Give Clean Water Founder Darrel Larson

FIJI: From Sickness & Survival to Sustainability & Strength One Man Created A Solution for the Country to Have Clean Water

Written by Heidi Ortlip

Interview by Kelli Gillespie

Fiji is a place known for its breathtaking beaches, world-class surfing and high-end bottled water. But it’s also a country where half the population doesn’t have access to clean, bacteria-free water and one organization is trying to change that. After spending years working for a non-profit group that builds homes in Mexico, Darrel Larson embarked on a new journey. One where he envisioned being able to provide every person in Fiji with sustainable access to clean water. The result is the non-profit organization, Give Clean Water.
Larson developed a relationship with the Fijian government, and in October 2008, he took a group of volunteers to Fiji for Give Clean Water’s first official trip to the islands. They installed new, top-of-the-line filters for more than 300 families. Since that time, not only have thousands of lives been improved, but Larson’s plan has been adopted by the government as the immediate solution to the country’s water crisis. Risen traveled to Fiji with Larson and his team for a firsthand experience in the villages, and to learn more about the “what’s needed” to have sustainable clean water for all the islands.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in Suva, Fiji

Risen Magazine: What made you want to start Give Clean Water, and why the islands of Fiji?
Darrel Larson: I was looking to do a project that would give back to the world and water seemed to be the one I was most interested in. As we began looking for a country where we could network and partner with people in the community, Fiji came to our attention. There are about 900,000 people that live in Fiji. There are approximately 300 islands, with 110 of those inhabited. So, half the population basically does not have access to any kind of treatable water that is bacteria-free. Ultimately, we realized it was the place where we could work with the local health ministry and leaders to move towards solving the country’s water crisis.

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

Risen Magazine: You’ve been to Fiji at least a dozen times. What do you most look forward to about returning to the country?
Darrel Larson: I look forward to being with the people and the opportunity that’s going to be there when we go into a village and change people’s lives. In a matter of hours you can go into a village and change lives forever. I’m always anticipating that. It’s a bit of a challenge, because things are always changing. In Fiji they don’t do time like we do in the United States. You have to be willing to go with the flow. But this can also provide some great, flexible opportunities where you really get to experience the beauty of the culture and the people and realize that you are going to make an imprint on the world by helping to change their lives.

Risen Magazine: There seems to be a disconnect between the perception of Fiji, and the reality. How is it possible that half the country doesn’t have access to clean water?
Darrel Larson: Fiji is a beautiful country with the scenic places and resorts you see on TV, but realistically, Fiji is a second-world country. Infrastructure is a challenge in a place with so many remote mountainous areas, some of which are only accessible with a really good four-wheel drive vehicle. Water access is there, because it rains a lot, but with industrialization and a growing population, it becomes more of a challenge to treat that water. The biggest struggle Fiji faces is trying to play catch-up with the development in rural areas that are so far removed. The country is working as fast as it can and has a great long and medium term plan, but in the meantime, the people in the villages that are really far away from everything, have to get their water from a creek, or the river, or rain. People don’t tend to think there would be a problem in Fiji because they see a picture of a resort that has everything self-contained. But once you get outside the resort you see how the rest of the population lives. And although it’s a very beautiful country and is full of the warmest people in the world, the logistics of getting clean, treated water to people is a huge challenge.

Risen Magazine: I’m sure people are wondering how a country known for its high-end bottled water could actually be in need of access to clean water.
Darrel Larson: That’s probably the number one question we get asked as an organization. Fiji has some of the best water; the country has amazing artisan springs that come and flow down from the mountains. It’s a natural filtration process and some of that water is able to be captured and bottled and shipped off to all parts of the world. The water comes from very select and specific places in the country. Because of the lack of infrastructure and remote location of the artisan springs, you can’t exactly tap into it and run pipes to all the villages, much less get it to all the islands.

People don’t tend to think there would be a problem in Fiji because they see a picture of a resort that has everything self-contained. But once you get outside the resort you see how the rest of the population lives.

Risen Magazine: What relationship does Give Clean Water have with Fiji Water (the bottled water company)?
Darrel Larson: Giving back is something that is a part of Fiji Water’s strategy. The company has been very gracious to the people of Fiji, and actually gives back substantial amounts to the country. Fiji Water has built schools and provided water access. It has also sponsored Give Clean Water projects to help distribute filters to people in the villages.

Risen Magazine: Give us an idea of what it’s like to visit one of these remote villages.
Darrel Larson: You can’t just walk into a Fijian village; you have to go through protocol, which includes asking for permission to enter. First you pay respects to the headman of the village and the tribal elders. Typically, upon arrival you will be taken to the community hall and brought before the elders for a traditional welcome ceremony. When you enter the hall you must remove your shoes and stay seated. The tribal elders will be gathered around a big bowl of kava, a traditional Fijian drink. During the ceremony you will be welcomed and given a blessing to move freely throughout the village. You will all then drink kava together. The elders make kava by grinding it out of a root and mixing it up. Accepting a drink of kava is almost like a right of passageway into the village itself. Once you go through that process, the headman will say something and then the tribal elders will welcome you. It’s really an honor and a treat to be able to go into a village that rich in cultural traditions, and get to experience that kind of a welcome. After the ceremony you can move freely through the village, and every home you enter, in a sense, becomes your home.

Risen Magazine: What is Fiji’s government doing about this crisis, and what has the feedback been?
Darrel Larson: The government has a long-term and medium-term plan to create infrastructure that would deliver clean water to people in rural areas. The biggest challenge right now is the immediate needs that arise. The government is really concerned with data, so officials are very much a part of monitoring what we’ve done, primarily in the western division of Fiji. They have seen firsthand the change in communities that were once infected with water borne diseases like typhoid and e-coli. Once we install filters, there is an immediate turn around and change in health. It’s been an observable thing that they’ve been able to see the data, as it shifts from lots of water-borne illnesses, to no water-borne illnesses after the installation of the water filters. It’s really exciting right now because we are in the process of coming up with a memorandum of understanding with the government. Basically, this formalizes Give Clean Water’s relationship with the Ministry of Health. We don’t just want to be an organization that goes in and does a project to someone; we want to be an organization that does the project with all of the community leaders. So the memorandum of understanding allows us to work in conjunction with the health ministry so we can partner together and help solve that crisis right away.

Risen Magazine: When it comes to educating the Fijian people, what are some of the biggest challenges Give Clean Water faces?
Darrel Larson: In many instances people have spent their whole life drawing water from rivers and collecting water whatever way they can. There is a bit of a built-in mindset that the water is clean and pure. But as the country has developed and the livestock population has grown, water sources have become contaminated much more easily. We spend a lot of time trying to educate people and reinforce that the water is contaminated. A lot of times villagers think their water is clean, because it looks clear. Then when it floods the water will get cloudy and that’s when they think to boil or filter the water. But the idea that bacteria can be present in clear water is part of the education process. So many times you will ask them the question, “How do you feel, how’s your health?” And they will say “Oh, everything’s good.” But if you ask them if they ever have diarrhea, they’ll tell you they get it all the time; it’s just part of their lifestyle. However, left untreated it can become detrimental to a villager’s health and ultimately lead to death. We want the people to understand that this is for their health and well-being.

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

Risen Magazine: How does Give Clean Water make sure the work being done is sustainable?
Darrel Larson: When we go into people’s homes, we teach them basic hygiene and how water becomes contaminated. We give them a little poster that explains all the different ways water becomes polluted and bacteria filled. An important part of process is that we actually teach them how to assemble and to use the water filter. Then they have to demonstrate to us that they understand how the system works. With cleaning and proper use, these filters are meant to last a lifetime. The final step is to go back and visit the villages where water filters have been installed. An additional part of the process has been working with the health ministry and the health workers assigned to each village. Partnering directly with them and including them in the follow-up process is a big part of our memorandum of understanding. During a follow-up visit, our staff goes back to each house to verify that the filters are being used and working properly. This is also a time that we can collect data to pass onto the health ministry. The follow-up visits are a great part of what we do that separates us from other organizations. It’s the hard work of going back to villages and finding things that perhaps aren’t going 100 percent well.

Risen Magazine: Aside from the Fijian government, what other support have you received?
Darrel Larson: On a recent trip to Fiji we were able to be one of the charities of the Volcom Fiji Pro surf contest. Thirty-four of the top surfers from around the world came for this competition. It was amazing; some of the best waves ever. One of the days was set aside as a day [for the surfers] to give back in the villages. Volcom and Tavarua Island were both sponsors and purchased water filters that we were able to install in two villages. Pro surfer Kelly Slater was on that trip and saw firsthand the affects of unclean water. He was able to spend some time with the chief of the village whose wife had been sick for weeks. Leba had contracted a bacterial disease called Leptospirosis*, which comes from the water supply. It can cause all kinds of problems and ultimately, if untreated, can lead to death. During a follow-up visit to the village, we were able to check on her, and thankfully she had recovered. It’s great to know that by installing water filters you are changing lives.

Risen Magazine: How many people have received filters from Give Clean Water since you’ve been going to Fiji?
Darrel Larson: Over the past few years we’ve been able to reach 20,000 people in the most rural remote areas of Fiji on the big island. We are working mostly on the western division where they have the most flooding and cases of typhoid. It’s a pretty cool thing to say you’ve gone to that many remote rural people and given them drinking water.

Risen Magazine: With the combined efforts of the Fijian government and Give Clean Water, is the country’s water crisis solvable? What would it take?
Darrel Larson: We believe that in the next ten years we will solve Fiji’s water problem and the country’s development will be able to catch up with the work we are doing in the rural areas. But accomplishing this will take donors. Give Clean Water has a lot of great companies that want to give and make a difference in the world. One of the things I love about our organization is that when people give money it goes right where it’s supposed to go. It goes right to purchasing water filters and providing the clean drinking water filters for every village, and doesn’t get sucked up in all kinds of crazy overhead costs. It’s a tangible finite dollar amount that’s attached to being able to solve the country’s clean drinking water problem.

Risen Magazine: After your work is done in Fiji, what’s next for Give Clean Water?
Darrel Larson: If we can create a model and develop partnerships to solve Fiji’s water crisis, then we can take that model and apply it in different countries. My heart has always been in the South Pacific. Growing up where I did and being around Pacific Islanders all my life, is a big part of who I am. I would love to go to some of those places. I’m thinking Samoa or Tonga of Indonesia and parts of Asia Pacific. But we are open to wherever we are led to go and what partnerships we develop as we grow as an organization. I feel like we are going to be able to do some great work all around the world.

Leba’s Story of Survival

I didn’t believe that I’d be able to sit in front of you and your team this afternoon. I’m thankful to the Lord for his greatness. It was nearly two months ago that I got this sickness. I had a high fever; it was really high. I got very cold, but my temperature was 104 degrees. I had a headache, vomiting, I was not able to walk. My family had to hold me up if I had to go to the bathroom. I was frightened of the water too. I couldn’t even touch the water. I was not able to see properly. I couldn’t recognize people, even my family. I went to a private doctor and they took my blood two times and I got an x-ray, but he didn’t see any sickness. The doctor told me there was nothing to worry about and all was okay. I had my husband take me to another doctor. He was not happy with my results. He said “Leba, we checked your blood sample again and discovered you have Leptospirosis.” I was really afraid. The doctor told me that so many people die from this sickness. I asked the doctor if he was able to cure me and he said, “I can cure your sickness.” So he kept me there and gave me injections with antibiotics. I could start to recognize people again after my fourth injection. The first time those buckets [Give Clean Water’s bucket filter system] came I didn’t make use of them. I thought it was just the same as the drinking water. But the second time you brought the buckets, we are very thankful to you because it has changed so much in my family. Every time I use the bucket filter now. Everyone in my family is better, no more diarrhea, and I got much better.

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

Photo courtesy of Give Clean Water

*Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. In humans, it can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which may be mistaken for other diseases. Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2012


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