Ensuring access to water and sanitation is one of the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the almighty United Nations. 1.2 billion people do not have access to water and 2.3 billion people live without waste water management and treatment. Those figures hide real tragedies that affect directly the dignity and quality of life of a large portion of the world's population.
Roca, a world leader in bathroom spaces created the We Are Water Foundation in 2010, aiming to reduced that gap, caused by economic, social, technological and environmental factors, and hence engaged in speaking for the most disadvantaged.
Xavier Torras and Carlos Garriga are the face of We Are Water, an entity that works to solve a global challenge that already counts on the personal involvement of people as relevant as Bill Gates.
Question - How did the We Are Water Foundation emerge?
Answer - Xavier Torras: The We Are Water Foundation was created in 2010. Roca had implemented social initiatives in various ways and in different areas of the world throughout its 100 years in business, but this time around they wanted a more modern approach, taking action to solve global problems. They realised that the best way to do it was through a Foundation devoted to solving the problems of access to water and sanitation in the world.
Q - What are the main objectives of the Foundation?
A - Xavier Torras: The Foundation was created with two purposes: one is helping to solve problems related to water and sanitation through the design and construction of infrastructure, and through education and improvement projects.
To convey that help and make people aware of the problem, the second objective is to raise awareness about the importance of water as a vital element that generates wealth and ensures a prosperous future. We raise awareness so that public authorities, private companies, other organisations and the general public are aware of the problem.
We are now realising that nine years after We Are Water started its efforts, this issue is more widely known. But 11 years ago, when we started to think about this Foundation, the issue was not well known at all, and nobody realised that there were people in the world without proper sanitation, or that 1 billion people did not have access to drinking water for their daily life.
"But 11 years ago, when we started to think about this Foundation, the problem was not well known at all"
Q - The first objective is reducing the gap in access to drinking water and sanitation. What is the situation at the international level in this regard?
A - Carlos Garriga: There are more than 600 million people without access to water and nearly 2.3 billion do not have access to sanitation.
The gap in access to water, which affected about 900 million people when we started in 2010, has been reduced to some extent over these years. It seems that the path that many organisations including ours have followed has made a difference.
In the area of sanitation, a lot remains to be done. Our own experience includes a large percentage of projects dealing only with access to water when we started. However, we are increasingly including more projects to provide sanitation services, because, in the end, very often that problem is having a direct effect on water pollution.
Q - What are the consequences of not having sanitation for the population?
A - Carlos Garriga: One of the main issues with the lack of sanitation is open defecation, and its consequences with regards to pollution of water sources are particularly bad in areas with high population density. It has a direct effect on the odds of getting diarrhoea, one of the main causes of death in children under five everywhere in the world. In addition, it has an impact on the health and safety of women, who have to wait several hours every day until it gets dark to relieve themselves, something that has health consequences. And since they do it after dark, the cases of rape increase. We could say it is an attack on human dignity.
Q - What type of projects is the Foundation involved in to reduce the gap in access to water and sanitation?
A - Xavier Torras: In the past few years, we have added projects that are very different from the ones we were involved in initially. For the first few years, we concentrated on addressing access to water and sanitation with projects that consisted of designing and building infrastructure, educational projects to promote ancient values concerning ecosystem protection, projects to provide access to water and sanitation at schools, etc.
However, for the past three years, and maybe as a result of the increased impact of climate change, we have implemented more emergency projects, for instance providing aid after the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015 or in Lombok (Indonesia) in 2018.
Carlos Garriga: Often, we provide a first response to the emergency, and then we stay in the area to help with development. For instance, after the Haiyán typhoon devastated the Philippines in 2013, we started to distribute water barrels and water purification tablets, so that people could collect and drink water under any conditions, and the following year we helped rebuild the water and sanitation systems, which had been seriously damaged.
"One of the main issues with the lack of sanitation is open defecation"
Q - After these ten years of work, which project do you recall as the most emblematic?
A - Carlos Garriga: The project in the Philippines was very special, because it was the first emergency project we were involved in.
In Bolivia, in the area of the Gran Chaco found in the Chuquisaca Region, we carried out a project to build outhouses that is very symbolic for the We Are Water Foundation. It is an emblematic project because it represents what we understand as a development project, including four points that are key for us.
First, knowing the community that we want to help, learning about key issues such as traditions, the culture, or customs. It is essential to know about the people you will be working with, so that the solutions adopted are accepted by the community.
Second, infrastructure — sanitation facilities in this case — should be appropriate, affordable and gender-specific. In addition, the project should not only contemplate the construction of infrastructure, but also education with regards to hygiene practices.
The third element is community empowerment. The entire population you want to help providing water and sanitation services should be engaged in the project and feel ownership, so that it becomes part of their day-to-day, they make use the facilities and contribute to their proper maintenance.
As a final point, and following up on the previous one, the project should be sustainable. Each initiative must have a low environmental impact and be sustainable through time. Our objective when we plan a project is not only to design a solution planned and produced here, but to do it jointly with the organisations we work with, in collaboration with the people we want to help.
Q - In a disheartening scenario with no access to water and sanitation, climate change becomes more and more important. The We Are Water Foundation has approached this issue through different activities with well-known meteorologists. What do you think about the impact of climate change on the lack of access to water and sanitation? Could you tell us about these activities with meteorologists?
A - Xavier Torras: Climate change is probaly in the list of priority issues in the global agenda. With regards to lack of sanitation, climate change could likely modify the effectiveness of current infrastructure, including a large portion of the solutions being implemented right now. It could mean that the issues and the solutions that were defined for a specific place earlier in time may no longer be as planned. And that could probably lead to other situations beyond our control, so that the system may have to be reset, and we would have to think again how to solve new problems which were not there before. The potential for changing the way things are is so big, that international organisations are currently very much concerned about it.
Carlos Garriga: We have very tangible experience. In places like India, where we have been working with the Vicente Ferrer Foundation in rural communities in Anantapur, we talk with farmers and they tell us that the monsoon patterns have completely changed. It is no longer possible to know when rains will come or how much it will rain, and thus a large portion of the harvest is lost, since crops have to be planted at a very specific point in time to benefit from rainfall and there is little margin for flexibility.
What happens to those farmers and their families? When they lose their only livelihood, they have to migrate to the city, thus worsening the problem in urban areas without water and sanitation infrastructure.
"With regards to lack of sanitation, climate change could likely modify the effectiveness of current infrastructure"
Q - Technology has an increasingly relevant role in water management. We know that the We Are Water Foundation is very much aware of this revolution and is undertaking very important work under the initiative 'Smart Water, Smart Cities'. What does it involve?
A - Carlos Garriga: 'Smart Water, Smart Cities' is a discussion forum to contribute a cross-cutting, multidisciplinary vision of water issues, from the perspective of architecture and design, hand in hand with technology, mainly directed to sustainable urban developments and tourist destinations around water. We started this initiative in Mexico in 2014, and it has become a place that brings together the concerns, analyses of issues and possible answers, and proposed solutions of different agents, including architects, the hospitality industry and shopping centre developers. In 2019, discussion sessions will be held in Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico City and the Dominican Republic.
Q - What have been the main conclusions drawn up to now?
A - Xavier Torras: The first conclusion is that unless you bring together operators and professionals from different disciplines to tackle the problem, the issue will not be solved. The second one is that during the discussions, some facts that they themselves were not aware of come up. The third one is that, in general, everyone that participates supports the initiatives and potential solutions. And the fourth conclusion is that the challenge we are facing is not simple, but this initiative is a first step.
When we launched 'Smart Water, Smart Cities', we initially thought that progress would be slow: we had a long way to go. Nowadays we are seeing that there is some momentum to change the way things are, to make progress.
Q - The other major objective of the We are Water Foundation is raising awareness about the need to access drinking water and sanitation. When you decide to act in a new geographic area and you travel there to get to know it, do you see a need in the lack of sanitation?
A - Xavier Torras: As I mentioned earlier, 10 years ago this was not perceived as a problem. Fortunately, now it is: people realise that a lack of drinking water or sanitation entails high health costs. Nowadays, not a single government fails to see that these issues need to be solved.
Carlos Garriga: A very obvious example of this is India, a country where the government has publicly recognised the need to improve sanitation, and has committed to take action and promote all type of actions in this area.
Q - Talking about high level policy, you have recently received the visit of a senior representative from the United Nations, and you have travelled to their headquarters in New York. What is the role of these connections in the communications efforts of the Foundation?
A - Xavier Torras: We have been in contact for years with the United Nations office in Brussels, and in 2018, after a first meeting in Barcelona with the Under Secretary for Global Communications, Alison Smale, he had several meetings at their headquarters in New York.
At the United Nations, they are very interested in the type of actions we are carrying out in the area of communications and awareness raising. They told us they are interested in our capacity to connect with professional sectors that are crucial for water management, such as architects, and also in how we influence young creators from all over the world through cinema, with our short film festival We Art Water Film Festival.
In any case, just the fact that we met and the door is now open to see if some of the actions can gather strength is important for us. Ultimately, we all have the same objective.
Carlos Garriga: They need some of their messages to get through to the public even more. The United Nations is a large entity with a powerful infrastructure, and maybe an entity such as We Are Water, more agile and with a different way of communicating, can be a good instrument to disseminate those messages effectively. In any event, we are honoured to be considered their collaborators.
Q - Of all the actions you engage in, there is an initiative that stands out: the We Art Water Film Festival, with 2400 participants from 127 countries in the past edition. What are the objectives of the Festival in the future?
A - Xavier Torras: The Festival is very much consolidated, and in fact the initial objective has been reached. We received films from more than 100 countries, and in 30 minutes you can have a global vision of a reality that perhaps you never imagined.
Our objective for the future is for the festival to grow even larger, and this is what we have been discussing with the United Nations, so that the 2020 edition has a larger scope, and therefore, a higher impact. It is a unique initiative that can facilitate their objective of a more effective communication.
Q - Possibly, the campaign that had a bigger impact on the readers of iAgua was the #NoWalking4Water campaign. How did it come about? What have been the outcomes?
A - Carlos Garriga: The idea began with a child I know in Ghana, Samuel, and his feet. I took a picture of his feet and it became the image of the campaign, representing the feet of all the children that have to look for water several kilometres from their home. It is the same scene we see in every country we travel to: women and children with buckets on their heads that go look for water and spend so many hours doing it...more than 125 million hours every day across the world.
We get tired of talking about the effects it has, but also in Ghana we saw a single image that says it all: a classroom where half of the children are sleeping on the floor. Why? Because, besides arriving late to school because they had to get water, children arrive so tired that they cannot listen to the teacher. So, what kind of future awaits for those children and their community? Under these conditions, they will not be able to learn, develop, grow, have a decent job, leave poverty behind, contribute to their society, etc. Without water, they are doomed.
So our objective is clear: denounce the situation and reduce the number of people and the number of hours spent getting water instead of performing other activities that are directly linked to their development.
"At the United Nations, they are very interested in the type of actions we are carrying out in the area of communications and awareness raising"
Xavier Torras: We are convinced that the impact is high. We are sending a simple, short, easy message. Our communication has to be very direct and clear, because the public receives thousands of messages throughout the day, and ours has to get through. We do it in a way that is very visual, creative, attractive and dramatic, but also very simple. If you only have 10 seconds to see it, #NoWalking4Water has all the requirements: a pair of feet that are tired of walking, and it should not be necessary to walk to get water.
Q - What other campaigns have you been involved in with good results?
A - Carlos Garriga: More than campaigns, they are messages that we want to share. For example, 'The Hidden Life of Water'. Why is this message important? It emphasises everything that having or not having water entails. What is 'behind' the infrastructures. The things you do not see when you look at a well, a reservoir, or a drip irrigation system. Because all of that is what really matters. Concepts that are directly linked to having water such as development, education, health, empowerment, prospects for the future, etc. Thus, not only do we bring water somewhere, we also bring dignity and progress.
Q - What are the challenges ahead for the Foundation?
A - Xavier Torras: As an immediate challenge, the Foundation focuses on continuing to find and implement aid projects. We move forward with all the organisations we develop projects with, to improve the lives of more people.
As a second objective, we want to focus our communication efforts, not so much on the lack of a water supply, but on the lack of sanitation, and particularly on climate change. Climate change is an element that will have a strong impact, and now is the time to take action.
Needless to say, as we agreed with the United Nations, we will promote the Sustainable Development Objectives as much as possible to make them known, and we will do it through the communities where we have a strong presence, such as the architecture or design communities. We must influence those communities, because they are the ones building a future. Architects and designers must be able to visualise the challenges of the future and convey them to society, either through more sustainable products or more sustainable architecture.
Carlos Garriga: I would add reducing the number of people with no access to water and sanitation in the world, and involving more people and institutions in finding a solution, from the educational system, governments and companies.
Q - Let us think about the future, 20 years from now. What would you like to see in terms of the gap in access to water and sanitation at the global level and in terms of awareness?
Carlos Garriga: I would like to see the #NoWalking4Water campaign ending, because it will no longer be necessary to denounce a situation that has been sorted out. Going to the toilet will no longer be a high risk undertaking for so many million people. And regarding climate change, we will have used our common sense to stay below a certain temperature threshold.
Xavier Torras: I imagine a Foundation report where the numbers are low, where water scarcity affects very few people and access to sanitation has been solved at the global level. And our job is just to maintain the systems.
But surely, new problems that we cannot imagine now will come up, and we will have other chapters to delve into, but they will show up in that report.