In 2004 Scott Harrison was growing tired of the Big Apple’s party scene. Determined to find deeper meaning in his life, the then 29-year-old nightclub promoter volunteered as a photojournalist aboard a floating hospital run by Mercy Ships, a humanitarian-aid organization.
There he met doctors and nurses who had left their practices to travel to Liberia, where they treated thousands of patients suffering from conditions such as cataracts, cleft palates, and facial tumors. He learned that many of these conditions can be caused by water-borne diseases and could have been prevented by improved access to clean water.
That’s when Harrison came face-to-face with the life-threatening impact of contaminated water. Once back in New York City, he was determined to address this crisis and in 2006 founded a nonprofit called charity: water. Over the past decade, the organization has funded nearly 23,000 projects, bringing clean water to more than 7 million people in 24 countries around the globe.
Harrison shares his ideas on how you can protect your own water supply and help the 663 million people — about one in 10 worldwide — who lack access to safe drinking water.
Experience Life | What led you to leave your career as a nightclub promoter?
Scott Harrison | After a decade of getting paid to drink and throw parties, I realized I’d become the worst person I knew. I was selfish and both morally and spiritually bankrupt. I tried to imagine what the opposite of my life might look like and then acted on it.
I sold my possessions, rediscovered a lost Christian faith I’d held as a child, gave up booze, cigarettes, and drugs, and became determined to explore serving others for a change.
EL | How did you become concerned about the lack of safe drinking water in developing countries?
SH | While traveling with Mercy Ships, I spent time in rural villages and was horrified by the water I saw people drinking. People used dirty water from ponds and swamps that they shared with animals for drinking and bathing. There were no alternatives. It shocked and angered me. I was someone who’d sold $20 bottles of water in nightclubs, and I couldn’t believe that so many people worldwide lived without this basic need being met.
EL | What are the social and health impacts of this lack of access to clean water?
SH | Dirty water steals time, and it’s deadly. Each year, 40 billion hours are spent collecting water in Africa alone. This task, which can take up to eight hours a day, often falls to women and children, preventing them from going to school and working.
Water is responsible for more deaths in the world than all forms of violence, including war. Children under 5 make up 43 percent of those deaths; their bodies aren’t strong enough to fight diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, and other illnesses caused by the bacteria in dirty water.
EL | What inspired you to start your organization?
SH | There was one day when more than 5,000 people came to see our doctors, and we had the capacity to help only 1,500. I learned that some had walked for nearly a month to get there. We had to turn thousands away, and I remember standing there with my camera, crying, wishing there was more I could do to help these people.
As I began to research the water issue, I found that, in many cases, clean water was available, but these communities just needed funds and tools to access it. If we could find a way to help with that, we could help improve not only their health, but also access to education and economic standing.
EL | What are some of the barriers to accessing safe drinking water, and how does your nonprofit address them?
SH | Climate, terrain, and lack of economic resources can all prevent a community from accessing clean drinking water. But at charity: water, we believe there’s a solution to everything. We partner with local organizations in developing countries that understand the unique challenges and needs in each region and provide the funding to build sustainable, community-owned water projects, such as wells, rainwater catchments, or filtration systems.
The thing is, we know how to solve the water crisis. We’re not offering grand solutions and billion-dollar schemes; these are simple things that work. It takes only about $30 to bring clean water to one person, but we can’t get to everyone on our own.
We recently launched our monthly giving program, The Spring, which will allow us to reach more people and work faster to solve the water crisis. Our goal is to see a day when no one on Earth dies from drinking dirty water. If enough people join us, we believe we can get there.
EL | Do you do anything to make your own drinking water safer?
SH | I am lucky to live in New York City, which has fantastic tap water, but I’d love to give a shout-out to one of our incredible partners, Soma, which is doing great things in the water-filtration space. Soma shares our commitment to sustainability and transparency in all its practices. The company donates 1 percent of its revenue each year to charity: water, which is the kind of generosity that allows us to do our work to solve the water crisis. (For more water-filtration-system options, see “How to Choose a Water Filter,” or “Truth on Tap”.)
EL | What can we all do to keep drinking water safe and accessible to people around the world and in our own communities?
SH | There are many ways to get involved besides writing a check. Spreading awareness about the water crisis and inspiring others to get involved can have a huge impact. Charitywater.org provides downloadable resources that anyone can use to educate their communities about the importance of clean water. We’ve been amazed at the creative ways people have advocated for clean water — supporters have biked cross-country, created artwork, and given up birthday presents to fundraise for us.
EL | How has serving others affected your own life?
SH | My work with charity: water over the past 10 years has taught me so much about the importance of giving, integrity, and kindness. It’s made me want to be more generous with my time and money, and to do as much as I can to be of service to others.
It’s helped me be a better father and to work hard to instill these same values in my kids from a really young age. As I look forward to the next 10 years, I can only hope to inspire more people to help us continue transforming lives with clean water.