This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.
Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
It’s fall in Los Angeles, which means it’s still very warm. And with California in the midst of an epic drought, most public pools drained their water long ago. But George McGraw, an extroverted, charismatic hydrology enthusiast, chose to celebrate the void by throwing an empty pool party two weeks ago. The party also served as a fundraiser for DigDeep—the nonprofit organization he founded—intended to raise awareness about water poverty all over the world. People went home with showerheads that conserve water, bricks for their toilets, and simple ideas about how to change their behaviors, like turning the water off while soaping up. Through these types of efforts, McGraw hopes to change how people not only understand water, but also how they use it.
McGraw first found himself invested in the concept of water poverty a few years ago, when he was serving as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program, writing a report called the “Human Development Report for Afghanistan” following the nation's reconstruction. As part of his research for the project, McGraw discovered that 50 percent of new water sanitation projects there were failing, correlating with a spike in infant and women mortality rates. Afghanis were frustrated both by the dangers of dirty water and the fact that they’d never been involved in the water systems building process. McGraw saw a need to involve communities in improving their access to water.
Thus was born DigDeep, centered around one very simple notion: Water is, and should be honored by all as, a basic human right—whether humans are in need of access to water in Sudan or Southern California. DigDeep is one of the only nonprofits with a focus on both U.S. and global water poverty, though their main focus most recently has been on the Navajo Nation in America.
“Success to DigDeep will mean that I can go up to any American and they’ll know where water comes from, how to protect it, and what it means when people don’t have access to it,” he says. “That will put us on a path towards conservation that we’d all be really proud of.”
Right now, McGraw is making it clear just how much water we’re using unnecessarily through DigDeep’s annual 4Liters Challenge, in which Americans are challenged to “walk a mile in their shoes by using a day of their water.” Instead of using 100 gallons for bathing, eating, drinking, and cleaning, participants use only four liters (or about a gallon—the amount used by many around the world), then share their innovative approaches to conservation on social media, while helping raise funds for DigDeep in the process. On October 2, Hannah McDonah from Wisconsin shared that hygiene started to become a problem when trying to conserve during the challenge. “You forget about the conveniences of things like a tap that you can turn on for heat,” she says.
“People think water access is a homeless, Native American, rural, poor, or global issue. They see water access as a ‘haves’ versus ‘have-nots’ issue. We think everyone in America is a ‘have’ and people around the world are ‘have-nots.’ But really, if we think about how Native Americans, for example, are able to stretch their water and live on five to seven gallons a day, we who don’t live that way are becoming the ‘have-nots,’” McGraw says. As DigDeep focuses their efforts in the United States, McGraw recognizes that most water efforts abroad have been treated as charity cases, which are often not maintained and end up being unsustainable. “We really need to build larger, robust infrastructures with technologies developed by the people who are using them and want to be a part of the process,” McGraw says.
Though DigDeep has built wells and improved access on a case-by-case basis for individual families all over the world, McGraw’s goal for DigDeep isn’t to become another large water organization like Charity Water, bringing water access to everyone in the world. Instead, he takes a more holistic, building-block approach by uniting people around one common problem and showing them how they can do their part to improve water access for everyone.
Operating with only two full-time employees, a few volunteers across the globe, and some U.S. engineers, McGraw is making an impact slowly, but isn’t able to expand as fast as he’d like. It turns out that it’s easier to dig wells in South Sudan (the cost is around $8,000) and Cameroon (about $25,000) than in America, where U.S. regulations and limitations have pushed costs upwards of three quarters of a million dollars. But by digging in and spreading awareness over time, change has been possible. In the rural New Mexico desert, says McGraw, one family walked many miles each day to get water from a livestock well, only to frequently get sick from bacteria contamination. DigDeep wanted to help, but didn’t have the money to improve their access. After a report on CBS about the organization, McGraw had received over $528,000 of donations, along with many letters thanking Darlene Arviso—a woman who delivers water to families in the Navajo Nation. And now, McGraw is able to fuel Arviso’s water truck, will build basic plumbing in nearly 250 local homes, and will hire more drivers.
Over the next fifteen years, McGraw’s impossible dream will be to ensure that every American—and inhabitant of Planet Earth—has access to water, forever. For people who have water access now, DigDeep is continuing to develop experiential education projects (like the 4Liters Challenge) to help Americans learn to love and care for their water. For the 1.7 million Americans without water, DigDeep aims to be the organization leading the way in developing community-led water projects that are simple, responsive, and effective.
“If you want to be a part of what DigDeep is doing, don’t just donate. Be a stakeholder. Have conversations with us. Start conserving your water. Realize that water access is a universal issue, and we all play a part,” McGraw says.