Born in Dubai, as a child Shilpa Alva traveled to India frequently to visit her extended family. On these trips she saw first-hand how many people did not have access to safe water and how children her own age had to fetch water from distant sources daily. Determined to change their lives and make a difference, she co-founded Surge, an organization that provides access to safe water and sanitation to those most in need while increasing awareness of the global crisis.
Shilpa is the Executive Director of Surge, a global nonprofit organization that has helped thousands of families in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. Their projects have built fresh water wells, water harvest tanks, water purification filters and sanitation systems.
In September 2014, Shilpa took a bold step by leaving her successful corporate career to dedicate all of her energy towards her passion – Surge. She left her position as Manager in the Supply Chain Advisory practice at Ernst & Young in Chicago, USA and started to focus more heavily on building and sustaining the organization. Prior to Ernst & Young, she was the Global Logistics Manager at Ecolab in Minneapolis, USA.
In addition to her professional experience, Shilpa also has strong academic credentials; she has completed her MBA in Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship from the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota and her BSc in Chemical Engineering from The Johns Hopkins University.
In 2013, Surge set up its Middle East chapter in Dubai, and Shilpa along with the founding Middle East team sought to reach out to Dubai’s community and form new partnerships with organizations interested in the promotion of safe water globally. Since Surge’s arrival in the Emirates, they have hosted several successful initiatives as well as participated in community events including the Change Initiative Winter Carnival, International Water Summit, Original Fitness Company Pink Biathlon, Media City Christmas Festival, Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon and Yoga Festival.
Some 783 million people live without access to clean water, and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. In 2013, the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi said that the emirate is depleting its underground water resources 24 times as fast as they can be replenished, and that without an alternative solution; these water sources will be exhausted within 50 years. Across the GCC, per-capita water usage ranges between 300 to 750 litres per day, while the global average is 250 litres.
Shilpa Alva talks to LEADERS Middle East about her journey towards the creation of Surge, as well as their initiatives for providing people in need with safe water – a cause she is promoting in the Middle East and around the world.
How did you come about establishing Surge? What is the story behind it?
I’m often asked what it was that moved me about water. My motivation began when I was a child visiting extended family in India. Issues related to the water crisis were so prevalent that I saw children my age who didn’t have the luxury of playing; instead many were fetching water for their family’s survival. Even as a seven-year-old child, I knew this was not the way the world should be. Access to safe water is a critical aspect of daily life, and everyone should have it. Children should not bear the responsibility of a family’s survival. I knew then that I wanted to make a difference, I just didn’t know how.
When I was twenty-one, I spent a few months on a volunteer assignment in Rajgarh, a remote Indian village. I was confronted with water and sanitation issues for the first time as an adult. In an effort to save the limited water we had access to, we could only shower once in four days, flush the toilet sparingly and often had to wash our clothes in a murky river. We were among the fortunate ones who had some access to this precious resource; many of our friends in the village didn’t share in this luxury. It was through this firsthand experience that I realized it was now my responsibility to make a difference. The founding of Surge in 2008 was in response to this life-long calling: It was my way of making a lasting impact. We were going to change people’s lives by providing them with access to safe water and sanitation!
As Surge started to form, a few friends — our first volunteers — united to launch the organization. Our first event was Think Water, a water-inspired gala held at the stunning Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The event was a huge success, attended by more than 200 guests. It scored a full-page feature in the Star Tribune, the largest newspaper in the state. With this unexpected, overwhelming support we knew our mission resonated with our community and that we had the backing to continue with our vision. And so we did! We continued to organize frequent fundraisers and awareness events. Soon we started to transition from raising funds and awareness to partnering with local organizations in Cambodia, Dominican Republic and Haiti. As we gained momentum we were able to grow our impact and educational efforts around the world.
Surge has grown to a global nonprofit organization registered in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. We bring life-sustaining water and sanitation to those most in need, while increasing awareness of the global crisis.
Today, a global team of talented volunteers operates Surge; each has a personal story of being moved by water that brought them to our organization: they may have witnessed poverty, inequalities and injustices around the world, etc. We have come together because of our belief that every person has an equal right to access safe water and sanitation. As a team, we continue to be significantly affected by the severity of the water crisis and the struggles people face to access this basic necessity. However, we stay driven as we know that with just a little bit of help we can make a life changing difference. We are changing the world — one drop at a time!
As your reports show nearly 800 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. What areas are most affected by this problem?
Water scarcity already affects every continent, according to the United Nations. Nearly 800 million people lack access to safe water and approximately 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. Sub-Saharan African countries are amongst those most affected; however, the crisis is far reaching and affects many communities all around the world. Several million lives are lost annually due to water borne illness. This is happening right now, this is global issue that requires a global solution.
Women and children are most severely affected, as they often bear the burden of collecting water. In many communities, it’s quite common to trek an average of six kilometers to fetch water that is often contaminated. This daily journey is dangerous: along their walk, they are subjected to risks of harassment, sexual assault, and even land mines. Separate from the inherent dangers of the walk, the time spent walking keeps children away from school and mothers away from work and taking care of their families. In turn, these absences affect the long-term economic and social health of a community and the world.
What are some of your initiatives that are contributing towards providing safe drinking water? What has been the impact and reach of your operations this far?
Since our start in 2008, Surge has provided safe water and sanitation access to nearly 120,000 people in nine countries. Our projects have helped thousands of families in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Tanzania. Our funds have built fresh water wells, water harvest tanks, water purification filters, and sanitation systems.
Water and sanitation solutions supported by Surge depend upon availability of sustainable local products as well as community demand and recommendations of our local community partners. A customized education program that highlights critical water access, sanitation, and hygiene practices accompanies every project.
The World Health Organization reports that more than 3.6 percent of the global disease burden can be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation, and hygiene. They also estimate that for each $1 invested in safe water and sanitation solutions there are returns of $3 to $34, depending on the region and the technology.
Access to safe water truly transforms a community. It equates to health, income, education, and playtime!
Here are a few of our featured projects:
Cambodia – One school at a time: More than 10,000 children die annually from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. To alleviate this issue, we support the construction of water harvest tanks, the maintenance of wells and the distribution of water purification filters. We typically focus on solutions at schools, which serve as the water source for the entire community.
Haiti - Filters for life: Approximately 40 percent of Haitians lack access to clean water and only one in five have access to a toilet. We work with communities in Jacmel and Croix des Bouquet with FilterPure and Mabouya Dlo Pwop to provide locally produced ceramic water purification filters to families most affected by the water crisis. This simple yet effective technology has allowed us to help reduce the spread of Cholera that has affected thousands over the past few years.
India – A journey made easier
In several parts of India, women and children travel an average of six kilometers per day to collect water. This is time spent away from activities such as school and work. They haul approximately 20 kilograms each time they make the trip. To make it easier to access water, Surge works with Wello to provide the Water-Wheel – a product that transports significantly more water in less time with less effort.
What is your connection to the UAE, and how are people in the UAE taking part of Surge?
I was born in Dubai and still consider it home! I’ve kept my connection to the country with at least an annual visit. Since we launched Surge, my visits have increased in both frequency and time. I work with the local team to help stabilize and grow the chapter and ensure we function as a single cohesive organization.
When we started thinking about global expansion, Dubai was an obvious next step. It’s a city where I have deep-rooted personal connections. Marita Peters, our Middle East Executive Director who led our launch, is one of my best friends since childhood. I vividly remember adolescent conversations about how we were going to dedicate our life to global development work. Now many years later, we are doing just that. It’s quite beautiful to think about what the strength of a friendship can achieve when directed towards solving a global issue.
The Dubai chapter includes a team of seven passionate volunteer leaders. The local charter is to raise awareness of the global water crisis and the local situation. The UAE is listed by the United Nations as a high-rank country when it comes to water stress. This is a situation that occurs when the availability of water is not in balance with the demand. While resources are limited, the UAE still has one of the highest consumption rates in the world.
Surge reaches thousands of people annually by actively integrating with the social fabric of the Emirates. We host unique awareness events catered to both youth and adults. For example, our recent Design, Dine, Donate gala united the interior design industry in the UAE. Designers were asked to create innovative and sustainable seating elements for a cause using non-toxic renewable materials. The result was eight stunning designs displayed at the Design, Dine, Donate gala attended by more than 250 guests.
We also continue to invest in the youth. Via our signature youth education program, Water: The Global Passport, students embark on a virtual journey to gain an understanding of the water related challenges people face globally. Through game-based activities, participants learn about the global water crisis and ways to protect and conserve our local water sources.
What is your objective in terms of the number of people and communities you want to help in 2015?
In 2015, we hope to significantly surpass our past accomplishments. With nearly 800 million affected, we have a lot of work to do! We will continue to support and grow our active projects in alignment with our model to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions.
Globally, we will grow our work in the Philippines beyond typhoon emergency relief. We also plan to establish new projects in Africa. In the U.A.E., we will expand our school education program and reach thousands more youth with the hope of inspiring future leaders for this cause!
How can sponsors take part in supporting Surge?
As we continue to grow in the region, we are open to creative partnerships with sponsors including signature galas, themed festivals, customized school programs and online campaigns. There is a lot of work to be done and many ways to get involved with Surge to make a life-changing difference.
Quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” We invite you to join us!