Canadian Consulting Engineer

Human edge: Changing Lives

October 1, 2008
By Sophie Kneisel

"There was one slide I can't forget ... seeing the faces disappearing." The presentation showed a child vanishing every 15 seconds, driving home a horrifying statistic -- children in developing countr...

“There was one slide I can’t forget … seeing the faces disappearing.” The presentation showed a child vanishing every 15 seconds, driving home a horrifying statistic — children in developing countries die at this rate as a result of poor water quality and lack of sanitation.

The image Tony Petrucci, P. Eng., saw in the Water For People (WFP) presentation is clearly still with him. Even five years later, just hearing him describe this experience could easily convince others to take action against this very preventable loss of life.

There are 884 million people living in the world without safe drinking water; the figure for access to sanitation is 2.5 billion, says Petrucci. Petrucci is the Toronto area manager and government relations director of CH2M HILL, engineering consultants. Inspired by the facts and photos in the WFP presentation, and perhaps spurred on by thoughts of his own young children, Petrucci knew that the fundraising he was doing for WFP through the Water Environment Federation of Ontario was no longer enough. He joined WFP’s board in 2004 and is now serving as Water For People-Canada president. He has just returned from his first tour of Bolivia.

“It’s a beautiful country, with warm, hard-working people. And it’s spectacular, what WFP has done,” Petrucci says. But he is at a loss to describe the living conditions, explaining that you really have to see it yourself to understand.

Sharing such experiences (often described as “life-changing,” according to the WFP web site) is a big part of a volunteer’s work, and it serves the dual purpose of helping recruit more volunteers and raising money for the cause.

Water For People-Canada was founded in 1995, four years after the original organization was formed by members of the American Water Works Association. The charity has established volunteer committees throughout Canada, usually in conjunction with regional sections of AWWA. These committees inform the water industry and the public about what WFP-Canada does, and solicit funds to support both administrative and fieldwork.

Petrucci describes the organization as “pretty lean.” There are only two staff members in the Canadian office, and 18 in the U. S. head office in Denver, Colorado. Each of the 11 countries being served has between two and eight “in-country” staff to co-ordinate and oversee programs, but all labour is done by community members. The level of voluntarism is clearly evident in the fact that just under 85 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to support the more than $5-million dollars of programs WFP is carrying out.

Rather than supply the technology, Water For People offers technical support. It works with communities, local governments and other non-governmental organizations to come up with homegrown solutions: simple, sustainable systems that use local resources and materials. The systems are built and installed by the same people who will use and maintain them. One solution — composting pit latrines that are sealed after a year of use, with the waste eventually becoming fertilizer — deals with the all-too-common situation of inadequate or completely absent sanitation facilities.

By 2011, WFP plans to serve 1,000 new people every day with water and 1,000 new people with sanitation. “We’re adding 400 people per day now, for both water and sanitation,” says Petrucci. He points out that until people are healthy, they can’t break the cycle of poverty and sickness that keeps them from prospering … and causes more children’s faces to disappear.

Sophie Kneisel is a freelance writer in Baltimore, Ontario, and a former editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer.


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