The Seed Guys: Saving the World One Seed at a Time

 by Pam Lazos, wH2O Board Advisor 

Can A Seed Save the World?  Matt Lisle and Adrian Lievano are betting it just might. Matt and Adrian — let’s call them The Seed Guys — have just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.S.E. and a course of study in mechanical engineering.  Most young adults in their position would be looking for, or starting a job in their chosen field.  Instead, The Seed Guys have spent the last six months studying the Moringa oleifera seed and its application in the field of water treatment.  As recipients of one of the President’s Engagement Prizes created by Penn President, Amy Gutman, Matt and Adrian received a $100,000 grant provided by Penn as a means of engaging students to find solutions to pressing societal issues.  By giving this ambitious duo the time and space to turn their creativity loose without the worry of paying rent, we may all turn out to be winners.


Matt Lisle (links) and Adrian Lievano. Photo Credit: The Seed Guys

Both Matt and Adrian have long felt that water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, was one of the toughest and most complex issues being addressed today.  Over 3 million people die each year from WASH-related problems while over one billion people don’t have access to clean water.  The summer the President’s Engagement Prize was announced, Matt and Adrian along with their friend Daniel Brooks, a Biology major, were sitting around brainstorming ideas on how to alleviate the most pressing WASH issues.  When Daniel went to Kenya for a summer project to engage local communities with educational workshops and learn about the needs of the locals, he noticed that people were using the Moringa seed to purify small amounts (approximately 1 liter) of water.  Interest piqued, he took the idea along with some seeds back to Penn and talked to his engineering buddies, Matt and Adrian.  Within two months they had drafted the proposal and when the deadline for the grant application was pushed back three months, they created a rudimentary prototype with the found time.  They crushed the seed of Moringa oleifera and used the coagulant protein as a simple filter just to see what would happen.  A lot, it turns out.  The water-soluble protein bound together with bacteria, clay, silt, and other toxins.  The “chunks” (flocculent) settled, allowing it to be filtered out.  The Seed Guys were able to remove 85% of e coli and 96% of Coliform bacteria on the first try.  A stand alone coffee filter allows particles smaller than 10 microns to pass through, but when used in conjunction with the crushed Moringa seed it clarifies the water and prevents smaller bacteria and viruses from passing.  The prototype has performed even better.


Moringa oleifera seeds. Photo Credit: The Seed Guys

Since the initial work, Daniel took a Fulbright scholarship and is no longer active in the group while Matt and Adrian are going to spend the next year taking the pilot project to a full scale working model.  This means de-hulling and crushing the seeds into a fine powder, constructing the filtration system, paying closer attention to the mechanics and ratios, and integrating the system into the community, all skills learned in their engineering classes.  Matt and Adrian plan to travel to Kenya in September for two months to meet Community leaders such as Panian Segal, a local school teacher, and Doctor Steve Mutiso, a local doctor at the Ministry of Health.  The community knows they are coming and through their non-profit, HOW Global, Inc., they have their arrival dates set up with the school.  If all goes well, they will return in January for a four-month stint and really get to work. Neither of them have been to Africa before so it will be a first on many levels.

The Seed Guys maintain that the mechanics will be easy.  After all, this is what engineers do; they break down complex problems into little steps and put it back together in the most efficient way.  So how do these two engineers who both got their start as toddlers playing with legos plan to break this all down? They’ll start with a liter of water and go from there.  Matt and Adrian both feel that jumping to a larger scale is simply a matter of looking at the number of seeds you need to achieve effective drinking water standards and developing the correct ratio which will be the key to success of a large-scale operation.

Initially, that will be determined through trial and error.  In the homegrown version which Daniel learned during his first trip to Kenya and upon which this initial idea rests, locals de-hull and grind the seeds into a powder, and put two heaping spoonfuls of the powder into a small bottle of clean water.  They agitate the bottle for 5 minutes, then filter it through a cloth into a 20 liter container of water.  If you repeated this experirment, after two minutes of rapid stirring and another 10 to 15 of casual stirring, you would be one step away from clean, drinkable water since there is still one percent of bacteria that requires an additional purification step.  Matt and Adrian are taking it to the next level.

Currently, they are using rainwater catchment which is exactly what it sounds like, rainwater caught in a big tank where it might sit for a while, holding not only water, but organics which tend to multiply after a time so they take that water and apply the seed technology.


Moringa Oleifera Tree. Photo Credit: The Seed Guys

Not only does the Moringa oleifera seed act as a flocculent, the tree, also known as the drumstick tree because of its long, thin branches and triangular seed pods, and the “Horseradish tree” because of the wood’s spicy taste, is a powerhouse of a plant.  Moringa originated in India, but is also grown in Africa, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines and just about every part of the tree is used for something, making it worthy of its notoriety as a miracle tree.  In Ayurvedic medicine, approximately 300 diseases are treated with the leaves.  The leaves themselves have have more vitamin C than oranges (7x); more calcium than milk (4x); more vitamin A than carrots (4x); more potassium than bananas (3x); and more protein than yogurt (2x), with an even higher protein ratio than the inimitable soy bean which is itself on a short list next to meat and eggs, and all this without the allergies of soy.  In addition, science has already discovered about 90 nutrients and counting; 18 of the 20 amino acids and eight of the essential amino acids present in meat.  The oil from the Moringa tree doesn’t spoil so it is used both in cooking and cosmetics and, curiously, as a machinery lubricant.  Nutritional supplements made from the plant give the user an energy boost.  It also evens out blood sugar levels, relieves depression and anxiety, improves sleep, helps with skin disorders, acts as an anti-inflammatory, an anti-asthmatic, and on the list goes.  Because the seed acts as a coagulant, pulling harmful bacteria to it, this same process can occur internally, making it a powerful tool in cleansing the body.  The best part?  It’s a fast grower and drought-resistant.  Matt did a google search for the location of the Morgina tree and found that wherever people lacked access to clean water — Central American, South America, Africa, Asia — the Moringa tree grew.  The Guys maintain that Moringa oleifera is underworked, given its capacity, and want to do what they can to change that.

The project officially started on June 30th which is when Matt and Adrian received the funding, but they unofficially started without the money way back in early spring.  The award consists of $100,000 for project-related expenses, and another $50,000 living stipend for each of them which is much appreciated considering they will be flying back and forth to Kenya to test their project. The actual design work will be done here in Philadelphia while the implementation will take them to Kimana, Kenya, about 60 miles away from Hemingway’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Their goal at the end of the project is to have developed a system that will clean 300 gallons of clean drinking water a day, thereby serving the daily drinking water needs of over 300 individuals, and at the same time reduce diarrhea and the prevalence of water borne diseases.  (The project focuses on drinking water only.)  They also plan to take advantage of their semi-annual reporting requirements, and in fact, plan on reporting weekly because the Guys understand that projects such as theirs in the nascent stages require an element of crowdsourced enthusiasm to keep them going.

The Seed Guys have no shortage of enthusiasm.  When Matt was a junior in high school, he wanted to do something off the beaten path so he cold called all the engineering professors at Penn and one of them responded.  He was doing work on sedimentation and that got Matt started.  As for Adrian, he started off in pre-med, but he also loved the mechanics of  systems.  He ended as a bio-engineering major, combining his interest in the human body and the inorganic world.  Once there, it seemed a small leap to work on something he was passionate about which in this case was water.  The Seed Guys already have partnered with an NGO, How Global, Inc., and have various mentors spanning multiple departments at Penn, including Associate Professor Paulo Arratia (mechanical engineering) Co-Founder and past President of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, Stan Laskowski, (environmental studies) and Professor Thomas Cassel (mechanical engineering).  All serve as mentors, especially Professor Cassel who worked in the Peace Corps doing similar work at one time.  He taught Matt last semester and they wrote a business plan for wind energy.  Overall, The Guys have been lucky as there seems to be a good group of mentors, routing for them, and providing moral and practical support.

The seeds will come from Mr. Wonderful, a farmer the Guys have been working with in Kenya.  Mr. Wonderful will plant and maintain the Moringa tree for them and supply them with all the seeds they need.  Right now, they have a large box of seeds to experiment with, enough, at least, to get them through September.  There’s also another source of seeds, Moringa For Life, a company in California that specializes in growing the Moringa tree and which is where they got their first batch of seeds which arrived in an 18x8x18” box and will be enough to get the project going.  One seed is approximately 15mm in diameter, smaller than a fingernail.  Once the seed is crushed into a fine powder, that powder can coagulate approximately one to four liters of water depending on how cloudy the water is.  They have about 500 to 1,000 seeds in the box so at one seed per four liters of water, there’s a lot of room for error.  The seed performs similarly to the inorganic version, aluminum sulfate, which is used in the water-treatment industry today and which purifies the water by pulling bacteria to it.  Except that aluminum sulfate, which comes in solid blocks that are dropped it in the water, has been linked to many neurological diseases so switching to an organic material for water treatment could solve more problems than just water-related ones.

These possibilities are not lost on the Seed Guys.  They want to revolutionize how we treat water on a global scale and have already incorporated as an LLC to show they are serious – EverWaters, LLC.  During our conversation, Matt told the story of Elisha Otis, the founder of Otis Elevator.  There he was with a new product and no one was buying.  He wanted to get people to feel safe going on elevators so he told an audience in 1854 at the New York Crystal Palace that if the cable broke, the elevator would catch itself.  He stood on the platform while someone chopped the cable above him, the elevator only fell a few inches, and guess what?  Sales took off, doubling month after month until Otis became the name in elevators that it is today.  This is where Matt and Adrian hope they are heading, and with a cadre of mentors standing behind, ready to catch them should they fall, it’s a sure bet they are going to get there.

The Seed Guys — they don’t want much.  Only to change the world!

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The Worth of Water

Cross-posted from Green Life – Blue Water, a personal blog from wH2O Board of Advisor, Pam Lazos.  Pam talks about her experience at the 8th annual Global Water Alliance Conference held on March 26, 2015 at the University of Pennsylvania.


On my way to the 8th Annual Global Water Alliance (GWA) conference in Philadelphia on March 26, 2015, I took a shortcut across the University of Penn’s campus and, given that I am navigationally challenged, overshot my destination (which sounds better than saying I got lost). As usually happens when I take a wrong turn, something magical occurred. I ended on the 37th Street Walkway also known as Benjamin Franklin’s Way.  The walkway, a cut-through between lecture halls, stretching from Walnut to Spruce Street, was a 45th reunion gift from the class of 1962 and boasts a series of pavers with many of Franklin’s often pithy, always wise advice. My favorite, “when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water,” was apropos advice given that I was on my way to a water conference.

In 1815, the Fairmont Water Works, “the nations’s first major urban water supply system,” was completed.  Built in the Classical Revival style, the Water Works was a true marvel of engineering and design, attracting tourists who were drawn to its beauty, novel technology, and riverfront location. The Water Works continued operating as a water supply system for Philadelphia until 1909 when the city moved to a sand purification system and the Water Works became the home of the Philadelphia Aquarium. In 1962, it became the John B. Kelly pool for competitive swimmers, and a decade later, because of its dilapidated condition, the Jr. League of Philadelphia launched a restoration and fundraising campaign (love the League!). Today, the Water Works is not only a Historic Landmark Site, but a teaching tool for anyone interested in both Philadelphia’s water history and future. The Water Works was originally built to address the problem of raw sewage in the streets and lack of access to clean water. It continued because once people have access to clean water, they never want to be without it.

In the late 80’s, I studied abroad for a summer at the University of Athens, Greece, taking comparative civil and criminal procedure classes. While the classes were interesting, it was more of an opportunity to travel and the program, sponsored by Temple University, accommodated that desire. Most school weeks were only four days long, leaving long, three-day weekends to get to know the terrain. I remember one such weekend and a three-minute shower in a youth hostel, maybe on the island of Mykonos, maybe another island, the details are fuzzy. What I do remember though, is shampoo running down my face as the timer for the water ran out. It cost a couple hundred drachma for a few minutes of warmish water. If you wanted a few more, you had to add more drachma to the box, and you needed coins. (Drachma was the currency used in Greece before the Euro – it was about 150 drachma to a dollar in the 80’s, if memory serves.) I had gotten pretty good at timing my shower so I’m not sure what happened; maybe I was lost in a daydream. All I know is that one minute I was listening to the interminable tick, tick, tick of the timer, and the next, silence: no timer, no water, nothing. It didn’t matter that I had money. My time was up. I needed a certain kind of money — coins — and without them, I was just a head full of shampoo, looking for a water source, which is probably what many people in the world feel like who lack access to water, minus the shampoo.

Access to clean water means political stability. This was one of the takeaway messages from GWA conference. Not one, but several speakers noted how the countries with political strife are those that don’t have steady access to clean water. Admittedly, I had never thought of water in these terms before, living, as I do, in a water-rich area that usually has uninterrupted access to water. What I had thought of was how little we as Americans think about the worth of water, how it runs right from the tap into our glasses and how we don’t question whether it’s safe to drink, bathe in or cook with because we have laws that make sure of that.

Oh, but look to history for its lessons or be destined to make the same mistakes again — another takeaway from the conference. It’s unclear whether we as Americans are doing that. On April 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed a continued state of emergency and issued a mandatory 25% statewide reduction of water usage. California is four years into what scientists are calling a mega-drought which is a drought with a potential to last 20 years. In that length of time with little to no water coming in, California is certain to become a desert. So what’s a state’s citizenry to do but comply? Similarly, the reservoir that services Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city of 20 million people, is operating at approximately 6-13% capacity. The entire city risks being without access to water in the next three months so rationing is not just a suggestion, but a necessity.

Yet it’s hard. Where would your 25% come from? Would you skip a shower? Not give your kid a bath? Stop watering your tomato plants? In developing countries, people manage to live on a few liters of water a day because of the lack of access to water. A liter is the size of one of those giant coke bottles. Imagine if that was your entire day’s water supply. What would your water allocation look like? How would you choose what to water and what to let die? When the well is dry, would you know the worth of water?


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Water&Gender: a WWAP Working Group

Cross-posted from Bir Al-Nas by author Viviana Re on July 9, 2014.

Hosted and led by UNESCO, the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) is a United Nations system-wide effort to advance global understanding of processes,  management practices and policies that can help improve the supply and quality of freshwater resources.

The principal objectives of the Programme are to assess and report on the state, use and management of the world’s freshwater resources and the demands on them, to define critical problems, and to assess the ability of nations to cope with water-related stress and conflict. Its primary product, the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR) , was produced every three years and launched in conjunction with the World Water Forum. Starting from 2014 the WWDR will become an annual publication, with a different theme every year.

WWAP has been a leader in mainstreaming gender into all of its projects and publications such as the 2012 edition of the World Water Development Report (WWDR)  “Managing Water Under Uncertainties and Risks”the 2014 annual report (WWDR2014) “Water and Energy”  and all side publications.

WWAP now breaks new ground with this gender sensitive methodology for water indicators, and an international Working Group is assisting WWAP in PHASE I of the project on gender sensitive water monitoring, assessment and reporting. The Working Group is counting on the commitment of around 30 experts from all over the world and it has been active since early 2014. Its initial work was informed by a background report, commissioned by WWAP, on the current state of the art of gender-disaggregated water indicators.

To date, the Working Group has been focusing its attention on the selection of a small number of priority indicators that WWAP will develop and test with its partners. Around half of the members of the Working Group came together for an inception meeting  in early June, at the headquarters of the WWAP Secretariat (Villa Colombella, Perugia – Italy), to move this agenda forward.

The first day of the inception meeting was devoted to an assessment of an almost 100-indicator long “wish list” of gender-disaggregated water data. The task for the Working Group was to set priority areas within this larger universe of data demand .

The debate on the priority areas was very lively and included discussions on:

  • the role of women in transboundary water diplomacy and dispute mitigation,
  • the importance of measuring the  unaccounted-for water-related labor,
  • the importance of accounting for women’s participation in water associations and decision making
  • the multi-dimensionality of the self and the fact that the same person is affected in the way he/she access water depending on : gender, race, ethnicicy, casts, economical class, and many other divides that are rarely grasped by indicators and statistics.
  • the importance of assessing water-related decision making at intra-household and supra-household (public) levels
  • the importance of deliverying a set of indicators readily available for the use of countries, organizations  and development professionals
  • the importance of access to infrastructure and technologies, such as water-saving technologies and irrigation;
  • the importance of access to water-related training and  to financial and extension services
Day 1 (Photo courtesy of WWAP, 2014)

Day 1 – The discussion starts… (Photo courtesy of WWAP, 2014)

On the second day the Working Group identified 5 thematic  “clusters” of indicators from which the final selection would be made:

  • Economics of water & Governance
  • Power & Institutions
  • Resources & Services
  • Paradigms & Knowledge:
  • Water security

Day 2 – Walls and tables full of ideas… (Photo courtesy of WWAP, 2014)

Group picture (Photo courtesy of WWAP, 2014)

Group picture (Photo courtesy of WWAP, 2014)

 The WWAP Secretariat will take the advice of this Working Group meeting, and subsequent consultations, and will determine the final list of priority indicators by late July 2014. The next step of this phase of the project will be to determine the final list of priority indicators, which will be presented during  the incoming international events (World Water Week 2014, Gender, Water and Development Conference 2014).

Author Viviana Re reports on the recent inception meeting of the World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) international Working Group on gender sensitive water monitoring, assessment and reporting led by UNESCO in Villa Colombella, Perugia – Italy.  Viviana is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the National Engineering School of Sfax (ENIS) in Tunisia.  She holds a PhD in Analysis and Governance of Sustainable Development and a MSc in Environmental Sciences.  Her research interests include the investigation of groundwater quality in developing countries, the use of environmental isotopes to assess the origins of groundwater pollution and the role of hydrogeology in supporting science-based management practices.  Her current research deals with the promotion of a participative approach to sustainable groundwater management in rural areas.
Bir Al-Nas is a blog originally created as a platform for sharing updates about the Bir Al-Nas project, that now provides a place for discussing new ideas, creating awareness about (ground)water issues, and promoting the importance of research activities for achieving sustainability goals.  
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J-PAL Hosts Conference on Improving Take-Up and Delivery of Maternal and Child Health Services in Developing Countries

A recent Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) eNewsletter, sent out on May 29,2014, highlighted a conference on “Improving Take Up and Delivery of Maternal and Child Health Services in Developing Countries”.  The conference was hosted by the J-PAL organization and held at MIT on May 23.  

Seventy policymakers and academics gathered at MIT on May 23 for a one-day conference to present evidence from randomized evaluations of interventions designed to improve the take-up and delivery of maternal and child health services in developing countries. J-PAL hosted the conference with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded several of the studies presented. Representatives from NIH were in the audience, along with policymakers from a wide array of organizations, including BRAC, the Center for Global Development, Population Council, Partners in Health, and the World Bank.

Ben Olken (MIT) presented on community block grants in Indonesia, Pascaline Dupas (Stanford) discussed the effectiveness of subsidizing health products in sub-Saharan Africa, Rick Hornbeck (Harvard) discussed bundling microfinance and health insurance in India, and Rachel Glennerster (J-PAL) presented on a large-scale empowerment program for adolescent girls in Bangladesh. For the full program and links to the papers presented, visit the event webpage.

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Enhancing communication: Gender, water and development

This blog is cross-posted from the International Water Management Institute.  Guest blogger and wH2O Associate Editor Danielle Gambogi was one of a team of students from UPenn blogging on sessions and presentations given by scientists from the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and IWMI at this year’s World Water Week. You can view other posts from the team here.

Barbara van Koppen of IWMI-Southern Africa discusses the AMCOW gender strategy at World Water Week

by Danielle Gambogi
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Attendees of the World Water Week session on ‘Gender, water and development: The untapped connection. Photo credit: Barbara van Koppen.

The ‘Gender, water and development: The untapped connection” side event brought 16 professionals together during World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden. In her opening speech, Ms. Rejoice Mabudafhasi, Deputy Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, South Africa, spoke of the increasing need for open communication on water and sanitation issues.

Quantifying qualitative data

Gatherings such as the World Water Week and the upcoming Global Water and Gender Conference in February 2014, promote the continued need to enhance communication on an individual, local and international level. Inadequate communication pervades global gender and water issues. From a ground-level perspective, the lack of communication is visible in situational best practices and circumstantial success stories that often become lost opportunities for sharing because of language, cultural or historical barriers. Creating a space for water users to directly share stories, projects, indigenous knowledge and firsthand experiences could serve as a tool to quantify qualitative data.

Lesha Witmer of BPW International explained that often people don’t even realizethat they have the knowledge because it is engrained in their daily behavior. 

This knowledge may also be useful when reviewing the outcomes of high-level meetings such as World Water Week, where attendees often get caught up in repeat presentations with no concrete takeaways coming from a meeting. Understandably, the engrained tradition of such events is to report on the same projects, strategies or upcoming proceedings year after year. Quantifying the qualitative information presented at such gatherings could assist stakeholders in truly calculating and improving the value and effectiveness of such interactions.

Cataloging success stories

Participants discussed the practice of cataloging what works and what doesn’t in academic research, and the need to complement that information by making unconscious knowledge or expertise – conscious. This practice could allow for the involvement of previously ‘hidden voices’ as primary sources on water-use practices.

Several case studies were presented during the session from experienced professionals in the water sector, including Barbara van Koppen, Rural Sociologist and Gender Expert, at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Van Koppen highlighted how gender equality in the human rights laws aligns with the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) strategy.

The AMCOW gender strategy sets a next step in operationalizing rights such as equal control over water resources and water technologies, and eventually equality among water users. Promoting equality, however, is not as simple as ensuring a fifty-fifty split. Gender equality surrounding water issues requires a balance of shared benefits; that under the assumption of equal footing, we have something to offer each other.

This progress in the operationalization of abstract policy intentions will also feed into the ongoing expansion from a narrow right to water for domestic uses and sanitation to a much more encompassing debate on ‘water and waste management from a human rights perspective’. With the AMCOW gender strategy and several women ministers of water, Africa can become a strong global leader.

Looking forward

As the Global Water and Gender Conference approaches, partnering organizations must communicate honestly and effectively to achieve the goals set forth by AMCOW’s gender and water strategy. The following seven strategy objectives aim to guide conversation and eventually action at the upcoming conference.

  1. Policy positions on gender in the water sector in Africa supported and strengthened through policy formulation and implementation.
  2. Adequate human and financial resources allocated to gender mainstreaming through strategic resource mobilization activities.
  3. Gender approach to implement project interventions at all levels within the water sector, including economic empowerment through equal access to water for productive purposes developed and adopted.
  4. Strategic research and collection of operational information on gender undertaken, produced, shared and used by stakeholders to inform evidence-based responses.
  5. Human and institutional capacity developed to support gender equality interventions at all levels.
  6. Mechanisms to promote cooperation and coordination to mainstream gender in the water sector strengthened.
  7. Monitoring and evaluation system and indicators to support gender equality interventions in the water sector developed and implemented.

The side session during World Water Week solidified the need for enhanced communication, ranging from the historical knowledge of water users to the research and experience of local, national and international professionals. Combating global gender and water issues challenges stakeholders to unite under a common goal and speak with one voice.


The Global Water and Gender Conference will take place in East London, South Africa, during the period February 19-21, 2014, and is hosted by the Water Research Commission (South Africa), in partnership with the Department of Water Affairs (South Africa), Southern African Development Community, African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) and the Women for Water Partnership. The AMCOW gender strategy will be showcased at the conference. More than 43 countries and over 100 organizations were involved in the development of this strategy, which aims to measure success in gender and water issues under a cohesive framework. The strategy would enable various organizations to undertake and monitor efforts to mainstream gender across diverse, and sometimes competing, users and sectors that share water as a critical input.


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The Great Games: Connecting Youth to Global Water Challenges

Guest post from Lila Weintraub, an intern at Decode Global and undergraduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

If you’re here perusing the blog postings on wH2O, you’ve likely had a previous introduction to issues in gender and water. For those who seek it, extensive information and resources exist on how water scarcity limits girls’ access to education. However, the problem lies with reaching out to the general public: those who have not read statistics on the devastating effects of water scarcity issues. How can we realistically promote awareness of today’s gender disparities in our daily lives and raise our children to think about the implications of water scarcity on girls’ education? Putting these issues on the public’s radar need not be complicated, formal, or forced. Effective vehicles of education must be compelling and hit minds in a way that makes learning second nature.

Many believe gaming is part of the answer. Yes, the same games we loved as kids, which still claim three billion hours of our time per week worldwide. The same games that now, thanks to iPads and smartphones, are more accessible than ever. Pair this timeless and ever-evolving medium with an educational motif and you get gaming for social change.

It is no surprise that mobile technology is taking the world by storm. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of mobile phone subscriptions raised from 0.7 billion to 5.9 billion total worldwide. However, statistics released by the United Nations and International Telecommunications Union suggest that the vast majority of this technology is actually taking root in developing countries. In fact, reports in 2011 show that the developing world is responsible for 77 percent of mobile phone subscriptions, an astounding jump from a reported 29 percent in 2000. Accordingly, principles of gaming for change are applicable to developed and developing worlds alike.

Image from

Image from

The aim is thus to link education to the pervasive presence of the mobile device. Decode Global, a Montreal based organization, hopes to do just this. Decode Global’s first mobile game, Get Water!, prioritizes both fun and education to introduce players to the connections between gender, water, and education.

The game follows the journey of Maya, a young girl who loves to learn, but is constantly missing school to fetch water for her family. Players help Maya collect water and mangoes, while scaring off the peacocks and turtles that get in her way. Each level manages to induce adrenaline flow while exposing players to gender and water issues. The simplicity of Get Water! is powerful, providing a portal into greater awareness and conversation. Anyone with access to mobile technology can feel empowered to discuss gender and water issues and connected to a network of others thinking about the same topics.

While Get Water! is directed at audiences in the developed world, education through gaming has prospects in the developing world as well. GetH20 Challenge, by Butterfly Works, targets players who are personally affected by the water crisis. Players act as “Change Makers” and must navigate water shortages, crime, and conflict to steer their communities towards peace. GetH20 Challenge hopes to engage youth in the developing world to think about these issues and to begin to feel empowered to create change in their own lives.

But gaming is only the spark. Further measures of creative education must be in place to continue to fuel youth engagement. Organizations such as New Global Citizens and Project Wet develop curriculums and run after-school programs to foster investment in world water issues and generally effect to raise youth with a sense of responsibility as leaders in change-making. One lesson plan that New Global Citizens shares with its partner classrooms educates about child mortality by incorporating video clips and group collaboration. Project Wet has published many interactive resources, like children’s books that illustrate the relationships between cities and water pollution. They also offer activity kits that provide youth with hands on connections to water issues. One activity kit asks kids to piece together a broken clay pot in order to understand the challenges of environmental restoration. Innovative channels of education, such as these and gaming, must build on each other and interact. Accordingly, mobile apps, like Get Water!, are beginning to develop curricula to extend their educational messages into the classroom. Creative education establishes a norm that social awareness should be second nature and provides the hook that predisposes youth to further learning and conversation.

In an ideal world, social awareness and collective responsibility would be the invisible thread guiding everyday thought and behaviour. Games like Get Water! and GetH20 Challenge harness the growing influence of mobile technology to bring access to social justice education into the palms and pockets of daily life. As future generations are plugged into technology at younger and younger ages, the power of gaming as a medium for education only grows.  Using gaming to connect youth to issues beyond themselves is a step towards bridging the apathy that so often rises and obstructs individuals from taking action. Gaming for change teaches youth that social consciousness can be constant and that raising awareness is going to take some creative thinking. Gender and water issues don’t have to feel far off, and educating our youth can occur simultaneous to the adrenaline rush of a game well played.

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When land gets grabbed, do women get sidelined?

Guest post by Abby Waldorf, a Communications and Engagement Fellow at the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.  She has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and was formerly an Assistant Editor at wH2O.  This post is cross-posted from AgEco’s blog on June 3, 2013

As gender gains attention in the agricultural world, data and information show women as major players in food production.  Over 60% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are employed in agriculture.  According to Oxfam, “women produce more than half of all the food grown in the world.”

Photo Credit: Africa Renewal on Flikr

Development practitioners and policy makers, however, have been slow to recognize the vital and diverse role that women play in food security. As a result, little is being done to understand the relationship between women and land grabbing (a number of posts on this blog discuss land grabbing, look here and here for more information).  Amidst land grabbing discussions and debates on the benefits of smallholder farms vs. large mechanized farms, we seem to have left out an important discussion.  What happens to rural women when corporations grab up land in Africa?

Oxfam’s new report, Promise, Power and Poverty, takes a deeper look into the immediate impact of land investments “on women’s land use-options, on their livelihoods, on food availability and the cost of living, and ultimately, on women’s access to land for food production.”

Women often lack formal land rights in most developing countries, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa where less than 20% of women own land. Without land rights, they may have difficulty gaining access to credit and a variety of natural resources and as a result, their bargaining power often is compromised.

The Oxfam report finds that, thanks to large-scale land investments, this situation is getting worse.  When investors buy out land, smallholder farmers have limited options to pursue action against the loss of land and the resources on it. In most cases, women will rarely receive compensation for lost land.  If compensation is given, it is more likely that it would go to their husbands and it is uncertain what they do with that money.

One woman who was evicted from her land told Oxfam,“When you lose your land, you have lost your value and even your body, because the body adds value to the land. You see us talking [but] we are moving corpses.”

Even when communities are involved in large-scale investment deals, women are rarely given a seat at the bargaining table, despite corporations’ claims that they will bring positive development benefits, according to the report.

The report also finds that land grabbing interferes with the division of labor between men and women.  Men typically grow cash crops in Africa and women are primarily responsible for growing household crops.  When companies swoop in to produce cash crops, women often lose out, with available labor positions often going to men.

The commons

Common lands are a key source of food, income and survival for rural poor. Women often collect fuelwood, foods and/or medicinal plants, or as grazing land. It is often termed as ‘unproductive’ or underutilized, making it ripe for investors to claim.

When investors stake a claim to land, they may fence it in limiting access to both men and women, finds Oxfam.  In addition to losing access to fertile land and water sources, women are thus prevented from harvesting indigenous plants.  In this case, not only is the food security in the hands of women compromised, but local people lose their access to traditional resources that they relied upon and genetic biodiversity is lost.

In Laos, for example, it was found that women are the major users of riparian strips along rivers where they can grow vegetables and collect riverweed. This provides substantial nutrition and income for them. When dams are built and people are relocated, women lose this source of income. Rarely are such systems part of compensation schemes.

Where do we go from here?

Many conversations on land grabbing fail to address gender disparities.  But the effects of land grabbing on female farmers can be severe, often exacerbating the challenges that rural women already face.

Anyone who works on gender often starts feeling like a broken record—“Don’t forget about the women!”  Is that where we are in the land grabbing debate?  Are we at the point where we remind governments and investors that women exist, have a special stake in these investments, and should be recognized accordingly?

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Women and Water: A Path to Empowerment

May 21st, 2013

Guest post from Mina Das this is cross-posted from part of a series created in partnership by WASH Advocates and Women Deliver.  For more information, please contact Cecilia Snyder

NISHTHA means devotion or commitment in Bengali and is also the name of a small organization in West Bengal, India that was founded by women. NISHTHA has over 35 years of program experience in the areas of health and hygiene, women and girl empowerment, legal advocacy, water resource installation and maintenance, vocational support, and education for sustainable agriculture.

NISHTHA  works to empower women to fight for equal rights, equal opportunities and equal dignity, especially when it comes to water and sanitation. Globally, women take part in all water-related activities, yet they often do not have a role in any decision concerning water.

When the government brought piped water supply to our district, they decided to provide only household connections that poor families could not afford. NISHTHA intervened and organized water committees – comprised only of women.  These committees applied for group connections to provide water for their entire community. These water committees are still functioning and managing water effectively today. They have also implemented certain rules for using the tap water (see below) since the water supply is limited. These rules include attending water committee meetings, paying monthly water fees, and only using the water for household needs, not agriculture.


Photo credit: NISHTHA


Photo credit: NISHTHA

In our villages, rural sanitation is also a large concern because only 30% have access to a safe sanitation. Women suffer the worse without a latrine at home, resulting in accidents and molestation while defecating in darkness. To help solve this problem, NISHTHA provides loans to women groups to construct family latrines. To date, these women groups have already constructed 4,500 latrines.

NISHTHA is working relentlessly to eliminate gender discrimination. Women with proper empowerment will provide sustainable improvement of health, education and socio-economic conditions of village.
Chayya Naskar stays in a dilapidating hut with walls and roof covered by polythene sheets in the tiny village of Tripuranagar. Chayya’s parents arranged her marriage with due negotiation with her in-laws when she was only 16 years old. But when she gave birth to a female child, her husband left her and the little daughter and she was forced to live in a small and unhygienic hut. She felt herself in deep depression and frustration.

At this moment  our women’s group intervened and provided her training, a loan and counseling and it took quite a few months to bring back her self-confidence. Now she is a different Chayya Naskar. She is a vegetable vendor, and with her income from the business she is supporting herself and her daughter. She is now a proud and energized women, and her motto is to help and support other women.

Rules and Regulations of Water Committees

The Water Committees / Women’s Groups have formulated  rules and regulations and those are common to all.

  1. Nobody is allowed to bathe on the tap water, cannot wash clothes or clean utensils, and cannot use water for after brushing teeth.
  2. Nobody is allowed to water the kitchen gardens from tap water.
  3. Every family has to deposit their subscription to the authorized person of the water committee strictly on the specified date.
  4. All the members have to attend  the meetings of the committee.

NISHTHA was born in a very remote village of South 24 Parganas by a group of rural women who were victims of gender discrimination and had a mission of empowering the village women.  Mina Das has lead the organization for over 30 years, working to empower women and girls through gender equity initiatives, education and health promotion, as well as the organizations emphasis on self-sufficiency in efforts to bring clean water, safe handling and hygiene education to rural women in West Bengal.

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Cloud Forest Protection Critical To Keep Tropical Dams Running

This piece is cross-posted on Humanature, the Conservation International Blog.  Guest post by Leonardo Sáenz, Technical Advisor of Eco-Hydrology at Conservation International.

As the global population surges, dams have been increasingly adopted as a way to keep up with skyrocketing demands for water and energy. To date, there are more than 50,000 large dams in around 165 countries; another 300–350 are currently under construction.

Despite our growing reliance on dams, we still have much to learn about how they work. The degradation of forests and other ecosystems has often being linked to reservoir degradation, which reduces dam performance. However, the real value of natural ecosystems on the effectiveness of dams has rarely been quantified.

As fast-developing nations like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Sudan, Cambodia and China continue to expand dam building, our need to better understand the role of nature in maintaining and improving dam environmental performance has never been more pressing.

I have spent much of the last decade trying to understand the contribution of cloud forests to dam effectiveness. During this time, I’ve found that while cloud forests only cover 5% of the watersheds that contribute water to tropical dams, they filter around 50% of the available surface water that flows to those dams.

Cloud forest in Macaya Biosphere Reserve on the Massif de la Hotte, Haiti. Rampant deforestation across the country has led to a host of environmental and social issues, including a decline in the performance of the Péligre Dam, Haiti’s largest. (© Robin Moore/ iLCP)

In the tropics, cloud forests are multifunctional ecosystems that offer a variety of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity and scenic beauty. They are also essential sources of fresh water for villages and cities downstream.

I began my research at King’s College London during the FIESTA project (Fog Interception for the Enhancement of Stream Flow in Tropical Areas), an international effort between Vrije University of Amsterdam, King’s College London and Costa Rican and Latin American counterparts. The project combined five years of field work, hydrological and meteorological monitoring, modeling and laboratory experimentation in order to explore the hydrological impacts of the conversion of cloud forest to livestock pasture.

My role in this project was to support Dr. Mark Mulligan, one of the lead researchers, in controlling a series of fog interception experiments in a “cloud chamber” located in a lab at King’s College London. We were trying to identify the capacity of cloud forest vegetation to capture fog under different wind speeds and fog intensities.

The information we learned in the cloud chamber, combined with field work, was used to estimate the volume of cloud water interception carried out by tropical cloud forests. The FIESTA project developed a model which is now used intensively within Conservation International’s (CI) eco-hydrology program. For example, we recently used it to determine the best site for the relocation of Gramalote, a town dashed to pieces in 2010 during the wettest La Niña event over a century in Colombia.

After three and a half years of work, I built what is currently the most complete georeferenced dam census available for tropical areas, which maps about 20,000 dams of various sizes. (The previous global georeferenced assessment only included around 7,000 dams globally.) I then used the database and recently developed cloud forest maps to estimate the extent of cloud forests within the watersheds of tropical dams and the amount of surface water available in those areas.

This map, created by a team of scientists from CI and King’s College London, mapped more than 20,000 dam locations throughout the tropics across Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and South America. This is the most comprehensive georeferenced dam census across tropical areas.

My recent paper (PDF) on this work has just been published in the International Journal of Ecosystem Services. I see this is an important opportunity to demonstrate to dam operators, watershed managers, businesses and policymakers how cloud forest protection and restoration is viable and can be very cost-effective.

According to the Industrial Info Resources, the global energy sector is worth more than US$ 5 trillion annually. One-fifth of this is supplied by hydropower, whose performance is likely to be highly impacted by the degradation of watersheds. Therefore, since cloud forests filter half the water that is entering downstream dams, cloud forest conservation can be a low cost but very high reward opportunity to help improve the effectiveness of tropical dams.

So how can we do this? One way cloud forests can be protected for their freshwater benefits is through Payment for Watershed Services (PWS) schemes.

In many mountainous cloud forest regions, poverty forces farmers to turn to water degrading activities, such as converting cloud forests into cattle pasture. With money collected from downstream service users — including the private sector — and often with national and multilateral support, PWS schemes compensate poor farmers for switching to cloud forest protection and/or restoration. Through methods like these, protection of critical cloud forests could potentially contribute to the reduction of poverty across the tropical mountains.

In collaboration with our field offices, we are piloting these ideas in countries like Colombia, where working with dam companies I have demonstrated that there is an opportunity to generate more energy through the protection of critical cloud forests.

I believe that CI is meant to lead the world toward a green infrastructure paradigm that puts nature at the center of sustainable development. As new green energy opportunities expand around the world, it seems to me that the smart conservation of cloud forests can be a truly viable solution which — aside from improving dam performance — can ensure the survival of some of the planet’s most biodiversity-rich ecosystems and the communities who depend on them.


About the Author:

Leonardo Sáenz is Conservation International’s director of eco-hydrology. He would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Dr. Fred Scatena, who “helped us advance our understanding of these beautiful ecosystems and of their important services to people.” He is also grateful to the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) and its focal project for the Andes, which has helped to improve understanding of the most pressing water challenges in the region and of the role of benefit-sharing mechanisms, including the public and private sectors, in order to tackle them more effectively.



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Women, Water, and the Quest for Hope

This is a guest post by Barbara Goldberg, Founder and President of Wells Bring Hope, an organisation working to deliver safe drinking water in West Africa. Listen to our interview with Barbara from 2012 and learn more about her and the organisation.

I didn’t know anything about the water crisis in West Africa. I didn’t know about the hardships of women and girls who walk miles every day to get water. I wasn’t alone. The fifty or so very smart and worldly women who were with me the night of what I’d call our “awakening” knew nothing either. How could this be?

In 2008, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti gave a talk to “Salon Forum,” a group that I founded twenty years earlier which brought women together for personal enrichment and connection. Through his words and powerful photographs, Gil conveyed the dire need for safe water in West Africa and the plight of women and girls who toil endlessly to get it. When we heard that one out of four children never reach their fifth birthday, we were too stunned to speak. Mothers who have to give water to their children that could result in their deaths? Girls who don’t get an education because they have to spend most of their day getting water? How could this be?

,The energy in the room was palpable. Shock was followed by anger; anger that women had to bear such hardship. We saw them as our sisters, mothers who wanted the same thing for their children—good health and an education.

On a rational level, we said, “This is a simple problem with a simple solution: drill a borehole well tapping into aquifers underground and give people safe water.” Many of us were businesswomen, used to solving problems and this seemed like one we could solve.
The next day, without thinking about the consequences of what I was about to do and the impact it would have on my life, I sent out an email to those in attendance asking, “Should Salon Forum take up this cause?” I got back a resounding, “Yes!”

Others not only said “yes,’ but also “I want to be involved. I want to be a part of this effort.” It was a cause that arose from passion, passion to help other women and girls, a determination to bring about dramatic change in the lives of villagers who deserved safe water and the opportunity for healthier lives. The women who joined me were part of a Task Force of fourteen women who, a little over two years later, would become the nonprofit organization, Wells Bring Hope.

We made some wise choices at the beginning and had the support of some great people. Our initial donors were the women of Salon Forum, to whom I’d make a pitch before almost every event over those first years. We partnered with World Vision to do our drilling and we chose to work in Niger, West Africa, the poorest country in the world at the time (it is now the second poorest country).

In less than a year after we started, I and five other women went to Niger to visit remote rural villages where many had never seen white people. We visited villages with and without safe water and we came back with a reinforced belief in what we were doing. I met a woman named Halima who lost 11 out of 12 children. Sadly, it is not unusual to lose a child in West Africa, but all but one of them? I saw Halima again three years later and while she will never grasp or get over the depth of her loss, she was thankful for her one remaining child and her brother’s child who lives with her to help with chores.

Source: Wells Bring Hope

Source: Wells Bring Hope

We made a video to help us with fundraising, to let people see what conditions are like in Niger and the hope that a well can bring. Best of all, we were able to speak about our cause based on personal observation and from talking to many women and girls to understand their needs, hopes and vision. We came back saying, “How could we not do this work?”
Over the years, our organization has expanded to include men as donors and volunteers and it is comprised of people from all over the country, many of them under 30. We speak to schools to generate awareness of the water crisis in Africa and many of them start “Water Circles” on our website to support us.

We are one of the few water causes that give micro-loans to women to start small businesses of their own. That is part of our project because we believe strongly that when 50% of a woman’s time is freed up from walking to get water, she needs to be able to work productively and earn money to contribute to the economic welfare of her family. We are strong advocates for the incorporation of micro-financing into the WASH formula, just as nutrition has been added by some to bring about a more dramatic positive impact. We believe that drilling a well is only the first step in improving lives. It is micro-financing for women that enables the transformation of lives for generations to come.

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