From One Tribe To Another: Giving The Gift Of Safe Drinking Water - WE DID IT!
As is so often the case, it all started with an email. While researchine a magazine story I was invited to visit the MSR water science lab in Seattle. The most advanced facility of its kind, the highlight of the trip was learning about their SE200 Community Chlorine Maker and how it was poised to better the lives of millions of people around the world.
Only a few months after my visit to Seattle, I traveled with MSR to Guatemala to see their system at work in the field. You can read that story [Here]. It was during that trip when I began to wonder if I could use my travels to help distribute these awesome devices to far flung corners of the world. I had a month-long trip to Nepal planned for the spring. I thought that would be my chance to distribute a water system or two. Good ideas always seem simple at the onset.
After a quick phone call to MSR, my half-baked plan was put in motion. Within no time I had ten SE200 chlorine makers sitting in my office. Considering each unit can serve a community of 200-300 people, there was a lot of potential sitting at my feet. Then reality set in. How was I going to get them to the most remote villages in Asia?
I then contacted Caleb Spear, an expat American living in Kathmandu. The founder of Portal Bikes and Portal Shelters, his team does amazing work for the people of Nepal. More emails were dispatched to the Nepali government. To my wild surprise, they offered some support. But I was still unsure if I had the means to get this project off the ground. Then I was introduced to Vishu Sijali, a professional guide in Pokhara, Nepal.
It was coming together, but getting expensive. The cost to get to remote villages and schools was stacking up. I was losing hope when a group of friends asked if they could help. Once I opened the door for others to get involved, the project took on a new life.
What started out as my project became our project. I set up a small GoFundMe campaign and made it known to a select few. We didn't need much to get things moving, but the generocity that poured in was amazing. It did more than just boost the financial logistics. It gave me the resolve I needed to push on. It made me proud to be part of my tribe.
ON THE GROUND AND ROLLING
During the initial planning stages, my most pressing concern was with ground transportation. Nepal's roadways are nortoriously bad. Fuel is expensive, and many villages I hoped to reach were only accessible via narrow paths. A motorcycle was the ideal solution, albeit not the most comfortable. It took considerable time to arrange, but on April 14th Vishu and I were finally on two bikes and rolling. Our exact destination was not fully set in stone, but the direction was––dead west. We were headed to the unmapped corners of the far west regions of Nepal where tourism revenue and government support simply does not exist.
WAMITAKSAR AND GRANDMA GOHTI
After a three-day push on some of the roughest roads I've ever traversed, we arrived at the village of Wamitaksar. Tucked into a deep valley at the foothills of the Himalayas, it's only 30 miles from the summit of Dhualagiri, the 7th tallest mountain in the world. This is a place far removed from modernity. Arriving late at night we were greeted by Gombina Gohti and his father Chandra. The Gohti family have lived in the valley for five generations and their house has long been the community epicenter.
The following morning, we gathered in the garden with a group of teachers from the local school to give our first demonstration of the chlorine maker. I was extremely nervous. My time in Guatemala revealed one unexpected reality of the MSR water project––Not everyone thinks their water is unsafe. Nor do they always feel the need for a fancy widget to keep them free from illness. As we had rehearsed, Vishu began giving our presentation. It was with great relief I noticed everyone leaning forward and fully engaged. Gombina Gohti even pulled up a stool and started taking notes, periodically asking detailed questions about the operation of the unit and the best way to fold it into their community.
THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE OF PARDULE
When we embarked on our trip, I asked Vishu to take me to places he thought had the greatest need for clean water. He researched his mental database of tiny villages and knew right where to take me. Two days beyond Wamitaksar we finally arrived on the banks of a river at the start of a tiny two-track path leading into the jungle. After another hour of arduous riding in crushing heat, we arrived at a small village made of sticks, mud, and thatch. Within seconds a group of people assembled with smiling faces and offers of tea. The Nepalese have a saying, Guest is God. And they mean it.
With the sound of monkeys screeching in the woods, we retired to the shade of a thatched hut where Sitiram, the village leader, explained their collective situation. The 80 residents of the camp were all refugees of mudslides which destroyed their village five years ago. During the recovery phase, the Nepalese government did an admirable job of relocating many of those displaced by the slides, but when it came to the people of Pardule––they were left to fend for themselves. And the insults to injury didn't stop there.
Sitiram went on to tell us how several humanitarian aid organizations visited their camp in the past, most with the promise of help. It never came. One group said they could offer assistance if there were 45 more residents.
For Vishu and me, that answer did not sit well. There is no reason why 80 people don't deserve the assistance they need to live a happy and healthy life.
KUSUM GABAR AND RA LAMA FAMILY PRIDE
With our wheels still pointed west, we pushed deeper into the lowlands of the Terei region. The temperature was pushing triple digits, further evidence we were far removed from the cool breezes of the Himalayas. It was the type of heat I struggle to endure. Just as I was about to melt, we rolled into a beautiful village on the edge of the Bardia Tiger Preserve. There we met Vishu's friends, the Ra Lama family.
Like many families, the Ra Lama clan had been displaced from their ancestral land by the formation of the Bardia Preserve. Their community of 350 farmers were forced to relocate to a low bend in the river where crocodiles and wild elephants stake their own claim to the land. Being resourceful, the Ra Lama family descided to leverage their location to lure in the few Indian and Nepalese tourists to visit Bardia. It has proven a smart attempt to earn a little extra revenue.
To that end, they had built a handful of small guest houses adjacent to their new 30-student school. The accommodations are basic, but clean. They're certainly authentic. When we handed over our last SE200 chlorine maker, the young men of the village recieved it enthusiastically. They knew well what it meant for the health of their community. Like the people of Pardule, the monsoons are a time of rampant illness for the people of Kumu Gabar. The land becomes a bacteria infested quagmire. Their new chlorine maker also made for one more selling point for visitors coming to explore the nearby preserve.
THE DREAM SCHOOL AND SECOND CHANCES
A few days after Vishu and I concluded our motorbike travels into the far western reaches of the country, I joined Caleb one more time to deliver a chlorine maker to the most worthy of recipients––the students of The Dream School. Weeks earlier Caleb told me about the school nestled in the hills near Pokhara. His company had supplied them with prefabricated shelters to accommodate their growing roster of students.
The Dream School was initially founded by an organization dedicated to rescuing children from the horrors of human trafficking. It now provides housing and education for more than 125 kids, a number they hope to double soon. Most of the kids in attendance were previuosly abandoned by their families or cast to the fringes of society. They're now surrounded by friends, in loving homes under the watchful eyes of dedicated teachers. They're also in a unique position to leverage a chlorine maker for the greater good.
At the core of the MSR campaign is a message of self-sufficiency. This is about helping people help themselves. While talking to the head teacher at the school, she mentioned how their students strive to give back to the surrounding community. They plan to use their new chlorine maker to educate their neighbors about the importance of clean water. And now they have the means to produce it. Never under estimate the power of youth.
WHY IT MATTERED - WHY IT WORKED
As I made this project known to a few of my friends and family, it was expressed several times why this effort matters. Everyone deserves the basic fundimentals of life. Water just one of them. It's also not enough to just give people clean water. We have to give them the means to make it for themselves. We have to give them the opportunity to share that resource within their own community. When I look back at why it worked––that's easy. When you assemble a tribe of good people with the goal to help another tribe of good people, anything is possible.
It's hard to measure the success of our efforts. In my head, if we helped one kid, that's enough for me. However, I deduced our little klatch of about 38 people helped provided safe drinking water to as many as 1,400 men, women, and beautiful kids. Look at these faces. If those are the only two we helped, that works for me.
AND WE'RE NOT DONE YET
Before I left Nepal for the long flight home, it was obvious our CLEAN DRINK Nepal project was not coming to an end, but just getting started. Caleb's team still has one unit to deliver to a remote village in the eastern portion of the country. Another is headed to a school outside of Kathmandu. They also have one unit to hold in reserve. Should another earthquake strike, which is likely, the Portal team will be at the ready to provide safe water to those displaced by disaster.
Perhaps the best asset we have in motion is––Vishu. Never have I met anyone so passionate about helping his fellow citizens. In the coming weeks, in a race to beat the monsoons, he plans to make the epic journey back to Pardule, Wamitaksar, and Kusum Gabar, to check on their progress. He also arranged for the placement of another 500-liter water tank in Pardule as their community grows.
During a final meeting with officials in the Nepali government, a pledge was made to help me with logistics in the coming year. What started out as a plan to bring a single water treatment solution to a few Nepali has evolved into a network of resources capable of bringing clean drinking water to thousands of people.
And now, we're doing it again. This time bigger, better, and with the support of our growing community of people dedicated to giving others––a CLEAN DRINK.
I owe a massive thank you to Patrick Diller, Owen Mesdag, Brandon Bills, and all of the people at MSR. Equal thanks is owed to Elana Rabin, Ryan Hayter, and Alexa McRoberts. Thank you to Jerri Christensen, my other sister, for suggesting I open this up to more people. Thank you to all of those who answered that call and pitched in with the fund raising. Your support allowed us to get past the last few miles to get to the villagers seemingly beyond reach. Thank you to Vishu. You're a lunatic, but you have a heart of pure gold. Thanks to Caleb Spear for your insider help on the ground and the inspiration to help those who need it. Thank you to my wife, Deana, for letting me vanish for a month. And thank you to the people of Nepal for your hospitality.