| Print Story | E-Mail Story | Font Size

Water Warrior

Jon Rose believes your next vacation is the solution to one of the world's deadliest problems.

John Rose

In September of 2009, Laguna Beach native and then-pro surfer Jon Rose was on a boat trip, hunting waves in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands. The water was clear and warm, the surf was good, the sun was shining. But things in Rose’s world weren’t so, well, rosy. The 31-year-old was broke – the Mentawai trip represented the last of his money – his pro surfing career was in trouble, as was his marriage, and his Laguna home was going into foreclosure.

        Then, like a bomb sent straight from fate, Rose’s troubles were shaken into sharp perspective with a 7.6-magnitude earthquake 35 miles offshore of Padang, the largest city in the western coast of Sumatra. It was also Rose’s next stop. The resulting tsunami laid ruin to the city of 650,000 and when Rose’s yacht pulled into port the scene that greeted him and his shipmates was apocalyptic.

        Without hesitation, Rose went ashore and paid a kid on a moped to drive him through the city looking for an aid station. Rose had packed 10 small water filters in his bag at the suggestion of his father, Jack Rose, a Laguna Beach carpenter who had been building water catchment systems in Africa to help the poor attain clean water. Jon had agreed to bring the filters, each of which could transform the dirtiest runoff into clean drinking water for up to 100 people, to a village that needed them – between catching waves, that is. Now, hanging onto the back of a moped, dodging rubble, rebar and corpses, Rose had no idea how he or his filters could help. But he knew he had to try.

        Finally, Rose found a makeshift medical help center manned by the Indonesian Red Cross and discovered that what they needed most was clean water for scrubbing wounds. To the astonishment of aid workers, Rose grabbed a used gasoline jug from the side of the road, attached one of his filters and turned the fetid water from a nearby storm basin into clean, potable water. To prove it, he drank a cup right in front of them.
Rose and his friends returned home a few days later, and while Rose had plenty of fires in his own life to put out, he found himself focused on one thought: How do I get more filters back to Indonesia to help more people?

        “When you have one of those life-changing experiences like I had in Indonesia, you see things differently. You see a kid die from dirty water and you think, what a waste. It just became so clear what I needed to do,” says Rose. “I became obsessed. I thought, ‘I need to do more. Now.’”

        Waves for Water was born. It was crude and simple, and pretty much just Rose. His focus was to get as many filters as he could and return to Indonesia.

        Then Sean Penn called. It was in relation to his relief efforts in the 2010 Haiti earthquake that caused massive destruction, loss of life and a deadly lack of access to safe drinking water. Penn had caught a report about Rose’s work in Indonesia and wanted to know if Rose could get him 4,000 filters the next day. Rose had 1,000 filters and no idea how to get more. Without hesitation, he said yes.

        If Indonesia was the birth of Waves for Water (W4W), Haiti was where the organization grew up. Rose says the horrors of Haiti – 200,000 killed, bloated bodies buried in mass graves, dead children in rubble-strewn streets – and the massive, but often ineffective, relief efforts of some of the world’s biggest aid organizations showed him what was right with the aid world, and, more important, what was wrong. As a “newbie” and outsider, he says he saw that many of the large NGOs were completely paralyzed by their oversized and complicated bureaucracies. They had the money and the solutions, but were stumbling over themselves trying to get it to the people.

        Rose was determined to help, and stayed in Haiti for nearly two years, much of the time living in a tent among the disease, death and destruction. Today, five years later, he says that everything W4W does is a result of what he learned in Haiti. And what he discovered was that there was a tremendous disconnect in the aid world when it came to clean water. The problem was horrifically clear – more than 800,000 people dying from waterborne disease each year. The solution was stunningly simple: small, cheap ceramic filters that can provide safe drinking water to an entire village for five years.

        “But everybody’s got to play their part and no one was playing this part, right?” Rose says. “For instance, the scientists and engineers did their job well. They created the filter and identified the problems. And millions of people really need it. So if you studied why people were dying related to dirty water, it didn’t make sense. So I looked for the break. Where’s the missing link?”

        The answer was that it was the lack of agility; aid organizations often lacked access capability. But to Rose, that was the one issue he could tackle like no one else: surfers were nothing if not great at bringing supplies into even the most remote locations. Stuff a few filters in every boardbag or backpack heading to a Third World destination and you could change a lot of people’s world. So Rose came up with what became his Cleanwater Courier Program, or what Rose describes as “guerilla humanitarianism” – matching existing solutions to existing problems in the simplest way possible: people carrying easy-to-set up filters to people who need them.

        “Here’s how it works. If you’re going to a place in need on vacation, you create a crowd-funding page with us, write what you want, put photos up, and say, for instance, ‘My goal is five filters,’” explains Rose. Then, other people pay for the filters, which cost $25 or $50 each, and W4W trains you and helps you as much or as little as you like along the way.

        “If you don’t want to do anything more than carry the filters over for us, fine. That’s a huge help. And if you want to go out and challenge yourself, we can guide you, or you can even join one of our ongoing projects,” says Rose.

        Of course, great ideas have a way of spreading, and Rose’s battalion of filter-armed surfers grabbed attention so that now W4W partners with the U.N., the U.S. military, the World Surf League, and major companies like Orange County’s Hurley.

        In fact, W4W has current projects in 16 countries, including the U.S., Mexico, North Korea, Japan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to date has helped bring more than 100,000 filters to dozens of countries, providing access to clean water to over 7.5 million people.

        It’s tireless work that keeps Rose traveling three weeks out of every month. “I did 400,000 miles last year,” says Rose with an ironic laugh. For the math nerds out there, that’s more than a month spent in the air. Add in customs lines, layovers and bad coffee and that equals some serious dedication.

        Despite all the jet setting and bigwig meetings, Rose says essentially, W4W is still true to that guerilla humanitarian model he first envisioned from a tent in Haiti. That is the true gift of W4W, he says.

        “I’m really proud of these partnerships with the U.N. and the U.S. military, because these large-scale projects take big chunks out of the problem,” says Rose. “But I believe in the DIY side, the individual travelers bringing solutions to people in need, will far outweigh the organizational side in the long run. That will be the legacy. Because it really is that easy.”:: wavesforwater.org

See archived 'Features' stories »

What is this?

Save & Share this Article