Scott Harrison found meaning in life by starting charity: water

By building freshwater wells, rainwater catchments, or providing sand filters, charity: water finds simple solutions to help solve the world’s water crisis: Roughly 1 in 9 people around the globe lack access to clean water.

Courtesy of charity: water
Scott Harrison is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a nonprofit group working to bring safe and clean drinking water to more than 800 million people in developing nations.

Many people might not think twice about getting a drink of water from the kitchen sink.

But for Scott Harrison, such a simple action has a much deeper meaning.

Mr. Harrison is the founder and CEO of charity: water, a nonprofit organization working to bring safe and clean drinking water to the more than 800 million people living in developing nations who have never had such a luxury.

Whether building freshwater wells or rainwater catchments, or providing sand filters, charity: water prides itself on finding simple solutions to help solve the world’s water crisis – one the organization says impacts roughly 1 in every 9 persons around the globe.

“I think we've tried to make it easy for people to engage in the issue, and give,” Mr. Harrison says. “There are many layers of complexity, and our work looks different in each context around the world. But at its simplest, there are 800 million people who have been born in communities where there's simply no clean water available.

“There are many solutions to help, like digging and drilling wells, constructing biosand household filters, rainwater-harvesting systems, or piped spring protection systems. Through charity: water's unique model, 100 percent of public donations go directly to the field, as our staff and operating costs are supported by 100 private donors, and we prove [the existence of] every single project on Google Maps using photos and GPS.”

Since its founding in 2006, charity: water has become involved in some 20 countries around the world, with issues of poverty, political stability, local leadership, and water scarcity being factors that determine where its work can have the greatest benefit.

To date, the organization has funded 9,015 projects that have the capability to provide access to clean water to some 3.3 million people.

But Harrison wasn’t always fighting to solve the world’s water shortage.

He had been a promoter for major nightclubs and fashion events in New York City when, in 2004, he decided to make a change.

“Desperately unhappy, I needed to change,” he recounted. “Faced with spiritual bankruptcy, I wanted desperately to revive a lost Christian faith with action and asked the question: What would the opposite of my life look like?”

He began his journey through volunteering with Mercy Ships, a humanitarian organization that offers free medical care for the poorest around the world via a floating hospital, for which he served as a photojournalist.

The images he witnessed and photographed – visions of poverty and human suffering he never before had imagined – stuck with him as he tried to find a way to do his part.

And thus charity: water came to be.

“For 10 years I lived selfishly and arrogantly, giving very little – if anything – back to anyone else,” he says. “The fact that I've been able to redeem that lost decade and use some of those skills learned from nightlife to serve others is such an honor, and some days I just can't believe that I actually get to do this for a living.”

Harrison says he is constantly inspired by the people who support his organization, notably those who "donate" their birthdays through giving up gifts and parties and instead asking for donations to charity: water.

"We've had several people walk across the United States for charity: water, and a few groups and individuals bike the same distance,” he says. “We've had people skydive, write haikus from Afghanistan, shave their beards, give up wedding gifts, and even sail across the Atlantic Ocean – all to raise awareness and money.”

Beyond the work of those who support charity: water, the images Harrison has seen of poverty and suffering across the globe continue to remain in his mind.

“I've now walked in hundreds of villages with and without access to clean drinking water. I've seen what it means for women to literally walk over five hours every single day to get water that makes their kids sick,” he says. “I've seen children drinking from swamps, ponds, and rivers that you or I wouldn't let our dogs drink from that are filled with leeches and disease.

“But thanks to our supporters around the world, we've now funded water projects that will bring clean water to more than 9,000 villages in 20 countries. We say that water changes everything, and it's unbelievable to see a drilling rig find clean water buried in an aquifer 300 feet beneath a school or village, and celebrate with the community.”

Despite the successes of charity: water, Harrison says the organization’s work is far from done.

“We hope to help 100 million people get access to clean water in the next 10 years,” he says, “which means we are going to have to figure out how to raise more than $3 billion.”

• To learn more about charity: water or to provide support, visit www.charitywater.org.

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