In his 1969 essay, “The Star Thrower,” the late Loren Eiseley – dubbed “the modern Thoreau” by Publishers Weekly – unfurls the parable of a single, beached starfish saved from certain death by being returned to the water by a passing traveler. Though not all of the starfish can be saved at once, returning the marine invertebrates to the sea one at a time can effect profound change.
“It’s a story I heard many years ago, and it’s always stuck with me,” says Ken Surritte, CEO/Founder of Water Is Life. “We get overwhelmed sometimes at how much change really needs to happen in the world, but the simple truth is: no matter how many starfish there are stuck on the beach, it makes a huge difference to the starfish you do return to the water. So you kind of have to do it, right, even if it’s one at a time.”
With Water Is Life, launched in 2009, that’s exactly what Surritte is doing, deploying grassroots fundraising, activism, and hands-on volunteerism with new-tech sweetening, high-tech flourishes, and arresting social media campaigns in service of eventually eliminating the waterborne illnesses that claim the lives of one child every 21-seconds, mostly in developing countries. Recent reports indicate that 1.1-billion people worldwide are without access to clean water, with more than 2-million of them succumbing to related illness, the vast majority of them under the age of 5.
“If we’re able to bring these people clean water, we can systematically clear out 70-percent of the hospital beds in those developing countries,” says Surritte. “This one element can save so many lives. It really is life or death.”
Since last year, Water Is Life’s approximately 200 volunteers have been busy distributing The Straw to the world's most desperate, disease-plagued communities.
The organization’s portable water purifier is strong enough to remove medium-sized bacteria, as well as viruses like typhoid, cholera, E. coli, and dysentery, The Straw is lightweight, 10-inches long, 1-inch in diameter, employing charcoal and membrane filters, along with iodine crystals, to make virtually any water safe for drinking. “The purified water is clearer than what you and I are drinking in the United States,” says Surritte.
Worn around the neck on a lanyard, The Straw is as simple to use as turning on a faucet, and can purify 2-3 liters of water per day – enough for one person to drink for an entire year. By comparison, the average child in Africa without The Straw receives only 8-ounces of water per day, according to the Water Is Life website. The Straw’s packaging includes literature in a multitude of languages on the importance of clean water, good hygiene, and other big picture ideas and practices for long-term health in third-world countries.
“The Straw is a band-aid, a great tool in our arsenal,” he says, “but we’re always working on a more sustainable solution.”
To date, Water Is Life has distributed nearly 70,000 Straws in 38 countries – “we’ve only got about 1-billion to go,” he says -- every single Straw is made possible by donations from benefactors around the world, many of them American school children. For example, an Oklahoma grade school this fall enthusiastically greeted guest speaker Surritte, then banded together to collect money to buy Straws for their long-distance peers. Surritte figured the children would raise enough money to buy a few Straws, and was elated when they presented him a check for $1,000, enough to provide Straws for 100 water-starved individuals.
The cost of manufacturing and distributing The Straw is $10 apiece.
“Get your head around that: if you give up your Starbucks Venti coffee and scone just one time a week, you can save someone’s life,” he says. “If you do that for a year, you’ve saved the lives of 52 people. That’s 52 people who will survive another year because you gave up a luxury most people in the world can’t even dream of.”
In recent months, Water Is Life has enjoyed a tidal wave of public awareness, due in large part to a series of breathtaking, heart-rending short films created by award-winning New York ad agency, DDB. One of the most potent clips is “A 4-Year Old’s Bucket List” and is so deeply moving that donations and volunteerism from that video alone facilitated the completion of four water wells, a solar pump, water bucket systems in every home and enough Straws for every child in a Southern India village, according to Surritte.
The clip went viral, quickly garnering extensive media coverage in national outlets, including The New York Times, Ad Week and more.
“We don’t have much of a marketing budget, so we live and die by social media, and what DDB did for Water is Life, well, we can’t say thank you enough,” he says.
Surritte doesn’t recall the precise moment that inspired his life’s path, but feels his work today is the cumulative result of an itinerant childhood that led to his recognizing “a calling, a purpose, a reason for being.” A former, self-described “military brat” raised in brief but impactful stints in the Earth’s far corners and now residing in Oklahoma City, the 58-year old Surritte says he learned at a very early age that “we’re all interconnected, that we really do live in a global village.” The perspective afforded him by living among, and bearing witness to, the deeply impoverished, disadvantaged, and disabled, forged in the young Surritte a determination to count the blessings he had, while sharing all that he could with those less fortunate.
“You just can’t take anything for granted,” says Surritte, who began volunteering on missions to build orphanages shortly after high school graduation. “When I was at university, a lot of peers would complain about everything, but you know that crappy dorm room you’re sleeping in and you can’t stop saying is the worst place in the world? Eighty-percent of the world would give anything to have that dorm as their home. The rest of the world doesn’t look like Los Angeles or Dallas or Tulsa. We really have nothing to complain about.”
Though Surritte has always held a quote-unquote day job – “something to put beans on the table,” he jokes – his CV is rich with volunteerism. He has devoted countless hours in the trenches, drilling water wells, exploring new technologies, raising funding, awareness and strategic alliances for a variety of nonprofit organizations. In 2009, Surritte was enjoying a hot shower in the comparatively developed Nairobi after weeks of volunteering in a primitive area of Southern Sudan, when lightning struck. “I just kept hearing the phrase: ‘water is life, water is life,’” he says. “And it hit me like a ton of bricks. The people I’d just left behind in Sudan would give anything to have just a taste of the water I was letting go down the drain in the shower, and I couldn’t get away from that. There was no going back.”
Despite the freshly scrubbed Surritte’s lack of a business plan or, even, a clear objective about what function his fledgling organization could possibly serve, his buddy, Internet Guru Joel Comm, believed the phrase – Water Is Life – was golden and that it should be immediately registered as a domain name on the Web. Surritte was momentarily stalled when he learned the domain was already taken, its owner demanding $2,000 for all rights. “I’m a volunteer. I don’t have $200, much less $2,000,” Surritte remembers thinking. “So the guy took $200.”
Almost immediately, Surritte organized a small team to drill water wells in developing countries, situated to serve children first at locations like orphanages and schools. With new recruits to the Water Is Life movement, then and now, Surritte is blisteringly candid about how life-changing the endeavor will be. “I tell them right off the bat, ‘I’m not going to ruin your life, but I will wreck it. When you’re done on this project, you’ll never see the world the same way again,’” he says. “That’s a good thing, and it’s been true for everyone so far.”
Surritte plans for Water Is Life to drill more wells and create clean water tanks that provide easier, more global access like centralized water-processing plants fueled by solar and wind power, as well as community centers in slum areas of Africa where thousands of people could make regular pilgrimage for clean water, education, social interaction, and more.
Next year, Surritte and company will debut The Drinkable Book, which uses nanotechnology like a “good, strong, paper coffee filter” to eliminate bacteria from drinking water with what Surritte calls “an old cowboy technology.” “Cowboys used to take a silver-dollar, drop it into their canteens, shake it around, and somehow they knew that the silver would kill the bacteria in the water and make it safe for drinking,” marvels Surritte, whose service to Water Is Life is unpaid. “We’ve brought that into the modern world.” The technology is contained inside the paper of a book featuring slogans, inspirational quotes, and information on good health practices. The words are printed in food-grade ink and the tech is the brainchild of Dr. Theresa Dankovich, a chemist at Carnegie Mellon University. [Check out our interview with Dr. Dankovich in Part 2 of Not Impossible Now's WaterIsLife.com feature!]
It’s time, Surritte believes, for all of us to be the change we want to see in the world. “Happy thoughts are valuable things and donating money is, obviously, a necessary thing but the real, lasting impact comes from getting involved,” he says. “It’s what you do with your hands that matters most. I’ve always believed when your hands are involved, your heart will follow. The younger generation, they really get that.”
As Water Is Life continues its mission around the world, Surritte, ever humble, cannot imagine any other life for himself. “I don’t really feel like I have a choice in the matter. This is what I’m meant to be doing,” he says. “If not me, who? If not now, when? I’ve got one shot, one ticket to cash in this world, and I want to use it to make the world better for other people. I think there are a lot of us thinking, feeling, and acting that way these days. That gives me a lot of hope.”
Water Is Life's "#FirstWorldProblems Are Not Problems" commercial, taking actual posts to the #FirstWorldProblems twitter handle and giving them greater context.