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Q. How did you become interested in bringing access to clean water to people in developing countries?
A. One of the reasons was because of a day I spent with a 14-year-old girl in Zambia. I walked two miles with her to the closest water source, a well outside her village. I asked her if she wanted to stay in the village when she grew up, and her face exploded into a huge smile. The translator said to me, "...she says that she wants to move to big city, Lusaka, and that she wants to be a nurse." And it was clear to me at that moment that if this well were not there for her, she would never even be able to entertain the concept of planning for the future—she would have been trying to survive that day. This one well was giving hope to thousands of people in the surrounding area, and this hope translates into something concrete. That girl can now fulfill a dream to become a nurse, and can become an economic and social contributor to the Zambian economy.
Q. What is it like meeting people who don't have access to clean water?
A. It's both humbling and inspiring. Water is such a basic life necessity but so easy to take for granted. Here in the U.S. we simply turn the tap and it appears, hot or cold, and clean. But for so many people around the world, it's an almost unthinkable luxury to have clean water right at home. Over and over again, when I meet the people benefiting from Water.org's projects, I'm inspired by their stories of how they made this dream a reality.
All of Water.org's projects are demand-driven and community-led. This means that the communities approach our local partners and that the communities themselves are involved owners every step of the way. Ownership increases sustainability and ensures that solutions last in the long run. Not surprisingly, it's often the women leading the charge. They rally their communities to organize, to apply to our local partners, and oversee the project from start to finish. About ninety percent of the people taking out WaterCredit loans (small loans for water and sanitation) are women.
Q. What was your most rewarding moment with water.org?
A. One that stands out in my mind was last summer when I visited Water.org project sites in Tamil Nadu, India, with Gary White, Water.org's other co-founder. We visited a slum community where the new water taps at people's homes were being turned on that very day. As we walked along the dusty, narrow street, people's faces were beaming as they stood outside their homes, turning on their new water faucets. I was asked by a number of people to crack a coconut for good luck (an Indian tradition) as part of the celebration.
I knew that for each of these people, life had changed forever for the better—for them, their children, and their children's children. Knowing that I played even a small role in that transformation was rewarding beyond words.
Q. You have traveled all over the world for this; what is your most memorable trip?
A. I'll never forget my first visit with Gary to Tigray, in rural Ethiopia. I wish everyone had the opportunity to take a trip like that—I think we could solve the water crisis in a year! There are few places in the world where the water situation is so severe as in Tigray. Water.org's local partner, REST, took us to the community of Anahem, where hundreds of people were gathered around a hand-dug well. About 6,000 people share this one well. Some people were standing inside of the well, while others were throwing tin cans tied with ropes into the hole. The water they worked so hard to collect was a filthy brown color—clearly not safe to drink.
I spoke with a group of students in their school uniforms—they had made this four-hour water journey before school. As the kids held up the plastic bottles of brown water to show me what they'd have to drink at school, I knew that some of them would probably be sick before the day was over. Imagine being forced to give your child contaminated water and knowing that it will likely make her sick but having no alternative.
Another site we visited was near Adi Nefas, where women and children were digging in the sand by a stream for water. It's called sand ditching, and it's an attempt to get water that's at least slightly cleaner than the stream that's shared by animals.
Extreme scenes like these put our visit to a Water.org project site near Adi Nefas in perspective. I was fortunate to be visiting while a well was being drilled, when the community actually hit clean water. The entire community was celebrating with singing, dancing, and cheering. This source has since been capped and a hand-pump installed.
Nothing more fundamentally improves life in a community than access to clean water. Both the problem and solution continue to motivate me.
Originally published in November 2010 on FamilyCircle.com.