As World Water Day gets underway on March 22 we know there is plenty to worry about in India, but there is also some good news. Meet Jacqueline Lundquist, vice president of Waterhealth who prefers to go by the title 'chief serendipity officer', which she earned from a number of fortuitous coincidences that have helped make the US-based Waterhealth a significant player in the delivery of clean drinking water in India. Some 5-7 million Indians today benefit from pure water produced by 500 plants across India.
Jacqueline taps her friendships with Shah Rukh Khan, Gulshan Grover Jackie Shroff, Lisa Ray and Dia Mirza to add celebrity weight to her water agenda.
How did the young, glamorous wife of former US ambassador to India, Richard Celeste, step out of the glitzy Page 3 of tabloids to help bring potable water to so many villages in India? "It began with taking our houseguests on field trips across India when Dick was ambassador," recalls Jacqueline. "They would fall in love with India and many of them wanted to give something back."
Celebrities for water
Even after Richard's posting ended, the Celestes continued their exclusive India tours which were now priced to include exotic extras like zip-lining in Jodhpur, tea or dinner with Rajasthan's royals, fireworks and musical celebrations in the desert, Bollywood encounters--and a donation for a water purification plant. Jacqueline taps her abiding friendships with Shah Rukh Khan, Gulshan Grover Jackie Shroff, Bapji Jodhpur, Lisa Ray and Dia Mirza, Waterhealth's ambassador, to add celebrity weight to her water agenda. Last year some 68 guests paid over US$14,500 per head for an uber vacation with a cause.
"People enjoy themselves more when they combine fun with giving back," says the astute Jacqueline, "and when they see their names inscribed in marble as the donors of a water plant that is providing clean drinking water to some 10,000 villagers, they feel satisfied."
Last year some 68 guests paid over US$14,500 per head for an uber vacation with a cause.
It's a model that works like a charm. Donors experience the very best of India and get to help the worst off access one of the most basic necessities of life. In March, Jacqueline brought 18 women from six countries to Bangalore, where Waterhealth has been asked by the Municipal Corporation to build 198 plants, 50 of which are already operational. Next stop, Delhi: they were the only agency that tendered for the job of providing safe drinking water through 239 solar-powered water kiosks in a capital currently at war over water with the neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab.
An exuberant people's person, Jacqueline counts the who's who of politics, media, philanthropy, Bollywood/Hollywood, fashion and business moguls among her friends. "But it wasn't until I met the CEO of Waterhealth, Sanjay Bhatnagar, that I was able to put these contacts to good use," she smiles. Bhatnagar did a stint with Enron in India before setting up his own private equity group in New York and eventually finding his calling at Waterhealth. He also heads the prestigious Indo-US CEO Forum which meets once a year and reports to the Prime Minister of India and the President of the US.
How it works
Founded in 1995 when it won the rights to use a new, extremely cheap ultraviolet method-- invented by Ashok Gadgil--to disinfect water, Waterhealth operates 500 plants across India, in partnership with a number of NGOs like Jaldhaara in Bangalore. Waterhealth's corporate partners include Coca Cola, Diageo (currently in the news for having bought out loan defaulter Vijay Mallya's United Spirits), the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group and the A. K. Khan Foundation in Bangladesh. The company aims to bring water to 100 million people in Asia and Africa by 2021.
Donors experience the very best of India and get to help the worst off access one of the most basic necessities of life.
"This is how it works: we talk to the panchayat and they give us a 50x50 area near a water source. We prepare the site with landscaping, foundations, rainwater harvesting and then use local people to build a plant that is housed in a transparent shed, the size of a 9x12 carpet. The plant produces 10,000 litres a day and costs about US$25,000 to build," says Jacqueline.
The cost of the plant is covered by a grant from a development agency like USAID, or Dutch aid, Rotary, Tata Trust or private philanthropies. "We have a contract to manage the plant for 25 years to ensure it is sustainable and produces good quality drinking water. We sell the water to the community at ₹5-8 for a 10-liter bottle." The plant is maintained through the sale of water, and there are currently 1200 employees, a quarter of them women.
Quoting Madeleine Albright who said: "There's a cold place in hell reserved for women who don't help other women," Jacqueline says she tries to live by this mantra but "in some communities it's really hard to get husbands to let their wives work." Nevertheless, she's proud to have helped women like Manjula "who used to be a maid but has blossomed into a business associate after taking charge of the Dr. Water purification plant in Govindrajnagar, Bangalore. She says her job has given her a sense of confidence and pride in helping her community.
"If you're walking several hours a day to get water then this is a life-changing experience," says Jacqueline. "So is the knowledge that your children will be spared the perils of water borne diseases that account for the deaths of nearly 2.2 million people every year."
Waterhealth operates 500 plants across India, in partnership with a number of NGOs like Jaldhaara in Bangalore.
How important the facility is to rural women came home to her during a period of unrest in a Nigerian village where the only thing saved from destruction was the water purification plant because the village women formed a human shield to protect this asset.
Spare a moment this World Water Day, which has the theme of Water and Jobs, to look at these amazing UN factsheets on the impact of water on disasters, agriculture, climate change, health, jobs, urbanization etc.
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