By Nancy Spitler
Photography by Sean Sheridan & Craig Mahaffey ’98

Safe water and sanitation are considered basic needs for people all over the world. In most of the United States, we turn on the faucet and expect clean water. We walk down the hall to a bathroom with a toilet, sink and soap. We take those things for granted.

But about 2.1 billion people — close to 30 percent of the world’s population — don’t have safe water to drink. Double that for sanitation and the number of people who don’t have access to a bathroom or a safe way to flush waste. It’s a massive challenge.

An organization led by George Greene IV ’01 is committed to meeting that challenge.

In a fairly modest building in the warehouse district of North Charleston, South Carolina, Water Mission, a nonprofit Christian engineering ministry, is putting a dent in those numbers. The outward appearance of Water Mission, where Greene serves as president and chief operating officer, belies the magnitude of the mission that the folks at Water Mission have undertaken.

Water Mission has nearly 70 U.S. employees, and most of them are based in the Charleston office. An additional 290 staff members work internationally — 95 percent of whom are local to the communities they serve. Together, they are providing communities with clean water and sanitation — whether those communities are in the 10 locations where Water Mission has permanent country programs, or in refugee camps and disaster areas around the globe.

Since its founding in 2001, Water Mission has provided more than 4 million people with safe water and more than 148,000 with sanitation. More than 2,500 safe water and sanitation projects have been built, and more than 550 projects are underway.

Since its founding in 2001, Water Mission has provided more than 4 million people with safe water and more than 148,000 with sanitation. More than 2,500 safe water and sanitation projects have been built, and more than 550 projects are underway.

‘TO WHOM MUCH HAS BEEN GIVEN …’

Greene sees Water Mission’s work as a response to the inherent advantages of being born in this country: “These are individuals really no different from us,” he says. “It’s more a matter of where they’re born and the circumstances they’ve been born into. As much as we can claim our success from hard work in our lives and our careers, the one thing we can’t claim anything over is our parents and where we’re born. And when we look at the advantages we have just by being born in this country, it’s a huge leg up.”

Greene’s ethic echoes the Gospel of Luke: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This is part of the introduction for people who tour the headquarters of Water Mission. Many of those people — whether kindergartners or senior citizens — have not been to a developing country.

“We like to get people to think about that,” he says. “Because from our perspective, you can’t look at those inequalities and not start to think about whether there’s a responsibility that comes with what we have.”

Greene goes on to talk about the economic impact of health problems that result from a lack of clean water — the farmer who can’t work when sick; the student who doesn’t do as well in school; the expenses of medicine and hospital bills. He quotes a study that showed $1 spent on water and sanitation has a return between $8 and $40.

“It’s huge,” he says. “When we talk about focusing on water and sanitation, we’re looking at foundation-level needs for attacking the cycle of poverty that exists and how we break that.”

For the organization, the foundation is faith, Greene says.

“We’re a Christian ministry, and our perspective is that we’ve been put here for a reason,” he says. “We have resources we’ve been given, and there’s an expectation for how we utilize those, not just for ourselves but for helping others.”

PROBLEM-SOLVING ENGINEERS

Greene started working in the family’s Charleston-based environmental engineering business when he was in the fourth grade. His first job: cleaning toilets.

Responsibilities grew as he did, to running a floor buffer and eventually working on the field team, involved with things like drilling wells and taking samples and then working in the lab. When it was time to think about college, his dad told him that if he wanted to come back and be a part of the firm, he needed to get a degree in chemical engineering.

So Greene came to Clemson and earned his degree in chemical engineering. But along the way, the family business took a turn.

In 1998, as Greene recalls, his parents, George III and Molly, had a kind of midlife crisis. They had been extremely successful with their business, employing around 350 people. But then Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, resulting in more than 7,000 fatalities in Honduras.

“My dad tells a story that he really felt he needed to do something,” Greene says. “But if you have looked at a map recently, you’ll know that Charleston and Honduras are not real close.”

His father sent an email to a missionary their church had supported for years, offering to help. He didn’t expect a response.

“What was bad about Mitch was that the storm stalled over the country of Honduras and dropped over 75 inches of rain,” Greene says. “Massive flooding. Basically, the whole country was underwater, and so the thought was, ‘They’re not going to have power. Even if they have power, they’re not going to have internet. Even if they have internet, they won’t have computers to check email.’”

Less than 24 hours later, his father was surprised to receive an email response — asking for help with drinking water for six communities.

“It was a tangible request as opposed to, ‘Pray for us; send us money,’” Greene says.

As an engineer, his father could work with that. So he got started.

His initial thought was to purchase water purification systems that could be shipped. What he found out was that there were small systems — think about what you’d pack on a camping trip in your backpack — and there were large, military-grade reverse-osmosis systems with equally large price tags.

Ever an engineer, Greene III drew up his own design, purchased supplies at local hardware stores and built six systems in the parking lot of his business. Within 12 days (with the help of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and access to a C-5 transport), Greene III, Molly Greene, and 17 other volunteers were on the ground in Honduras installing water purification systems.

They had solved the immediate problem but realized it wasn’t a permanent solution. Supplies would run out; equipment would break down; and the communities would be back dealing with unsafe water.

In 2001, the Greenes sold their for-profit business to finance Water Mission and started with two full-time staff, one of whom was Greene, freshly graduated from Clemson.

A study [shows] $1 spent on water and sanitation has a return between $8 and $40.

IN-HOUSE EXPERTISE

The early days of Water Mission were eye-opening. The organization was committed to providing clean water — not just cleaner than before — with high standards for engineering and quality control.

“Our commitment to that was called naïve,” Greene says. “We were written off by a lot of organizations when we tried to talk about what we were trying to establish because there are so many failed water projects.” Water Mission was expected to be yet another one.

But engineers think about things differently.

Chemical engineering and topics like thermodynamics are not very applicable to water treatment systems. But Charles Barron, one of Greene’s engineering professors at Clemson, had told him that the engineering program was training them to be problem solvers. That approach, Greene says, “taught us to work hard and be creative and understand that there is a solution for every problem.”

That mindset, he says, has carried over into who Water Mission is as an organization.

“We try to look at things from a perspective of ‘What’s the solution?’ and ‘How do you present people with solutions?’”

It was a steep learning curve, Greene says, but they learned that they needed “to invest in people, processes and systems.” They learned it was necessary to have a community manager in place, taking care of day-to-day operations. That a local water user committee is a fundamental part of creating a sustainable system that accounts for equipment maintenance and eventual replacement of critical equipment. That community education — 400 to 600 hours — is necessary to address issues that range from effective hand-washing to a cultural bias against chlorination. That water prices should be affordable and not prevent users from meeting basic human needs.

“This is not cancer research,” Greene says. “We have solutions. We’ve had access to safe water in the U.S. for 100 years. We know how to do this. These are things that can be done, and we don’t have to develop new technology to do it.”

They have refined the process to a point where they can meet with a local water user committee and go through a spreadsheet, filling in amounts for monthly operational and maintenance costs as well as capital maintenance — long-term replacement of major system components. Then they add in the number of households and estimated household consumption. A fairly simple calculation using that data results in a price usually in the range of 1 to 5 cents per 20-liter container.

“This is not cancer research,” Greene says. “We have solutions. We’ve had access to safe water in the U.S. for 100 years. We know how to do this. These are things that can be done, and we don’t have to develop new technology to do it.”

Water Mission is considered an engineering organization, with 14 licensed professional engineers on staff. While licensing is not required for engineers worldwide or in nongovernmental organizations, Water Mission encourages its engineers to work toward this status.

“We’re intentional about encouraging our engineers to go that direction,” Greene says, “because what we see is that’s there’s a huge void of technical expertise in the areas where we’re working. We see other NGOs that have really big hearts, and they are trying to step into a gap where they see a need, but they might not have the technical training or background. So when you look at why things fail, a lot of times it’s just because they haven’t started out from the right perspective.”

Water Mission’s expertise has been noted on the world stage. When the International Organization for Migration did an assessment in 2017 of solar water treatment systems in northern Uganda refugee settlements, they found a disturbingly low level of technical expertise among the NGOs involved. However, they noted one exception: “Water Mission stands out as the NGO with enough in-house expertise to independently design, O&M [operate and manintain] solar water schemes, and are also the only ones chlorinating water in all of their solar schemes.”

CLEMSON CONNECTIONS

That commitment to technical expertise has its roots in a Clemson engineering education, something Greene shares with several other Water Mission employees. Currently, the staff has 10 Clemson alumni, including Greene. Some, like J.D. Meeder ’15, who works as a regional stewardship adviser, and Bonnie Hanna ’13, a volunteer programs supervisor, are based in Charleston.

Others, like Doug Lawson ’00, regional director for Kenya and Malawi, are a little farther away from the home office. Lawson, who lives in Kenya with his wife, Jennifer, and two sons, Wyatt and Jonas, was attracted to Water Mission “by the opportunity to help people around the world that didn’t have safe water to drink as well as to share the love of God with them.” Lawson has been with Water Mission for six years, hired initially as senior engineer in the Uganda office. He now oversees water projects in both Kenya and Malawi and visits villages in need of water.

“I am still passionate about the engineering behind each solar-powered water system,” Lawson says, “so I get involved in project reviews and approvals.”

Greene’s Clemson connections are at home as well as at work. His wife, Gina Brown Greene ’95, a speech pathologist, also attended Clemson, although they met and married after both were out of college. They have two sons — George V, 10, and Thomas, 7. According to Greene, the boys are “devout” Clemson Tigers who are being groomed as future Clemson engineers. George V is following in his father’s footsteps, lobbying to clean toilets for some pocket money.

Greene understands some of the challenges engineers like Lawson have in the field, among them catching Clemson Football on television. According to Lawson, Greene set up Skype and pointed it at his TV for a big game or two until they found a service for U.S. citizens living abroad.

HUMAN CONSEQUENCES

Water Mission headquarters includes both office space and warehouse space. Greene’s office is spartan by C-suite standards: 9 feet by 12 feet with bare-bones furnishings and children’s drawings on the walls. He doesn’t tell a lot of broad-stroke inspiring stories, but he does talk a lot about intentionality, excellence and quality. Everything at Water Mission has been deliberated, organized and implemented at the highest possible level of quality.

In addition to demonstration areas for informational tours, the building houses an innovation lab, a water testing laboratory and warehouse space where volunteers sort parts and assist in myriad ways. In the rear of the warehouse, taped-off areas indicate the exact size of a shipping container. Adjacent to the loading dock, crated portable water treatment systems are ready to go. About 4 cubic feet, encased in a metal frame, they’re waiting for the next crisis — an earthquake, a hurricane, a refugee camp.

Water Mission partners with FedEx to get those water treatment systems where they need to go. That’s just one of the strategic corporate partnerships the organization has formed to expand its ability to provide safe water. Grundfos, the company that makes the pumps used in water treatment systems around the world, now provides those pumps at a significant discount. Hach provides testing equipment and supplies at cost. Employees from both Hach and Grundfos raise funds through annual Walk for Water events. IBM built a remote monitoring platform that allows staff in North Charleston to see what’s going on around the world — average liters a day being pumped, monthly income vs. expense.

Partnerships with global relief organizations such as UNICEF and Samaritan’s Purse and government agencies such as FEMA have broadened Water Mission’s impact around the world. UNICEF, for example, contracted with Water Mission to provide clean water in the refugee camps in Uganda.

Water Mission worked with FEMA following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to get water systems up and running in the island’s interior communities. Janis McCarroll of FEMA has high praise for Water Mission’s work there: “When we first met with partners to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts in Puerto Rico, we immediately recognized the valuable and unique skills and resources Water Mission brought to the team,” McCarroll says. “They had a clear action plan, a team on the ground and a timeline in place just days after the hurricane struck. Water Mission’s ability to establish and maintain relationships with communities was critical to the success of reestablishing services expeditiously, especially to the remote areas of the island. We were impressed with Water Mission’s skill in collaborating within a complicated disaster relief scenario, partnering with government and nongovernment organizations to establish and lead a coalition of practitioners to maximize resources on the ground and ensure no duplication of efforts or waste of resources.”

The goal of those partnerships in community development projects and disaster relief is to lower that number of 2.1 billion people who need safe water. But the folks at Water Mission know what it will take to get there: “Our estimated cost to bring access to safe water to a person is anywhere from $10 to $50 depending on what the project needs,” Greene says. “And so what are you looking at — $21 to $105 billon?

“Our focus is to grow as fast as we can.”

Grow they have: 20 percent in 2016, then 20 percent in 2017, then 38 percent in 2018.

“As we continue, it almost feels to a certain extent like a flywheel that’s started turning and gains some momentum, and it starts to take off on its own,” he says. “It’s more a matter of trying to keep up.”

That kind of growth has human consequences in places like Mkinga, Tanzania, where women and children used to spend about three hours every day walking to get water. Even then, they got home with containers of dirty water, putting their health and well-being at risk. So they spent additional money to purchase scarce and expensive fuel to boil the water, which still didn’t halt some of the waterborne diseases, skin rashes and intestinal illnesses.

A new water system installed by Water Mission means that the more than 4,500 community members can now walk less than three minutes to collect safe water. This frees 11-year-old Magdelena Poul and her mother, Rachel, from a three-hour walk and allows Magdelena to focus on school and her dreams of being a doctor or a pilot.

“I love school and am one of the best students in my class,” she says. “With the free time, I spend much more time on my studies.” 

Students Walk for Safe Water

For the past four years, Clemson students have hosted an annual Walk for Water benefiting Water Mission. To raise awareness that women and children in developing countries walk 3.5 miles in search of often unsafe water, participants carry  buckets or jugs of water for the duration of the 3.5 mile walk. Katie Mruz, president of Clemson University Walk for Water and a senior mechanical engineering major, got involved as a freshman with the event that is a joint effort of students in Clemson Residents in Science and Enginering (RiSE) and Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries.

“In the organization’s four-year history, $30,000 has been raised to provide sustainable solutions and clean water in developing countries and disaster relief areas,” Mruz said. “I wholeheartedly believe the global water crisis is a problem that can be resolved within the next generation if it has enough support and people working toward the goal of ending the crisis, and Water Mission is doing just that.”

Learn more about Clemson’s Walk for Water, as well as the work of Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries.

Learn about how Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries and how engineering students are preparing for the job market.