What if you didn’t have access to running water and toilets in your home and around your community? It’s hard to imagine life without our sprawling water system. We rely on water for nourishment, to clean and transport waste, for irrigation on ornamental yards and to grow food on large farms. Water is always available at our demand. Unfortunately in many countries a lack of clean water causes illness, there are dangers of traveling long distances to collect it, and spending most of each day to find it takes away from other activities like work and education. Women suffer most from the unavailability of safe water because it is generally their job to collect it and care for those who become ill from the lack of it.
Gemma Bulos has a built a resume of education and innovation on the issue of safe water around the world. Most recently she has been creating positive change in Africa, through the Global Women’s Water Initiative. By working with existing organizations in Africa, this program educates and trains women to implement appropriate water, sanitation, and hygiene strategies in their communities. Women are also trained for leadership positions to support and raise awareness on water related issues in their communities, governments and NGO’s(Non-governmental Organization).
What inspired you to educate others about sustainable water practices and respect for the environment? Wow, it was totally accidental. There’s an epic story to it all, so I won’t go into detail. But you can learn all about it on my TEDx talk: WATCH: TEDx Talk “How to Accidentally Change the World” on YouTube or Ted.com.
In a nutshell, I had no background in environment, international development, women’s rights, sustainability, NOTHING! I was a preschool teacher and a professional jazz singer in NYC. On Tues, 9/11, I was supposed to getting off my normal subway train in the basement of the WorldTradeCenter when the planes hit. Instead I called in sick. Totally devastated by the tragedy, while at the same time deeply moved by the incredible generosity and collaboration that NYC exemplified during that time, I had an inspiration to build some kind of movement to build that unity and connectedness again, only this time through celebration. Celebration that we are all the same – and that we want the same things for our family – food, shelter, health, opportunity.
So, as a musician, I wrote a song called ‘We Rise’ and had this crazy notion that I was going to build a Million Voice Choir around the world to sing it. So I left life as I knew it, gave away all my belongings, tossed my career and walked away from a rent control apartment. I took my backpack and guitar and what little money I had saved and started to travel around the world to invite people to be part of this global peace movement. People around the globe started hearing about this mission (mind you this was pre-Facebook/Twitter even email culture) and took care of me all along my journey. They were handing me airline tickets, bus passes, places to stay, even thousands of dollars before I would go to my next destination.
It just so happened that one of the themes of the song is the concept that ‘it takes a single drop of water to start a wave’, one person to initiate social change. That was my invitation to people – to see themselves as that drop of water where their every thought, word and action was that powerful drop and was guaranteed to ripple out and effect those around them. So I started to get known as the ‘lady singing for water’ and soon got invited to sing at the UN Water For Life Conference where I learned about the global water crisis. I had no idea there were over a billion people who lacked access to water, 3-5 million dying of water related disease every year. It was then that I knew that the metaphor of a single drop had much deeper meaning and my mission shifted from just bringing people together through song, but using the movement as a vehicle to raise the awareness of the global water crisis as I toured the world building the Million Voice Choir.
Water was such a powerful metaphor for peace and collaboration. Part of my message was to invite people to see that water was a master equalizer; that the smallest plant and the richest man needed it to survive. We may not agree on politics, religion or culture, but we all could agree that water was essential for all life on the planet. Just as water had the potential to shape the sides of mountains, it also had the potential to bring people together to have a conversation, and even more powerful – collaborate.
So it was with these simple tenants – a single small action can shape and influence, and finding shared interests and using that as a launching point for collaboration – was the foundation for the work I would eventually find myself doing – uniting communities through water.
After our first project in 2006, our community-driven water programs have been recognized as ‘innovative’ and won multiple awards in the social entrepreneur, humanitarian and technology sector and resulted in local communities providing their own solutions to bring clean water and sanitation to over 250,000 people in Asia in Africa. And it all started with a song.
What steps did you take to start this particular journey? The day I invited people to sing ‘We Rise’ was September 21, 2004. On that day, after nearly 3 years of non-stop travel across 5 continents, the Million Voice Choir had people singing ‘We Rise’ from all over the globe in over 100 cities in 60 countries. But it was a bittersweet moment because after the 6 minutes of united song, I had to ask myself ‘What about minute 7? What does peace look like on the ground?” And of course the answer was simple. Clean water. So I ravenously started researching water solutions and learned some technologies that some layman like me could build. In short, I won an award from Queen Latifah and CoverGirl, took the $10,000, went back to the Philippines, my country of heritage and brought these new technologies that I learned.
Of course we had difficulties at first thinking ‘we had the answer’, as many well-intentioned international folks believe trying to impose our ideas and solutions on the local people. We quickly learned that the technology was not where we needed to make our investments of time and resources – but people. So within just a month of our program, we shifted all of our focus on listening to what the community needed and designing a program that would support them to be able to identify their local problems and then implement, construct, maintain and generate income from their own solutions. They designed their own projects from start to finish and all we did was help steward the process.
With this new community-led development model within months of being in the country, we were offered a $50,000 grant from the Canadian Embassy which required that we open an office in the Philippines. Again, another accident since we had only intended to be there for less than a year. The organization, A Single Drop for Safe Water is about to celebrate its 7th Anniversary and it’s already hit some major milestones. First, there are over 30 staff in two country offices. Secondly, ASDSW operated as a engineering and training firm and professionalized their services. ASDSW was determined to not be dependent on charitable donations, and by year 4, was able to cover all its operating costs on our professional fees. And lastly, the programs that ASDSW developed have changed the way water issues are addressed in rural, island and disaster prone regions of the Philippines by putting the control and decision-making in the hands of the community.
By the time I left in Sept 2010, I had won prestigious Social Entrepreneur awards from Echoing Green, Schwab Foundation and Ernst Young and ASDSW won the Tech Humanity Award and the Warriors of the Millennium Development Goals.
I left ASDSW in 2010 when they were at a point in their growth where I was no longer needed and began to focus solely on building the Global Women’s Water Initiative, a program I co-founded with Jan Hartsough of Crabgrass and Melinda Kramer of Women’s Earth Alliance. I was finding in the Philippines that many of the community water cooperatives we were forming had women elected as the leaders of the organizations; hich is not the case in many parts of the world. I believed that having women play a lead role addressing an issue that they are most affected by, could be one of the reasons it could be sustainable. Women are the most burdened by the lack of water and sanitation in that they are the ones responsible for fetching it, doing all the water related chores, caretaking sick family members when they fall ill and finally, lose out on livelihood opportunities because they are spending time doing water related chores.
So the mission to train women to become Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) technicians, educators, entrepreneurs and leaders emerged from that experience.
What was or are the hardest obstacle(s) to overcome in getting your message to the masses? In terms of raising the awareness of the global water crisis to people who live in the developed world, it is hard to get them to deeply understand the water and sanitation struggles that women, families and communities face in the developing world because they have infinite amount of piped water available to them and complicated infrastructure to move waste where they don’t have the risk of getting sick. its difficult to have Westerners understand that lack of water and sanitation is not only an health issue, but a safety and development issue.
As it relates to safety, women on average carry a 5-gallon container on their head, shoulders and back, sometimes spending upwards of 8 hours fetching it, and often times on rugged terrain increasing their risk of physical injury not to mention rape. Also, that water can be contaminated, putting herself and family at risk of water related disease. It is estimated that over 1/2 the hospital beds in the world on any given day are occupied by people with water related disease.
As it relates to development, because women and girls can spend much of their time and energy on water related chores, they don’t have access to education and then reducing their chances of being able to have a sustainable livelihood. Further, when family members fall sick, money is spent on medical expenses and people cannot work losing income and productivity. Water in essence affects nearly every aspect of our lives – health, livelihood, education, productivity, industry, agriculture…nearly everything.
In terms of changing behavior at the local level to ensure that people are employing proper hygiene practices to reduce the risk of water-related disease, the difficulty is convincing and showing people that it is contaminated water that is making them sick. Many don’t know that water makes them sick and others don’t know that their water is dirty. Sanitation is a huge problem and it is directly related to water and hygiene health.
People don’t know the linkages between hygiene, clean water, water source protection and proper disposal of human waste so it’s not often a priority when people think about their own water solutions. Having women as the educators, in our opinion, is one way to make sure this information and knowledge is shared with their children and their neighbors and can be the ones to enforce proper practices since she has the most at stake as the responsible caretaker of the household.
What is your proudest accomplishment so far in relation to your work? I would have to say 2 of my proudest accomplishments would be the work I’ve done with A Single Drop for Safe Water and now with Global Women’s Water Initiative. With ASDSW, we were able to build the organization from a traditional non-profit where we solicited charitable donations to start-up. Within five years we were able to transform to a social entrepreneur operation where we were able to professionalize our services so our fees covered all our operations, freeing us from dependence on charitable donations. We felt it was important that if we were building self-reliant locally driven organizations that could generate its own income, we had to become one ourselves. We were recognized by Echoing Green, Schwab Foundation and Ernst Young as the best emerging social entrepreneurs and even the Tech Awards, an award recognizing innovative technologies benefitting technologies, recognized us for our community driven model, and not any one technology.
Regarding GWWI, we developed a program training grassroots’ women who had never built anything in their lives and support them to become water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) technicians, educators and social entrepreneurs. With the new skills they learned from our GWWI program, many of them have been able to provide much needed services in their communities, diversify their income by getting hired to construct WASH technologies and making and selling water related products, and invited participate in unexpected leadership positions on committees and networks. Two women who were selected to participate in our inaugural fellowship program were ultimately hired to manage our East Africa program, started their own organizations and are poised to take over all GWWI regional operations and coordination.
How can people get involved either through your work or in their own communities? Women and girls are disproportionately affected by the lack of water and sanitation. Women and girls can spend upwards of 8 hours fetching water. Women have no access to income-generating opportunities and girls can’t go to school. Often the water is contaminated and the whole family is at risk of getting sick, and it is the responsibility of women and girls to take care of the family in which case they lose productivity and spend money on clinic visits and medicine. Not to mention the risks they face being attacked or even raped when they are walking long distances to fetch water or relieving themselves openly when there are no toilets available.
Raising the awareness of these challenges would certainly help us to address these issues and get the support we need. How can people support? Be the voices for the women and champion our cause by hosting awareness raising events, launch campaigns to highlight the GWWI graduates and perhaps even sponsor some of the women who are participating in our training program.
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This interview is from a book that includes 10 other amazing people who are creating positive change. You can read the full book and buy a copy for your school at Bookemon.com. Buy the e-book for 99 Cents on Amazon.com.