By working to make safe water accessible to all, Global Water Challenge—Travel + Leisure’s new charity partner—is helping save millions of lives.
On an overcast day in a Bangalore neighborhood called Peenya, a scooter puttered up a short mud path and stopped outside a concrete structure marked DR. WATER. The driver, a young woman in a pink tunic and pants, dismounted. She was about to pick up her empty water bottle when her son—four years old, perhaps—grabbed it instead. He wasn’t much bigger than the five-gallon bottle, yet he insisted on setting it under a faucet and filling it himself. Once it was full, he looked up at his mother imploringly; laughing, she picked up the bottle.
Until Dr. Water opened in Peenya, Neela Gangadhar’s family drew its drinking water from a borewell in her housing development. She described the water quality as decent—by local standards. “We’d fall ill occasionally with a fever,” she said with a shrug. The alternative was state-supplied drinking water, in theory potable, but arriving for just an hour every two or three days, and delivered by a network of aging pipes. “They put bleach in it to kill the bugs, and it smells,” she said, with a wrinkle of her nose.
Gangadhar’s neighborhood is fortunate to have its own borewell. Government figures show that around 46 million Indians lack access to safe drinking water, and this figure excludes the many millions more who drink from contaminated ground wells. Nearly 38 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases every year—which is why Gangadhar drives out to the Dr. Water plant every two days and fills her container, for five rupees. The plant gets several hundred customers daily: business owners buying water for their staff, entrepreneurs running delivery services, children filling bottles on their way home from school.
The Peenya plant is one of roughly 450 purifying units in India operated by WaterHealth International. Fifty more have been set up in Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia. In these countries, and in dozens of others, lack of access to clean water remains an urgent problem, and WHI hopes to be a part of the solution. Its objective is to retail clean, affordable water under the Dr. Water brand, and it plans to sell around 150 million gallons next year, all the while striving to keep prices low. For 2016, T+L has partnered with WHI, as part of the Global Water Challenge coalition of companies and nonprofits, to help drive fund-raising efforts and heighten awareness of the issue.
In the U.S., WHI’s most prominent standard-bearer is Jacqueline Lundquist, whose official title is vice president of corporate affairs but who prefers to call herself “chief serendipity officer.” Lundquist’s association with WHI was, in a way, serendipitous. She first came to India in 1995 on her honeymoon, and then again in 1998 when her husband, Richard Celeste, was appointed the American ambassador in New Delhi. “He was one of those ambassadors who went everywhere,” Lundquist said, and so she went with him, traveling widely around the country. After they returned to the U.S., she maintained her connection with India, leading groups of travelers on bespoke trips. “Every time, we all felt this urge to give back to India,” she said. “I knew of WaterHealth and the unique business model they had.” In 2010, she joined the company full time.
WHI’s model is, out of necessity, simple. Its plants are no larger than college dorm rooms, plug-and-play affairs that can be set up and dismantled with ease. The plants are manned by employees from the community, who each undergo four weeks of training. Municipalities provide the land required as well as access to a water source: a pond, a stream, a tube well. With its own funds, or through grants, WHI builds the plants and operates them for 20 years, before offering municipalities the chance to take over. “The government still owns the land and the source, so it isn’t like the water is being privatized,” Lundquist said.
A for-profit model is, WHI believes, vital. In India, governments aim to provide drinking water at a cost of two rupees per five gallons, but Lundquist believes this is unsustainable. WHI charges five to eight rupees per five gallons of water, the equivalent of around 10 cents. (The average wage in India is around $4 per day.) This cost is still lower than other commercial alternatives, but allows WHI to turn a profit that it puts toward building new treatment plants.
Outside a Dr. Water plant in Lingarajapuram, another Bangalore locality, is a line of slums. I asked Keshav Dutt, who heads WHI’s operations in the state, whether the residents were pleased to have a source of clean water in their backyard. Not entirely, Dutt said. “They still prefer state water or borewell water, because it’s free. They’re not convinced of the dangers of drinking that water.” It’s part of WHI’s work to persuade them, he said—to point, for instance, to the fact that health-care costs have dropped in communities in which WHI works. “It’ll take some time to convince them. But it’s important to try.”