Clean water solutions for communities around the world

by Mark Huerta, 2017 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award finalist

 

I still remember the fateful day in Bangladesh when I felt the call to take action. After two days of travel from Arizona, my team and I finally arrived at the girls’ school we previously heard so much about while working on our class project, 33 Buckets.  As we approached the school, I noticed several hundred students lined up along a dirt pathway to the school. The girls showered us with flowers saying “thank you for coming!” I still remember the joy and exhilaration of that moment. Most of this rural village had never seen foreigners before, so our arrival was quite an event. This was the first of many special moments in which my team forged deep, personal connections with the students and community-members. By the end of the trip, several students remarked that our presence at the school made them the happiest they ever felt.

The trip was overwhelmingly human.

Before the trip, such an impact was not the expectation. The purpose of our trip was to evaluate the technical solution we were contemplating. We planned to locate the water source, test the water for contaminants, collect health records, and establish important communal connections. We quickly discovered that our initial approach was limited. While the lack of access to water filtration technology was an issue, our personal interactions with community members uncovered rich information. We learned that in addition to having a contaminated water source, the community knew very little about sanitation and hygiene. Interestingly, although clean water was also available in the form of bottled water, it was not affordable to most of the community. Our team’s natural inclination to make deeply personal connections the Bangladeshi people helped us learn that their water problem was far more nuanced than we initially thought.  We realized that in order to develop a sustainable solution that comprehensively addressed the root causes of the problem, we needed to factor in the human element of the community’s clean water issue. In doing so, we developed a more impactful solution model that applies a human-centered design approach that integrates filtration, education, and distribution arms to solve each of the three major problems contributing to the water crisis in this community.

When I returned home, I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose. The Bangladeshi community, especially the young girls at the school, did not have access to a fundamental human need in clean water. They were thus robbed of their well-being. The visceral feelings that I acquired from this trip pushed me to persevere through many challenges over the course of the next several years. Fundraising issues and political turmoil in Bangladesh delayed our next trip by more than a year. By that point, most of my original team graduated from college. Despite that, 33 Buckets continued moving forward. In January of 2015, I returned to Bangladesh with two new team members. We set up our first clean water initiative that included a technical filtration solution, a distribution platform, and an educational seminar. This solution proved to be sustainable as it is still utilized today, over 2 years later, providing more than 900 girls with access to clean water. Our distribution model allows this water to reach thousands more in surrounding areas.

My experiences in Bangladesh were so rewarding that I knew I had to use my newfound knowledge to grow 33 Buckets. In the summer of 2015, 33 Buckets partnered with two NGOs connected to communities in Peru and the Dominican Republic. Using our comprehensive, human-centered design approach, we again connected deeply with each community and successfully implemented clean water initiatives a year later. In particular, our Peru project had an enormous impact on local school attendance as it helped eradicate sickness among schoolchildren. They can now focus on education and reach their highest potential.

33 Buckets is primed to scale. Arizona State University filmed a video advertisement featuring our story and aired it locally during the Super Bowl, generating considerable publicity for 33 Buckets. Since then, we assessed eight communities in Peru that are in need of clean drinking water and have filed the necessary paperwork to become a non-profit. Additionally, we established key partners that can provide us access to emerging technologies as well as technical expertise in wastewater treatment. These partnerships will expand our capabilities in other environmentally friendly and sustainable solutions.  We are adding 4 to 5 new students onto our team who we will develop into full-fledged contributing members. Winning the Pritzker Prize would enable 33 Buckets to grow and provide sustainable clean water to more than 10,000 people. The financial award will greatly assist my team in its mission to make a dent in the global clean water crisis.