Marla Smith-Nilson, founder and executive director of Water 1st, recently appeared on NBC’s Today Show to talk about her work in bringing safe, clean water to communities around the world.
Changing lives with water
Ballardite makes national television
Eight years ago, when Ballardite Marla Smith-Nilson started Water 1st International, a nonprofit which implements water projects and infrastructure around the world, she envisioned doing plenty of good: bringing safe drinkable water to families, allowing children to go to school instead of carry water for miles and advancing general public health.
What she didn’t envision was what took place last week.
She appeared on NBC’s nationally-viewed “Today Show,” squashed between “Scandal” actor Katie Lowes and “Self Magazine” editor Lucy Danzinger, and being talked at by wine-drinking hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
It was for Self Magazine’s Sixth Annual Women Doing Good Award. Smith-Nilson is the first woman ever from the Seattle area to win the award. And, being stacked up against other awardees such as Lowes, Shakira and Padma Lakshmi, she may have been the most credible winner as well.
Though she enjoyed meeting all of the celebrities -- The Ballard News-Tribune overheard her say in a meeting that Lakshmi “just smells pretty” -- Smith-Nilson said the experience was “a little weird.”
“I get to see transformation many, many times. And people who are living in poverty and their lives are completely changed, and I’m doing what I think is the right thing to do,” she said. “I think it’s a little weird to be given recognition for something that you love and something you think is right.”
Even so, she was able to shed some light on a serious problem through a television show that typically dwells on the fluffy and heartwarming. (Sample headline: “Who wears short shorts? This dad does”)
Smith-Nilson, who has lived in Ballard since 1994, said on the show, “As we’re all sitting here, hundreds of millions of women and girls are carrying heavy containers of water home to their families for miles to drink. And the result is devastating: Five thousand children die each and every day; women and children have no time to go to school, to take care of their families.”
Water 1st has gone a long way since its inception.
When Smith-Nilson started Water 1st in 2005, they raised just $300,000. A commendable amount, but it pales in comparison to where they’re at now: the organization is on track to raise $1.5 million this year.
Throughout the years, the organization has completed 970 water projects that impact 98,000 people in four countries -- Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Honduras and India.
While there are many more people who are in need of help -- one to four billion people are affected by water issues (depending on how you calculate it), Smith-Nilson said -- the difference Water 1st has made is palpable.
Take, for example, Bangladesh.
“The first time I visited they had no water systems, it was horrific. It looked bad, the kids smelled dirty, there was trash everywhere,” Smith-Nilson said. “Now it smells and looks cleaner.”
The most obvious answer to the smell question was toilets. But there was more. After organizing around water problems, people would use that community-organizing infrastructure that Water 1st instilled and worked to solve their trash problem as well, developing a trash collection system.
Then there’s that memorable experience in Ethiopia.
“We were announcing to them that we had enough funding to start the water project,” Smith-Nilson said. “One gentlemen was really, really happy to learn about this and he said, ‘When this water project was done, I will know that god has touched the earth.’”
“I said, ‘Wow.’ That’s how significant is to them,” Smith-Nilson said.
One reason Water 1st is successful is their model. Smith-Nilson, who has 25-years-worth of experience as a civil engineer working in water and sanitation issues, said that many international water projects lack standards.
“There are a lot of water projects that are built with really good intentions, great people, but it’s tough. It’s really, really hard to create a water system that can be maintained by local people,” Smith-Nilson said.
In the U.S., people have the pleasure of having safe, drinkable water 24/7, with no more effort needed than the simple turn of a handle. It’s easy for Americans to take it for granted, but part of what makes that possible are the standards for things such as pressure and water quality that the government sets and enforces -- standards which don’t exist in the international community.
But Water 1st hopes to change that.
“We have developed standards that we use to define what is a successful water project, and we would like the water sector as a whole to adopt something similar and hold itself accountable to that. That’s how we think you reach four billion people. That’s how you get to everyone who needs it,” Smith-Nilson said.
In the meantime, nearly 100,000 people isn’t too bad.
“It doesn’t just feel like a drop in the bucket anymore,” Smith-Nelson said.
To donate and to learn more about Water 1st International, visit www.water1st.org
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