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Power to the People

Power to the PeopleTwo Tufts alums are working with the international nonprofit Water for People to help developing countries create sustainable solutions for clean water and sanitation.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.20.09] With World Water Day coming up on March 22, the world's attention will be drawn to a sobering fact: 20 percent of the world's population lacks clean drinking water, while almost half suffer from inadequate sanitation. Two Tufts alumni working with the international nonprofit Water for People believe the answer lies in working with local communities to develop sustainable solutions.

"The key to solving the global water and sanitation crisis is having a lot of local expertise," says Kate Fogelberg (A'01), regional director for South American programs at Water for People.

Water for People works in countries such as Honduras, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and India, collaborating with residents as well as local nonprofit and private sector groups to develop systems for clean drinking water and proper sanitation, as well as programs for hygiene education.

Fred Elwell (E'62), president of the Water for People board of directors, cites World Health Organization statistics that 2.5 billion people around the world suffer from inadequate sanitation facilities and 1 billion lack clean drinking water. He says that Water for People projects have a 97 percent rate of sustainability, meaning the communities that benefit are able to maintain them.

"The local people have to be involved and committed to the work, whether it's sanitation or drinking water and hygiene education," says Elwell. "They have to believe in what's going on and what's happening with the program and make it sustainable."

After graduating from Tufts with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, Elwell worked for the Manchester, N.H., water system. Later, he became affiliated with the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the world's oldest organization of water professionals, with 60,000 members. In 1992, during Elwell's tenure as president of the AWWA, the organization formed Water for People as a means of extending the expertise of the American water industry to communities around the world.

What started as a small organization with a staff of two now has 40 staff on-site around the world, raising more than $6 million per year and drawing two to three times that amount in funding from project partners. In addition, the nonprofit's World Water Corps volunteer program attracts college graduates to participate in program evaluation, conducting monitoring, mapping and needs assessment on project sites around the world.

The young volunteers, says Elwell, "have a strong belief and need to do something beyond their everyday job, or it is their everyday job to do something that's meaningful in the world."

Fogelberg, who initially became involved with Water for People as a volunteer, says that water issues are gaining more attention as people realize how connected the resource is to sectors ranging from public health and food security to climate change.

"You can invest X amount of money in vaccines or antiretrovirals for HIV/AIDS, but if people don't have basic things like drinking water that won't make them sick or a place where they can hygienically use the bathroom, those investments are then lost," says Fogelberg. "I think this growing consciousness of other sectors that are so closely linked to water has moved it up on the agenda."

At Tufts, Fogelberg majored in international relations and studied in both New Zealand and Madagascar. After varied experiences around the world such as teaching English in Guatemala and volunteering in Mexico, she received her master's degree in international development and health from the University of Denver. It was as a graduate student that she began volunteering with Water for People, working her way up to her current role.

In regions like South America, where Fogelberg is based, there are unique challenges to overcome. Among these challenges is creating a demand for sanitation in a culture where people have functioned for centuries by "taking care of their needs in the open air."

"It doesn't work to go in and drop off a latrine," she says, noting that explaining the benefits of such facilities from a health perspective is actually less effective than presenting it as a matter of "convenience, comfort and status."

Fogelberg credits the international background and interdisciplinary outlook she gained at Tufts for preparing her well for her current line of work.

"We wouldn't look at a problem from [just] a political standpoint or economic standpoint or technical standpoint," she recalls. "I remember [talking] with various professors trying to devise different and comprehensive solutions, which I think we do every day at Water for People."

The solutions that the organization helps develop, Fogelberg and Elwell hope, will endure long after Water for People has moved on.

"To me, our real goal is that everything we do is sustainable," says Fogelberg. "I would love to see that in 10 years all of our water and sanitation programs are being used and folks are continuing to practice good hygiene behavior."

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