Bringing Clean Drinking Water to a Thirsty World

Inside the tidy houses that line Easton’s country roads, local residents pursue a wide-ranging mix of occupations, opening windows on the world beyond the safe harbor of their home offices.

More people than ever run their business and professional practices out of their homes since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down schools, businesses, restaurants and virtually all gathering places in March. A phased reopening is now in effect, but the pandemic is far from over. 

Easton resident Christoph Gorder works for charity:water, an international nonprofit, which has provided clean water to more than 11 million people since its founding in 2006. He typically spends half the year traveling to remote parts of the world, partnering with local people and organizations to help communities gain access to clean, potable water. 

Across the world, 785 million people lack access to clean drinking water, according to charity:water. The vast majority live in remote, rural parts of Africa and Asia. Ordinarily Gorder leads the team at the nonprofit’s New York City headquarters. Their partners in 22 countries employ more than a thousand local aid workers on the ground to build water projects for people in need. 

“With the outbreak of Covid-19, our New York team has spread out across 10 states,” he said. “We put together a team to monitor the situation in late February and prepare to work remotely. On March 5, there was a case reported in our office building, so the decision was made quickly. We were ready and staff safety was our top priority.”

His prediction is that they’ll have more remote staff in the future and will need a smaller office space. He expects this will be a fairly common phenomenon for many organizations. In any event, they don’t plan to reopen the New York office before January.

Long Term Approach

Christoph Gorder of charity:water near Gulu, Uganda with a local king

Building a sustainable water system starts long before the actual construction, according to Gorder. “We work closely with expert local partners and local governments to support the institutional mechanisms that are going to ensure the clean water keeps flowing for many years. Local ownership is the key to long-term success.

“Generally, we pick an area in a country — a district, for example — where we’re going to focus our efforts for the next five to 10 years until everyone gets clean water and we can move onto the next district. This long view really helps because we can stay connected to projects for a long time after they’ve been built. If the communities run into challenges they can’t resolve themselves, our monitoring can identify the gaps and help the local teams solve them.” 

The water systems are diverse because the  people who need them live in a wide range of environments: jungles in the Central African Republic, mountains in Nepal, deserts in Mali. In Ethiopia, for example, a common solution is a drilled well that’s about 150 feet deep with a hand pump that serves a village of 250 people and costs about $10,000, Gorder said. In Rwanda, it’s a massive 30-mile piped network with pumping stations and reservoirs that might serve 15,000 people and costs over $1 million. 

He’s excited about progress in developing new technologies. With support from Google, they’ve been able to develop a remote sensor that measures the flow of water at projects and transmits the data to local repair teams. 

“I think the technology has huge potential to help keep clean water flowing in very difficult environments,” Gorder said.

Covid-19 in the Developing World

Covid-19 is now in every country where charity:water is working. “It’s a huge concern because of how weak the healthcare systems are in the developing world,” Gorder said. “A number of African countries don’t even have a single ventilator in the whole country. So, the strategy can’t really rely on flattening the curve; there just aren’t enough hospital beds. The strategy needs to be about prevention, and that’s precisely where clean water and health education — our every day work — is critically valuable.”

Their partners have told them they need to leverage their expertise for direct response against the pandemic. They’re building handwashing stations at clinics and public locations like markets. They distribute PPE to frontline workers and supply vulnerable families with soap and hygiene materials. And, a big effort is being placed on health education, promoting hand washing and training community health workers. 

International Upbringing 

Christoph Gorder of charity:water near Shire, Ethiopia

Gorder’s parents were Lutheran missionaries in Africa, and he spent the first 17 years of his life growing up in the Central African Republic and Nigeria. 

Prior to charity: water, he spent almost 15 years at AmeriCares, the Stamford-based disaster response organization. He worked with local hospitals, clinics and ministries of health around the world and here in the United States.

He was a first responder with AmeriCares, running field operations after earthquakes, hurricanes and wars. After the initial response, he and the team would take on major reconstruction projects and rebuild hospitals and healthcare facilities. Over time, his role shifted from the field into leadership. 

“It was a great experience and it’s a great organization,” he said. “The thing that prepared me for AmeriCares and for working internationally was how I grew up.”

At Home in Easton

Gorder, 47, and his wife, Alisha, have lived in Easton for seven years. They met when they were college students and travelled abroad to Spain. The couple has two children, Anya, 15, and Leo, 12. 

Alisha and the kids have been able to travel with him so they got a sense of the work he does. “It’s strange to not travel at all right now,” he said. “This is the longest period of time to be home in my life.”

The Aspetuck Land Trust blueberry patch is open to members only. — Nancy Doniger File Photo

“I like Easton’s farms and farm stands, the rural character, riding my bike past the reservoirs and the very beautiful green space,” Gorder said. “We’re members of the Aspetuck Land Trust. I don’t know of any other group with a blueberry patch for members. It’s pretty cool.”

Everyone Can Help

Funding for charity:water comes from “an amazing, broad group of supporters from all walks of life,” Gorder said. Many people donate monthly, some people sponsor a project for an entire village. Among their donors, is a very special group who specifically choose in to pay overhead and operating expenses, so that 100% of the public’s donations can go to the field.

The pandemic is having a big impact on fundraising forecasts. With so many people losing their jobs and businesses, the economic impact on supporters is significant. 

“But, at the same time, we’re inspired by how loyal our supporters are and the sacrifices they’re making to help people who are less fortunate, even while they go through big challenges of their own,” he said. 

Everyone can help and can make a difference. It only costs about $40 to give one person clean water. For an entire village, it’s about $10,000, and 100% of donations go to the field, he said. 

Gorder thinks people who are interested in helping will enjoy this video about charity:water’s work:

Another powerful video about an amazing little girl named Tarik is especially relevant for younger readers:

“The impact is amazing: women and girls don’t have to walk hours every day for dirty water, children are cleaner and healthier, school attendance goes up,” Gorder said. “Clean water is the foundation of all human development and, unlike many of the world’s problems, we know exactly how to solve it. We just need your help.”

More information about charity: water is on the website: charity:water.

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