Clean water at a low price by Deborah Yedlin, March 19, 2013, Calgary Herald
Today is World Water Day and Calgary is part of the festivities. How, you ask? Through CAWST, the locally based Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology, Calgary is making a difference by bringing a cheap, affordable filtration process to places that can’t afford expensive sanitation projects, giving citizens access to something we take for granted: clean, potable water. Not only is it an excellent example of the impact a social enterprise can have, it illustrates the fact innovation isn’t always happening in the private sector, or in the context of Calgary, exclusively in the energy sector. The CAWST technology – a simple filtration system developed by a former Norcen Energy engineer, Camille Dow-Baker, while she was studying for her Master’s degree in engineering at the University of Calgary – has been installed in 63 countries, bringing clean water to more than 6 million people, at a cost of less than $2.50 per person. Less than the price of a tall Americano coffee from Starbucks, should anyone need a reference point. It’s not the fastest filtration system , but CAWST board member Evan Hazell points out that once filtering is put in place, it can provide water for two families in perpetuity.
“They make such a difference around the world”, said David O’Brien, chairman of both Encana and the Royal Bank of Canada, who is the organization’s largest benefactor. He got involved at the beginning through a connection made between his wife, Gail, and Dow-Baker, while they were both serving as directors on the board of Calgary’s YWCA. While O’Brien admits his initial involvement was because he knew the parties behind the organization, it’s grown far beyond that in the past dozen years. And he says he is getting ready to do more as his corporate commitments begin to wind down. What’s attracted O’Brien to CAWST is the organization’s ability to build capacity; CAWST doesn’t install its systems and disappear. Rather, it teaches the local population how to install and maintain the system; in that way, it is sustainable. “No one else does the work we do. And primarily it’s because water technology is relatively unique … We don’t install. We train the trainers. The local villagers maintain it themselves. They install it. They maintain it. And that for us is the key. Because if we install it and then we leave, who is going to look after it? They take ownership of it,” says Hazell.
And CAWST is getting noticed. Every year since 2003, the enterprise has been recognized for its efforts by a number of global organizations. Last year, it was awarded the Reed Elsevier Environmental Challenge first prize for innovative solutions to improve sustainable access to safe water and sanitation; in 2007 it was given special recognition by Ernst & Young, at its annual celebration of Canadian entrepreneurs. The promise of the impact CAWST could have is what caught the attention of Shauna Curry, the organization’s current chief executive. Curry, like so many at CAWST, is an engineer who could be hauling in the big bucks working in the for-profit world, but has instead chosen a different path. When she joined in 2004, CAWST was active in two countries – Haiti and Afghanistan. Today, that number is 63 countries and the goal is to impact 20 million people by 2020. This will be done pursing the same business model as before, working locally, but also taking it one step further through its latest endeavour, which is the development of what CAWST is calling WET centres. WET stands for Water Expertise and Training and these are effectively ‘mini-Cawsts.’ The goal is to open nine around the world; the Canadian government, through CIDA, is committed to $6 million, with CAWST having to come up with an additional $2 million. That money will bring the total number of WET centres to 11, says Curry, critical to reaching the goal of helping 20 million people. That this is happening in Calgary might surprise some, but it shouldn’t.
This is a different take on the entrepreneurial model, which happens to harness Calgary’s technological strengths and the expertise drawn from individuals who are familiar with operating overseas. Another step the organization is committed to, is openness. There was an editorial in the New York Times on the weekend that poked fun at open systems, but, in the case of CAWST, it’s about ensuring that whomever needs access to its information, can get it. So far, says Curry, 1.5 million people have been trained in the CAWST system in the last three years, with 900 alone in 2012. “This feeds into CAWST as a global leader. We recently launched a pilot of a WET centre on the Internet and within 10 days, we had 5000 hits from 700 different people in 70 different countries. For us, that’s a huge feedback loop and it shows we are on the right track,” said Curry. But it also sends another message – that the job world isn’t linear. That engineering skills can be applied in sometimes unconventional ways. It’s a lesson that we have to stop thinking in silos and start thinking in a multidisciplinary context. It’s also a lesson for educators: Teaching must be focused on building skills that can be applied to myriad problems. Simply asking students to memorize material negates the possibility of a transfer of knowledge from one field to the next. In the case of CAWST, it’s engineers with public health training working to make a difference in other parts of the world. On the face of it, CAWST might be a not-for-profit using a simple filtration system to bring potable water to underprivileged parts of the world, but anyone who bothers to scratch the surface will find there is so much more going on.
Just ask O’Brien. [Emphasis added]