Interview with Jon Rose
Founder of Waves for Water, this former pro surfer makes saving lives easy.
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Waves for Water has made saving lives
truly easy through its Clean Water
Courier program. Fifty dollars and a little
space in your luggage changes the lives
for 100 people. So leave that extra pair
of socks at home and save some people.
Laguna Beach’s Jon Rose had the dream life: a professional free surfer, he was paid to travel the world surfing perfect waves with photographers and videographers in tow. As far as jobs went, it was about as carefree as you could get. There was one downside, however. It just so happens that most of those idyllic tropical settings where perfect waves break off white sand beaches surrounded by green jungles are set in Third World countries. This is where people are often in desperate need of life’s basic necessities, one of which is clean, drinkable water. So, after an all-day dream session in perfect waves, Rose would often witness people literally fighting for their lives every day, sick and dying thanks to contaminated water sources. So now, in his “retirement,” Rose founded Waves for Water and is working harder than ever to help the 3.3 million people who die each year from illness born from lack of clean water – a child dies every 15 seconds.
He calls that statistic a shame on humanity, and for good reason. “We have the solution and it’s not hard to get clean water to people. In fact, it’s very easy,” he says, referring to the simple, portable $50 filters he uses in his quest. Each filter, along with an everyday bucket and piece of hose, is able to provide clean water for 100 people per day for five years. And lest you doubt that, consider his successes over just the past few years. He’s partnered with Sean Penn, Nike and Hurley, to name but a few, along with the United Nations, and brought filter systems to families and villages in Haiti, Pakistan, Indonesia, Africa, Samoa, Brazil, and Japan. Already, he’s changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
And he wants you to help. But again, he says, don’t worry, saving lives is easy and cheap. In fact, you do it while on vacation. As a Clean Water Courier, you just stick a filter in your luggage when you’re going to a place that needs clean water, find a local figurehead and usually he or she does the rest. Then, you hit the bar and feel really great about yourself over that sunset margarita. Now that’s a great way to spend retirement.
Was it hard to give up your career as a professional surfer?
It was an easy decision, actually. I had a 13-year career and about six years into that career I stopped doing the tour, so I had seven more years, the bigger part of my career, just being a professional free surfer, exploring and adventuring. I traveled to get photos in magazines and [appeared in] videos. I made the transition to humanitarian work a couple years ago. But those years were fun and gave me a resourcefulness that translates into what I do now.
I Started Waves for Water in April of 2009 as a pet project. I was trying to figure out what my life’s next chapter would be. My father was already doing work in this area, teaching people how to catch rainwater in Africa [Rain Catcher Organization]. He was really involved in it, spending a lot of time in Kenya, and I was supportive but it wasn’t my passion. So I thought I’d go to all the surf spots that I’ve been where I saw a need for fresh water and education. I figured I’d do what my father was doing in Africa in these Third World surf destinations.
And your first “mission” turned out to be bigger than you thought.
Yes, I went to do my first Waves for Water mission to the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia. I took 20 filters for an area I was going to visit in the second half of my trip. But when I was on the first part of the surf trip in Sumatra, the 6.9 earthquake hit. We were safe because we were in a boat anchored off Padang, just miles from the epicenter, but it changed my plans because [the earthquake victims] needed the filters badly. And that incident set the pace for the next couple years. I saw first-hand how practical, easy and needed these solutions are, especially in that kind of situation, where so much death and destruction is happening so fast. But when you have these assets and can stop some of that from happening it’s a pretty amazing feeling. Especially when you don’t even feel like you’re doing much. It’s not hard. The hard part is the choice to do it.
I’ve read that fresh water may be the next oil, in the sense that it will be so needed that wars will be fought over it. Do you think that’s true?
Sure. The reason wars are fought over it and will continue to be fought over it is because you can’t live without it. You can’t survive more than three days without water; it’s of the utmost necessity. And any capitalistic-minded person tries to find something that’s needed and capitalize on it, so there’s that, along with the corruption that goes along with it. But basically, the earth provides enough water for everyone to survive. There’s plenty of water, it’s just not clean. I go to places where people have water sources, but it’s dirty. We give them simple solutions on how to clean it.
You say the solution is easy. What exactly do you mean?
Look, it boils down to this. There are things like cancer and AIDS and other devastating diseases. And we spend so much time trying to beat those, but we can’t. If you have a relative that gets cancer, you could have all the best doctors in the world and still lose them. Water’s not like that. Don’t get me wrong, we should definitely focus on those other diseases, but here’s something – disease, illness and death from water contamination – that we can beat. And it’s not that hard; in fact it’s easy. So if a five-year-old kid dies from lack of clean water, it’s not only a tragedy, but a complete shame. That’s why it’s so baffling to me that so many people, especially kids, are still dying.
Tell us about the filters.
The filters are about $50. Then all you need is a bucket or a trash can and a short length of hose. The filter is a cartridge that’s filled with thousands of microfibers that the water passes through. It’s basic; gravity does the work. So there are virtually no limitations on where you can use them. All you need is a filter, something to contain water with and gravity. That provides enough clean water for 100 people per day for five years. That’s why I say, when you do the math it’s baffling that so many people are sick or dying because of contaminated water.
Some people will have a hard time believing it’s that easy to change lives. How about an example of a simple mission that had big results.
I traveled to Brazil when they had the worst floods in [recorded] history. I had a corporate partner from Brazil and just bought as many filters as I could with their support. I took 200 filters down in my personal luggage and with that I got 20,000 people clean water. That was just me, alone. I’m not trying to boast, I’m trying to show how easy it is.
Is that what you mean when you describe the project as guerrilla humanitarianism?
Yes, that’s what it is. Because I don’t come from a traditional humanitarian background and didn’t grow up in that model – Peace Corps, government agencies, etc. – I just come at everything with a pure common sense approach. I think that makes sense to the average person, but you’d be surprised at how much the existing model is not based on that common sense approach. There’s a lot of red tape, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, there’s a lot of stuff that seems to stop the bottom line from happening, which is getting these solutions to people who need them quickly and efficiently.
Still, you have worked within the system at times.
Yes, I’ve done it successfully. I’ve partnered with the U.N. in Haiti so I’ve had projects with the biggest organizations in the world and I’ve also taken 200 filters by myself somewhere, so I’ve dealt with it on all levels but I always come at it with an attitude of: Let’s get in there and get it done before anyone can complain about how we’re doing it. I see Waves for Water as kind of like black ops. When you see the need and for whatever reason the existing model in place isn’t working, we’ll come in, solve the problem and get out.
You worked with Sean Penn in Haiti as well. How did that come about?
Sean Penn saw what we did in Sumatra and wondered if that would be viable in Haiti, so he called me when he was forming his group in Haiti. A few days later we went to Haiti and we worked together for almost a year. In fact, our projects in Haiti are still going. I have an apartment down there and spend a week out of every month there and Sean’s down there a lot also. So far, we’ve brought over 100,000 people clean water.
You also just did a mission in Japan. How was that?
It was the real deal. We were there to help get people clean water in this interim period while the government tries to figure out how to rebuild. There are a lot of communities that are wiped out and still don’t have power or sanitation. So we flew there with a few hundred filters in our luggage. I had a few contacts from surfing there, so we just filled a van and drove all through those neighborhoods in the north giving filters out to families. It felt good to ease their pain at least a little bit.
And you’ve made it easy for anyone to practice guerrilla humanitarianism.
Right. Clean Water Couriers is our version of a volunteer model. We’re trying to really drive home the fact that it’s so easy to help. Anytime you’re traveling you can have a filter, or more, on you and take the initiative to help.
How does it work?
You go to the Clean Water Couriers spot on our website and fill out a submission form and tell us how many filters you want to buy and we send you them and tell you how to distribute them.
And how do people distribute the filters? Is that part hard?
No. Usually, I would suggest finding a figurehead in the village or town, like a church or a school or even a man who seems to really care about his community. Then let them choose the best places for the filters; empower the locals. Even in a nicer destination, like a resort in Mexico, say, usually the hired help can be a contact that knows where clean water is desperately needed. They can take the filter and help people. And all you did was bring a filter down. It’s that easy.
Do people in developing countries that have not survived a natural disaster react differently than people who have?
They respond in the same way because every single day is a fight for their life. In some places in Indonesia that I’ve been there’s a 50% infant mortality rate. People walk three miles each way to some seedy little water source that’s totally contaminated. They know it’s contaminated so it’s half a day walking to get it and another half a day gathering firewood to boil it so they don’t die.
Is there a time that stands out as particularly poignant?
There are countless stories. For instance, when I went back to a village months after we had delivered filters, one woman broke down in tears because her baby had been sick her entire life and virtually on the brink of death since she was born and now she was a thriving little human, running around laughing and playing. It’s all because they’re getting clean water.
Why do you think Waves for Water has been so successful?
The model we’ve created is lean and not overly dependent on anything, really. So even though we’ve got partnerships with some of the biggest organizations in the world, I’m not hinging our success on them. The only thing that changes is scale. Of course, the ultimate goal is to get everyone who needs it clean water, so the more money, resources and partners we can get, the closer to that goal we get. But the bottom line is I can always buy 10 filters, stuff them in a backpack, travel somewhere, and give 1,000 people clean water and a new life. Nobody can take that power away from me. That’s a good feeling.