Worldwide race for water launched at UN

A foundation dedicated to helping provide solutions for potable water around the world July 25 announced an around-the-world relay next year at the United Nations, Rajesh Shah, one of four members of the foundation, told India-West.
“It’s very exciting,” he told India-West during a phone call from the United Nations. “We are a small foundation with a very big dream and out of the blue we got a lead sponsor.
“Dow Chemical heard about us, and they liked our message, and the CEO met with the founder of Blue Planet Run and decisions were made in literally weeks, and we are from zero to hundred. All this at the United Nations was all decided in the last six weeks.”
The event, attended by over 100 people, was conducted by Amir A. Dossal, executive director of the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships. UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown stood in for Secretary General Kofi Annan, and apologized for Annan’s absence, who was in Rome because of the war in Lebanon.
The Dow Chemical CEO was also on hand as well. “Water is the single most important chemical compound for the preservation and flourishing of human life,” Andrew N. Liveris said. “And yet today, more than a billion people are in peril every day because they do not have enough water or the water they have is unhealthy. Lack of clean water is the single largest cause of disease in the world and more than 4,500 children die each day because of it.”
The event has drawn some critics, however.
“How much would a corporation whose brand resonates with Agent Orange and Napalm, which acquired in 1999 Union Carbide and liability for the deaths it caused in Bhopal, India, pay to be praised by the United Nations?” the alternative newspaper Inner City Press asked rhetorically, casting doubt on the good faith of the chemical giant which has a poor reputation with environmental activists.
Shah joined the Telluride, Colo.-based Blue Planet Run Foundation two months after it was founded by Jin Zidell, an industrialist, philanthropist and environmentalist, in 2002. “The foundation’s focus is on water and I handle all the water projects,” the Indian American told India-West.
“Blue Planet Run is addressing the problem of safe drinking water that is faced by 1.2 billion people around the world. We are talking about 7-11 liters per person a day,” he added. “Next year we are going to have team runners run nonstop for almost a hundred days going across the whole world, and this event is going to highlight the cause, raise awareness and raise money. We are doing something on a fundraising scale that is so different from every other thing that has happened in the past.
“We’ll attract sponsors and the whole run is paid for by sponsors and all the excess money goes to water, but what we are expecting is that all the viewers who get interested who learn about safe drinking water will contribute $25. We estimate it’s about $25 to get a person safe drinking water for life.”
The foundation has already funded more than 40 projects in 12 countries, working with seven different organization, its Web site says. At least 35,000 people are expected to benefit.
“One out of every five human beings, they can’t trust the water they drink,” Shah explained. “For us, water is the first rung out of the ladder of poverty. If you don’t have water, it’s hard to go to school, it’s hard to be healthy, it’s hard to work to earn a livelihood, it’s impossible to do anything if you have bad water. So it’s a fundamental first helping hand that you can offer people.”
Shah, who has overseen the foundation’s water projects, has introduced an innovative concept, the Peer Water Exchange, which was announced at the World Water Forum in Mexico City in March.
“There is a major problem of scaling diverse, community-based, appropriate technology, drinking water projects involving education and a change in behavior,” Shah told India-West. “This is why over 50 percent of all water projects fail and less than five percent of projects are visited, and far less than one percent have any longer-term monitoring.”
Shah said he had built the world’s first participatory decision-making system to manage the tens of thousands of projects. The new online infrastructure – the Peer Water Exchange – conquers the problem of scale to get safe drinking water to 200 million people.
Peer Water Exchange can be seen as the first computer program designed to give decision-making power to the people working at the grassroots, Shah said. Treating local volunteers as experts with field experience, the system gives them a say on how to tackle the problems at the bottom of the pyramid around the world, connecting them to give them collective power over they work and measure themselves. It’s the first step towards a true participatory society, he added.
Solutions for potable water are more complicated than treating diseases, Shah said.
“The best example I like to give is that we don’t have to work on diseases like smallpox and polio where we have these really fabulous scientists and institutions that develop a vaccine,” he explained. “We know how to manufacture a million doses and we know how to line up everybody in India or Africa over several weekends and give them a shot. Because that shot doesn’t involve any ownership issue, there’s no transfer of knowledge, it’s the same shot no matter where you are, and there is no change in behavior.
“Now for water, it’s not owned by one person. You give it in units of families or the community. It’s a lifetime solution; you can’t give them one glass of water and say no more for the rest of your life, and the only solutions that work are the solutions that the community owns. So there is a transfer of ownership.
“Also, the solution has to be customized for each village whether it is in Rajasthan, Dhaka, on top of a hill or a bottom of a hill. So you have to have a custom solution, and then finally, there is a change in behavior. People have to not pollute the water, they have to worry about sanitation, hand-washing, those kinds of things.”
Shah is confident that with the right focus and effort, the problem of potable water can be solved. “The important thing is that for water, we have solutions, we have ones that are doable, they are achievable, they are measurable, they are sustainable,” he stated. “These solutions work for life.”
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