The Fact That Changed Everything: Gary White and Water.org
The one thing you notice when you visit Water.org is the number of statistics that illustrate the water crisis, all of them equally dire: Every 20 seconds, a child dies from a water-related illness; women spend a collective 200 million hours a day collecting water; 884 million people in the world lack access to clean water (about three times the amount of people that live in the United States); and 3.41 million people die from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes each year worldwide. These statistics are all the more heartbreaking when you consider some other key facts—that humans have figured out how to deliver safe water and sanitation for more than 100 years, and that the solutions are relatively simple.
Thus, for Gary White, the co-founder of Water.org, it wasn’t just one particular fact but a moment that planted the seeds for what would later become the nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting for water and sanitation issues. The crisis came info clear focus in 1984 when White traveled to Guatemala as an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology).
Traveling with an organization he created to help engineering students volunteer their time for development projects around the world, he saw a little girl with a determined look on her face at a dirty water source. “She dipped her jerry can into a rusty barrel of contaminated water. Heaving the can into her arms, she walked alongside a stream of open sewage back to her shack,” he says. “At that moment, I knew what my life was going to be about, and the experience of formed my mantra: Safe water and dignity of a toilet for everyone in our lifetime—this is what I live every day."
He eventually founded WaterPartners in 1990, which merged with H2O Africa, an organization co-founded by actor Matt Damon, to create Water.org in 2009. (See the facts that were the inspiration for Damon here.)
Water.org has implemented clean water solutions in parts of developing countries including Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Honduras, by working with locally based partners to build a well or install hand pumps, and making sure that the project will be accompanied by education and community-based leadership to help maintain and fund their own water programs. The organization also shares its unique approach with other organizations that work in WASH (or water, sanitation and hygiene sector), and advocates on behalf of those in need of water. Water.org works with the US government, corporate social responsibility leaders, and grassroots constituents, and with such profile-raisers as The Clinton Global Initiative and PepsiCo. In its efforts, Water.org has directly reached about 1 million people with many more undoubtedly affected indirectly.
Additionally, the organization has developed an initiative called WaterCredit, which merges microfinance with water and sanitation. The program works by giving loans to people and communities so they can create their own wells or obtain water access. In effect, the initiative empowers the poor who have enough money to afford a small fee in paying back the loan, and it reserves the philanthropic funding for those who need the charity the most.
By the year 2020, the program is expected to help an estimated 100 million people get improved access to water and sanitation. Furthermore, according to Chevenee Reavis, the director of advocacy at Water.org, the organization is “evolving and becoming more of a think tank” as it tries to find new ways to help people get clean water in places WaterCredit would not work, such as cholera-stricken Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. “The quality of the water being trucked into the city inside tanks is not always controllable, so Water.org has devised a way to send SMS text messages to direct people to clean water tanks,” says Reavis. The plan is to execute a pilot program and take it to two cities over the next two years.
“At the end of the day, more people die from preventable, water-related diseases than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined,” says White. “Solving the global water crisis is the next movement this world needs and we’re eager to help light that spark.”