women are breaking their backs with their girls. The men are the farmers; they're supposed to be the breadwinners. So it's really important to have the women in a position of power on the water committee.
Then there's some training that's done; there's some simple maintenance that can really extend the life of these hand pumps. Spare parts are left, and if the repair is beyond the community, the next step is given, which is contacting the water bureau at the local government office or contacting our local partner, who would come back and make a repair. So honestly, a lot of time and energy is spent on that piece. If a well is $5,000, a thousand dollars might just be spent on the training of that community. We have rough numbers—4,000 water projects in 4,000 villages. Four thousand water committees have been formed, functioning probably at a various degree.
Because of our model, we know where all of the projects are. That was a big deal. That was revolutionary in the sector, to prove every project using photos and GPS. While I know that 4,200 projects have been built and [proven], I'd love to know how they're doing in five years. The goal is to keep the water flowing. It's not just to take a picture, clap, pat ourselves on the back. Technology is now making that possible. We're starting to pilot mobile mechanics programs. We're starting to revisit wells every year. We've piloted some stuff around cell phones where we'll give a woman a cell phone and she'll text us once a week the status, if water is flowing or not.
How has faith continued to play a role in charity: water?
Well, I think it's important to say that I didn't start a faith-based organization. We work in all countries with people of all faiths, we fund faith-based partners, we fund non-faith-based partners, we have a staff who works here of all beliefs. I mean, everybody is motivated here by the passion to give and to serve. But I think that's freed me in a way to live out my own personal faith. It's made it easier in a way because I'm not using my organization to project my views on other people. My theology around clean water is very simple: I believe that God does not want any women or children to die from drinking muddy water and that when a well is put in a village and a woman stops walking five hours a day, when a kid starts drinking clean water, God smiles, and that is bringing His Kingdom a little closer.