Waves For Water

posted by / Magazine / January 19, 2013

Jon Rose’s Waves For Water

Jon Rose Liberia Waves For Water
Photo: DJ Struntz

Jon Rose was trying to figure out his next move. Fading from professional surfing, he was spending increasingly more time riding motorcycles through Baja and hiking in the mountains. Wandering. Wondering. What to do, what to do? Around this time Jon’s father, Jack, found a nonprofit to help teach African communities to harvest rainwater, and it inspired Jon enough to create his own pet project. The idea was to bring water purifiers to places he’d traveled as a pro surfer, places he knew needed clean water. And, you know, since he’s in the neighborhood, get some waves along the way. He’d call it Waves for Water. Soon after Jon was on his pilot trip to Indonesia, armed with a boardbag in one hand and a duffle bag with 10 filters in the other.

And while Jon doesn’t consider himself a very religious person, he uses the term “divine intervention” to describe what happened next.

While docked in the harbor in Padang, Sumatara, a 7.6 earthquake rocked nearby. In a right-place-right-time moment that would define the rest of his life, Jon hopped on a dingy with his 10 filters and motored toward the city — smoke, sirens and screams rising from shore. Local aid organizations used the filters to clean the water to treat hundreds of wounded people.

From there, his path was written. Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake, a month later in Chile and last year in Japan after the quake and subsequent Tsunami. And Waves for Water isn’t just disaster relief, in the name of prevention it’s helped poverty-and disaster-stricken communities around the globe, providing filters and literally improving or saving millions of lives.

Inspired? Yeah, us too.

Jon Rose Waves For Water
Photo: DJ Struntz

How it’s different
They’re quick. Waves for Water is like a military special ops unit within the NGO (Non Governmental Organization) world, known for going places and accomplishing things that larger organizations, immobilized by bureaucracy and protocol, cannot.

“We like to go into a place under the radar and around the red tape to get the job done quickly and efficiently,” says Jon, “and then get out before anyone can tell us that we can’t do it that way. Disaster situations are urgent, so we meet them with a paralleled urgency in the way we work.”

That’s mostly because Waves for Water is a structurally small organization with only three full-time employees. Which helps for strike missions, and to ensure that the money people donate goes where it should. “We can comfortably allocate 80 percent of funds that come in toward our projects. The Red Cross’ published numbers are 12 percent, the rest is administrative.”

How do they stay so lean? They find local leaders in the places they go, and empower them to take ownership of the project and help their communities. Which means that Jon’s got hubs around the world with people running projects that he’s set up. “I like to connect with local people and give them the tools to help themselves and their people,” says Jon. “The best case scenario is when I walk into a town where one of my guys has set up the project and people are looking at me like, ‘Who’s this guy?’”

How It Works
The filter is designed to be easy to assemble, use and clean. It takes about 5 minutes to assemble and then can be attached to most anything that holds water — jerry cans, paint buckets, water bottles — using only a pocket knife.

The filter blocks 99.99 percent of bacteria and viruses, meaning it protects people from waterborne illnesses like diarrhea, cholera and dysentery. Basically you can take water from a muddy puddle, filter it through the system and drink safely.

Each filter can provide clean drinking water for 100 people, and lasts 3 to 5 years.

Jon Rose Waves For Water
Photo: DJ Struntz

But Does It Work
“Sustainability” is all the rage in humanitarianism these days, and rightfully so. The best solutions are the ones that local communities arrive at themselves and use tools available nearby, thus eliminating the dependency on foreign aid that creates a culture expecting handouts. Jon agrees that yes, ideally this is how it would all work. But, “The fact is, we have technology that can save lives today. And so are we supposed to just sit around and let people die because they can’t get these filters locally?”

Unintended Consequences
Being friends with Sean Penn. Dating Pamela Anderson. First-class upgrades from all your frequent flier miles. Instant credibility with the ladies. Gambling fortune (we played blackjack with Jon in Monrovia, Liberia, and his stack of “Karma Chips” was chest high. Later, Ricky Whitlock, who participated in the Waves for Water project, went to Vegas and won thousands of dollars). A reminder to be thankful for what you have, and not only on Thanksgiving.

Want In?
The “Clean Water Couriers” program works on the idea that there are a lot of people traveling already, and if people are inspired to do some good along the way, they could bring filters with them and create their own small projects. “The idea isn’t to get one person to drop off 100 filters and call it a day,” says Jon. “We want to try and get 100,000 travelers to each pack 10 small filters, or team up with groups to implement projects with larger filters for an entire village. Then, the world will start to take notice.”

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