Using Water as a Rallying Point with DIGDEEP Water’s George McGraw

February 5, 2014

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JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today George McGraw. He’s the Executive Director of DIGDEEP Water. Welcome to Green is Good, George. GEORGE MCGRAW: Thank you, John. It’s my pleasure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, George, before we get into talking about water and all things water and the water crisis that we have in California and actually, in so many parts of the United States and the world, can you please share a little bit about George McGraw? What’s your journey leading up to this leadership point that you have and why are you here today? Share how did it all happen? GEORGE MCGRAW: Happily. You know, I’m a pretty young guy. I’m only 27 years old and I’m a human rights lawyer, so that’s my background. The first job I pulled out of grad school was for a major international human rights organization working in water in Afghanistan and you’re probably aware and certainly your listeners are that about a billion people around the world, 833 million, don’t have access to water or a toilet at home so that’s a huge crisis but the worst number is that about 50 to 80% of the projects that we plan as an international community every year to deal with this problem fail. They fail within the first 12 months and I was seeing that first hand that this major international organization, just witnessing these communities who thought they were receiving clean water, witnessing their projects fail and witnessing them making the hard transition back into water poverty, watching it destroy their education and their economic opportunities and like any good millennial, I thought to myself, we can do better so I moved to Los Angeles, got a grant with some friends of mine, and started an organization that takes a very human individual approach to water access, and we’ve been going ever since, about two years now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just incredible, and it’s so hopeful to have someone as young as you doing such important work and that’s how hopeful I feel about the next generation and that all of you have so many things that you’ve chosen to do things with such a higher purpose and water is for sure, one of those critical issues that we’ve faced for years but we face more than ever today so thank you for coming on. Thank you for sharing this story and for our listeners out there, I’m on your website right now, For our listeners out there, talk a little bit about DIGDEEP Water, what’s the mission, what you’re doing there, and what’s the crisis that you saw that you’re trying to remedy now with DIGDEEP Water? GEORGE MCGRAW: Absolutely. The crisis is really one of approach. There are a lot of organizations out there tackling the water crisis but almost all of them treat the problem by dividing people into two groups, donors and recipients, and donors are people that live with good access to clean water in countries like the U.S. and these organizations come to you and they say, ‘John, you’re so privileged to have access to clean water. Here’s a whole population of people that don’t enjoy that. Please give me your money and your time and I’ll send it to a community in need,’ and they do some wonderful work but the thing about water is that it affects us all equally and that whether you have access to water or not, it’s important that that access is truly sustainable, that you protect it, that you can serve it, that you understand it and so we take a very different approach at DIGDEEP. Instead of dividing people into haves and have-nots, we build projects that unite communities, whether they have access to water or not, around projects that recognize them as equals and that really empowers the community on the ground in places like Cameroon or South Sudan or even in Mexico to feel like we’re recognizing their dignity and that they’re really leading these projects to help them and it also really activates some Americans. For the first time, people aren’t asked to just sit to the sidelines and just send their money or their interest to a certain place. They’re asked to get actively involved to understand how they’re using water, how much water they’re using, where it comes from, and how they can protect it in the future and that builds ownership and participation that really brings us together because for so long now, we’ve treated water access and water conservation as two different issues but I can tell you, living here in Southern California that in 15, 20, 30 years, we’re going to realize that they’re really the same issue and that if we don’t all treat water access as a basic human right, and start making plans and laws and economic policies that reflect that, we’re going to be in trouble. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that are just joining, we’ve got George McGraw on. He’s the Executive Director of DIGDEEP Water. For our listeners out there that want to follow along and learn more about all the great work George is doing with his organization, it’s or George, again, can you share those wow numbers? How many people in the world don’t have useable water right now? GEORGE MCGRAW: About 833 million, and that’s the number without access to a safe source of clean drinking water at home. A larger number, about 2.5 billion people, don’t have access to a toilet so those are definitely some wow numbers, about one in seven people around the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, is this just an international problem or are there groups in the United States without clean water at home right now? GEORGE MCGRAW: Well, I kind of hinted at it. Typically, when the educated public thinks about the water crisis, they think about places like Sub-Saharan Africa or Asia and those are places we work. They’re absolutely struggling to get the water they need every day they wake up. They collect it from a point and they bring it home and it’s usually dirty but that same water poverty exists right here in the United States so we were crunching some numbers last week and our estimate is about 1.9 or 2 million people in the U.S. lack access to a safe source of clean drinking water and that includes the urban homeless, the urban poor, migrant worker communities and people caught sort of in illegal migration situations, and the biggest populations by far are American Indians. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. First of all, I haven’t heard of this issue and I try to be news centric but again- GEORGE MCGRAW: You’re the King of Green, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m the King of Green, but this is why I have people like you on, because seriously, there’s so many important areas that need more exposure, that need more light. If there’s darkness, we can’t reach these issues but the more light that people like you shed on these issues, we can then start focusing on them and more and more people become aware and get involved so when did you really learn of this? You’re only 27. When did you learn of this and then can you share some personal stories that you’ve touched along the way or learned along the way of this journey you’ve been on? GEORGE MCGRAW: Happily. I heard of the water crisis for the first time in college. It really just became “news” in the mid to late 2000s and so this issue, even though it’s existed for a long time, is really one that people are just coming to understand but I’ll share a personal story with you about finding out about water poverty in the U.S. Like so many people my age, I tend to fall into this trap where I think I know everything and sometimes it’s a surprise. I had a donor call me a few years ago and she left a message over our voicemail at the office over a weekend and she said, “My name is Karen. I’d really like to make a large donation to finance a water project.” I called her back and said, “Karen, we’d be delighted to take your donation. We’ll use it to empower a community and we’ll do all these wonderful things with it,” and she said, “That is great but I have one stipulation,” and I said, “Well, what is it?” and she said, “Well, the water project has to be in the United States.” I said, “Karen, there is no water poverty in the U.S. I’m a UN trained human rights lawyer. I know about these things. Let me use the money in a place like South Sudan,” and she said, “No, some students and I just got back from a Native American reservation out in The West and we saw tremendous water poverty,” people that were waking up in the morning and grabbing a bucket or a jerry can and walking to a local pond and bringing water home to boil it, very similar to what we see in places like Sub-Saharan Africa and I started to do some research and I called some friends at the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and started to do some research with some people at the EPA and in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and it turns out there is this huge really silent problem here in the U.S. We’re working with the Navajo nation right now, of Native Americans in New Mexico and about 40% of Navajo Indians don’t have access to water at home. That number for non-Native Americans is just point 6%. It’s just incredible. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is incredible. Wow so we do have this problem at home. It does exist also, as you said earlier at the top of the show, internationally on a broader basis but here in America. We have this problem right here. GEORGE MCGRAW: That’s the beauty of our approach as a human rights organization is that we are lucky to communicate to people in a certain way and to do our work in a certain way that allows us to find these communities that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. American Indians don’t fit in the traditional poverty model. They’re typically ignored here in the U.S. by the major news media and by charitable campaigns and it’s really the job of organizations like ours to seek out the communities and to partner with them and to build projects that empower them and the beauty of them is that at the same time, we get to introduce Americans to this problem that’s really theirs and create that sense of ownership. When we build this water project we’re working on now, it’ll bring sustainable clean drinking water to power taps and toilets and people’s for the first time, about 250 homes and it’s one thing for me to go to a cocktail party, John, or to get on a radio show with someone like you and to say, ‘Help me build a water project in a place like South Sudan’. It’s tremendously needed but I think this really resonates with Americans because this has a zip code. You can call these people. You can send them a letter and your postman will deliver it. This is not very far away at all and this is something that we, as Americans, can really use to not only help that community to change their future but also to really convince ourselves of how important water is to us and to use it as this really rallying point for the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, it is important to us, something we probably most of us take for granted, unfortunately, and just give a little snapshot on what’s a day without water look like for a person right now, both on a Navajo reservation without water or in South Sudan? GEORGE MCGRAW: Sure. Well, they’re remarkably similar. I just got back from the Navajo reservation last week and I spent a day with this woman named Linda Johnson and she is in her early eighties, this incredible woman. She was born in the first part of the last century and she was born on the reservation to a single mother and she lived in a traditional Navajo home, no electricity or running water or anything like that, and lived a very simple life and was adopted by Christian missionaries and lived in Idaho, grew up in Boise, white picket fence, went to public school, lived there until she was 23. Then she received a phone call from her mother on the reservation that said that she was dying and so she packed her bags, left her adopted parents, went back to New Mexico, moved back into the home that she had spent her really early years in, still didn’t have electricity, running water, a toilet, and has lived there her whole life. Now she’s in her eighties and she lives with her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and never left. It’s incredible that nothing has changed since the early part of the last century, nothing at all, and there are a lot of reasons for that, historical, political, just simple infrastructural, but her daily life is one that is almost hard to imagine. She wakes up every morning. In the winter, she’ll collect snow and bring it home to melt or in the warmer months, she and her kids, I think, will wake up in the morning and grab buckets or jerry cans and walk a few miles to a livestock trough or an open pond and they’ll collect water, bring it home and boil it, and use it for everything they need and I know you’ve discussed these issues before on your show. One of the problems there from a very green standpoint is that for a long time, the U.S. did a lot of nuclear mining and testing in that area so a lot of those water resources are contaminated with radiological particles of uranium and those are things you can’t boil out. You only concentrate them by boiling so it’s a real injustice but these people are just incredibly strong, incredibly kind, and when motivated and when empowered, incredibly effective. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Just a great story but we have about six minutes left so I want to get to some of the solutions. How do you go in, George, with DIGDEEP and how do you make a difference there? How do you go into South Sudan and make a difference? How does it work? Our listeners who want to get involved and want to help your mission, I want them to get inspired and learn how to help you do what you’re doing and so what do you exactly do? GEORGE MCGRAW: One of the problems behind that number, 50 to 80% of water projects failing every year worldwide is that organizations like ours go in and they don’t empower the local community. They say, ‘Okay, here are some GPS coordinates. We know there’s a problem there. We’re going to hire a company or we’re going to go in ourselves. We’re going to drill a well, drop a pump, and move on,’ and that’s a huge problem because those communities, they might have individual problems that make water access difficult. You have to really know people’s names, their favorite colors, what their history is, how their culture is, how they make decisions, and you have to use that knowledge to empower them to achieve their own water access because only if they achieve it themselves will they feel ownership over it, participation in it, and will it really be sustainable so when we move into a community, whether it’s in New Mexico or South Sudan, we’re there as guests. We’re there to provide resources, to rally people around a cause, but really to convince them that they’re protecting their own rights, that this is their own cause. Sometimes that’s very difficult. I remember my first field trip to South Sudan. I sat down with a partner of ours, an aid worker, and she had just spent a couple months in a village, which is a long time, because they had dug a well there and she had gone back to check on it and no one was using it and they were still going to this sort of open pit a couple miles away that was collecting this very dirty water that was making them very sick and they had this beautiful faucet well right in the middle of their community and it took her a couple weeks just to figure out that they didn’t use the new clean water because it didn’t taste good. They had never experienced clean water before and so to them, the taste of clean water seemed so boring and metallic and the taste of dirty water was sweet and soft on their pallet and they associated those flavors with health and it’s problems like those that if you don’t really go in and build a relationship with the community that is individual and community focused, that’s led by them, that understands who they are and what they need, you’ll never be successful so each one of our projects looks different, wherever we construct it. In South Sudan, it might be a well and in Cameroon, it might be a tapped water project that delivers water through pipes traditionally. In a place like New Mexico, even more creative, we’re drilling a well in the middle of this community that will feed water into a big fill tank that will be delivered by truck to smaller fill tanks that’ll be elevated by everyone’s home and just because water and sewage pipelines are too difficult and too expensive to lay in this area. People are so far apart from each other and so the long answer to your question is that every one of DIGDEEP’s projects looks different. Each community that we serve looks different but- JOHN SHEGERIAN: But, you tailor them specifically for the idiosyncratic needs of those communities? GEORGE MCGRAW: Absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. We’re down to about a minute and a half. Our listeners out there that want to help you, George, that want to help your mission and your organization and want to learn more, how can they get involved with DIGDEEP and what you’re doing? GEORGE MCGRAW: Well, there are a couple ways. Of course, they can always make a pledge, a tax deductible pledge at and we promise that 100% of those funds that we take from the public go to a project so we won’t take any administrative or operational cut and when the project that these people have helped fund is complete, we’ll send them a full report with GPS coordinates, data, stories, photos, videos, showing exactly where their money was spent and who it empowered. If they want to help specifically with the Navajo project, you can buy gifts, like hand numbered assigned steer graphs or vials of soil from the project site, at and those funds will go directly to that project but there are other various ways throughout the year that people can get involved. Keep up with DIGDEEP online. Sign up for our email list or join us on Facebook or Twitter and get involved with our campaigns. We’re really trying to empower Americans to look at this as their issue, as something that they have ownership over, and so I’m always so excited to welcome new people to our cause. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so great, and for our listeners out there, to learn more about all of George’s great work and his organizations, please go to or George, we need more people like you. I hope other millennials follow you in not only chasing profits, which there’s nothing wrong with that in a capitalistic society, but chasing higher purpose like you’re doing and I’m just so excited and honored to have you on today. You are a visionary water innovator and truly living proof that green is good.

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