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When Disasters Strike, Water Systems Follow

When disasters strike around the world, the Water Mission rushes in to provide safe drinking water. In 2021, the nonprofit served more than 260,000 survivors of ten disasters, including an earthquake in Haiti and a historic winter power-outage in Texas. Ukraine was not on that list of calamities. It will be this year.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, it launched a massive exodus from the country. Families, especially women, children, and seniors, fled to nearby nations like Poland, Moldova, and Romania.

Those countries already had modern sewer and sanitation systems, and their citizens—like those in Ukraine—did not think much about water. Water flowed from taps, and toilets took care of waste.

But as Water Mission arrived, it found that its relief efforts, to quickly bring drinking water and sanitation to thousands of refugees, were “unlike anything we’ve ever done,” said George Greene IV, Water Mission’s president and chief executive officer. His parents founded the nonprofit twenty years ago.

“Churches and groups are normally running from nine in the morning until five at night in these places, like everywhere else,” said Greene. “Then, all of a sudden, they open their doors to bring in twenty refugee families and their utility bills increase, and their systems come under threat of breaking.”

Many churches and civic organizations that have taken in Ukrainian refugees are located in rural areas and rely on underground septic tanks, he added. Wastewater is cleaned and treated, becoming available again. “Water Mission is pumping out septic tanks for these groups. The freed-up room will help them get ahead of the increased burden on their area’s infrastructure and prevent problems in the future.” Greene says.

Meeting Emergency Needs

But the nonprofit did not end its aid efforts there.

As part of its work in developing countries, Water Mission builds small, efficient water-treatment systems and latrines that are then operated by local officials and groups. The setup for those systems is fast and easy, Greene said.

When Water Mission officials assessed the refugee situations in Poland, Moldova, and Romania, they realized they should construct the water-treatment systems and latrines they have been building in developing countries.

Residents near La Concordia, Mexico, formed a safe water committee to manage the water treatment solution Water Mission helped build.   ©Water Mission
Residents near La Concordia, Mexico, formed a safe water committee to manage the water treatment solution Water Mission helped build. ©Water Mission

“We stock water treatment systems, so why not tailor those to the needs of the countries taking in Ukrainian refugees?” Greene said. “We’re problem solvers,” he added. “We don’t have a silver bullet that’s the answer to every problem, but we can adapt our programming to fit the needs. With disasters, you have to respond quickly.”

The Water Mission has employees in Poland who were easy to mobilize and could work in the three countries. And there were other nonprofits to collaborate with.

“When disasters happen, you see groups come together that are referred to as clusters, which coordinate WASH [water, sanitation, and hygiene] efforts,” Greene said. “We engage with all the other WASH players within those clusters. … Water is a solvable crisis.”

“In the United States, we solved the problem more than 100 years ago with the advent of sanitation systems,” he said. But there is much work to be done—more than half the world’s population doesn’t have access to a toilet, and public toilets in developing communities can quickly become dirty and riven with disease, Greene said.

Bringing Relief into Ukraine

The Water Mission’s relief efforts are not restricted to Ukraine’s neighbors. The group is also working directly in Ukraine.

In keeping with its mission of tailoring the solution to fit the needs, the nonprofit asked aid groups operating inside Ukraine about their greatest needs. Their response was to help get people out of the country. Water Mission promptly donated three nine-person passenger vans. The vans heading into Ukraine are filled with food, fresh water, and medical supplies, which drivers drop off in hard-hit communities. The drivers then load the vans with refugees and drive them to safety.

©By Pakkin Leung
©By Pakkin Leung

“Towns and communities have been devastated,” Greene said. “The expectation is that even more of this type of equipment and aid will be needed in the future.” Maintaining systems is also a priority.

To keep water running in the communities it serves, Water Mission partners with companies that supply parts for those systems. These include generators that provide the power to pump and clean water.

“Those types of generators aren’t needed yet in the countries taking in Ukrainian refugees, but that could easily change,” Greene said. “Moldova is concerned Russia will cut off its natural gas supply. Suddenly, they’d have hospitals with no power, and they’d need to request backup generators fast. To get those quickly and on demand would be a tough dynamic.”

One of Water Mission’s corporate partners is Polar Power Inc., which makes generators and has a branch in France. The wheels are moving between these two entities, and the nonprofit will be quick on the ground with power generators, should Moldova need them, Greene added.

Launched by a Hurricane

Water Mission’s swift response to Ukraine’s refugees stems from its 20-year history and its background in engineering and chemistry. It started with the 1998 arrival of Hurricane Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. Greene’s parents, Molly and George Greene, were operating an environmental engineering company in Charleston, South Carolina, when they heard about the devastation in Honduras. They flew down to offer their engineering skills.

The water-treatment systems Water Mission provides to small communities in developing countries may have a homemade look, but they work as well as a system in a developed country.   ©Water Mission
The water-treatment systems Water Mission provides to small communities in developing countries may have a homemade look, but they work as well as a system in a developed country. ©Water Mission

The Greenes received requests for multiple water treatment systems but were unable to find existing systems that would work, so they built their own.

In Honduras, they were shocked to discover a river that was a deep brown color of chocolate milk and filled with toxins and bacteria. Even after the Greenes’ newly built water systems went into operation, the wary locals still refused to drink the water. So, the Greenes drank their purified water to prove its safety.

Four years later, they founded the Water Mission to respond to clean water and sanitation crises around the world. Over the past two decades, the organization has provided safe water, sanitation, and hygiene solutions in fifty-seven countries. More than 400 staff members work around the world in permanent country programs, Greene said.

Cleaning Water Around the World

Water Mission currently has more than 400 disaster and community development projects underway.

One project close to Greene’s heart brought safe water to three refugee camps in Tanzania that are home to 250,000 displaced Congolese and Burundian refugees. The average stay in a refugee camp is between fourteen and seventeen years, Greene said, adding that Water Mission began work in the three camps about six years ago.

The project at the Nyarugusu, Nduta, and Mtendeli refugee camps is also the world’s largest solar-powered pumping solution.

Solar-operated systems may cost more to construct, but the ongoing costs are much lower than those for fuel-powered pumps. Greene said the solar-powered system pays for itself in under two years when compared to diesel fuel.

And, of course, the sun is available everywhere, whereas diesel fuel has to be continually brought into the camps.

The Water Mission has gone on to drill six deep wells at one of the camps. The wells started operating in 2019 and now bring chlorinated drinking water to about 150,000 people, Greene said.

“Drilling wells for well water was never done before at this scale or in these conditions,” he said.

Whether for disaster relief, as in the three countries close to Ukraine, or for community development, such as the Tanzania projects, Water Mission’s solutions are simple and robust.

“When it comes to water projects, we see a lot of charities doing the work where they see the need,” Greene said. “But people can’t tackle solutions they haven’t been trained to deal with.”

So how long will the Water Mission stay in Poland, Moldova, and Romania?

“As long as it takes,” Greene said grimly. “We’re not going to leave until the fighting stops and Ukrainian citizens can return home. Even then, we’ll start to build water-treatment systems in areas where they were bombed out.”


*Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer living in St. Paul. She writes about engineering issues.


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