Solving the Global Water Crisis — We All Have A Role To Play

You get a fundamental understanding of who a person is and what they stand for by understanding their roots. This often reveals many wonderful and insightful things. The same can be said about a company or organization, and it is definitely true for Water For People, the organization I lead. On this World Water Day, I want to reflect on Water For People’s roots and why they are important and relevant to what we do today.

We were born out of the North American water industry in 1991. We had our 27th birthday recently with our founding partner, the American Water Works Association (AWWA). This great annual event is called Founders’ Day, and Water For People employees, Board Members, and volunteers celebrate with employees and volunteers from AWWA.

I have had a long relationship with Water For People. I graduated as a civil engineer in 1992 and had already heard about Water For People as “the cool charity doing great work” when I joined CH2M HILL (now Jacobs) in 1997. I then met Ken Miller, a CH2M HILL employee who was one of the founders of Water For People and a tireless champion of its mission. To this day we continue to honor Ken’s legacy by awarding outstanding volunteers across North America the Ken Miller Award every year.

I was a Water For People volunteer in those early days of the organization. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Dominican Republic 1994–96), I was drawn to volunteer service and eager to give back to those still without reliable water services. My career in consulting (18 years at CH2M HILL and Arcadis) ended up taking me all over the world on major water infrastructure projects and later to running regional and then global water businesses. In 2015 I decided I wanted to do something else with my skills and experience. But what should I do? I happened to see the ad for the CEO of Water For People. I knew that was it! I applied and got the job. My career had come full circle. I am incredibly honored to lead this great organization and carry on Water For People’s important work as we continue to increase our impact globally.

Celebrating our partnership and 27th birthday the other night with David LaFrance, the CEO of the American Water Works Association, has a deep and special meaning to me due to my shared history with Water For People, and also with AWWA.

David LaFrance and me at Founders’ Day

Members of the AWWA Standards Council also came to Founders’ Day. I felt nostalgic as I remembered when I first learned about the AWWA standards. I used them as I wrote specifications for water plant designs as a young engineer at CH2M HILL in California. Even when I lived in Brazil many years later we used the AWWA standards — because they are the best in the world.

Water For People’s deep roots in technical knowledge and continued partnership with AWWA, and additional partnerships as Charity of Choice for WEF, NACWA, NAWC, US Water Alliance, are unique in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector of international development. These partnerships are very important to me personally and to our work. They are powerful, special relationships that we cherish deeply; they help us succeed in the work we do by being technical leaders. We do not take them for granted — we are very grateful.

In addition to the professional associations, we also have an incredible Board of Directors in the US and another one in Canada, and an esteemed Leadership Council of companies in the water/wastewater industry. They generously support our work through corporate giving, employee workplace giving, and volunteer time. Lastly, we are so thankful for our 50 Water For People volunteer committees through the AWWA sections and WEF Member Associations as well as our World Water Corps technical volunteers. All of these elements contribute to the great culture, commitment, and passion of Water For People’s work.

As I was reflecting on our 27 years, I read an article in the AWWA journal about Water For People that was written when we turned 10 years old, in 2001. It was titled: “A Decade of Accomplishments and an Ambitious Future.” The strategy then was “anyone, anywhere” and we went all over the world building small water projects with volunteers. We sent volunteers to over 45 countries, and our budget was just over $1M/year.

Here we are, 17 years later, with a budget over $21M/year and 200+ employees. We have grown tremendously and have demonstrated sustained high impact. Our strategy evolved in 2011 when we decided to go deeper in fewer countries and build sustainable systems. This includes investing in human capital — hiring employees in our countries and creating local water professionals. Today we are focused in nine countries and are seeing continued success in all of them: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, and India. We still have plenty to do in these countries to help them reach Sustainable Development Goal 6 by 2030 — ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all!

Our Strategy 2017–2021 has three pillars — Proof, Global Leadership, and Scale.

Strategy 2017–2021

The Strategy is about making a deeper impact where we have already seen success to increase our impact 20 times (from 4 million to 80 million people). In using four forces — community, government, market and technical — we can move faster to increase our impact. We call our impact model Everyone Forever.

Everyone Forever — The Four Forces

How does Everyone Forever work? Everyone is about building the infrastructure to enable all people in a specific area (we work in districts) to have water and sanitation service. Forever is about building the system that enables the service to continue working (i.e., water utilities, regulatory frameworks, policies, etc.). We measure these services at the household level, at the public institutions (clinics and schools), and at and community level using our monitoring framework. To decide whether the systems are in a stable position for Water For People to exit, we use our Sustainable Services Checklist.

In addition to our district-level work, we are also working with national governments to replicate Everyone Forever across entire countries, and with other nonprofit partners and district governments to replicate Everyone Forever in additional districts. This is truly leveraging our experience and skills to have an increased impact through global leadership. Replication and scaling of our model has brought us into new partnerships at national levels, including in the countries where Agenda For Change works.

This World Water Day was a perfect time for me to reflect and appreciate our roots, how far we have come, and how my roots are so interconnected with Water For People’s roots. Water For People started as a small, mostly volunteer, project-based organization. We have “grown up“ to be a sophisticated global organization with sector-leading programs and world-class professionals in nine countries. I am so proud of our achievements and honored to have been part of this story. I am humbled every day by our work, the people we serve, and how much we still must do before lasting quality water and sanitation services are accessible to Everyone Forever.

I hope you will join us on this journey to help solve the global water crisis, for Everyone Forever.