Seth Maxwell is doing something about it.
Four years ago, he founded the nonprofit Thirst Project and since then he has raised $2.6 million and given 100,000 people access to potable water through new wells. In March, Maxwell announced a very ambitious initiative: he plans to raise $50 million within 10 years to provide the entire African country of Swaziland with clean water.
His crusade began five years ago, when a photojournalist friend showed then-college student Maxwell some shocking pictures and told horrifying stories of her trip to Africa where she witnessed people drinking dirty water from puddles, swamps and ponds and dying from dysentery and cholera as a result.
“I left shattered,” says Maxwell, who stared talking to friends about the crisis on campus at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and at other schools, raising funds with dances, walks and other promotions.
But dedicated college students are only one part of the Thirst Project’s operations. “We have an advisory board made up of civil engineers and hydrologists to oversee how we build wells and to make sure that we’re engaging the community properly, that they know how to maintain the wells,” says Maxwell, noting an emphasis on sustainability. “And we have a small group of donors that fund the operation so that when you donate, you know the money goes to building wells.”
Maxwell explains that Swaziland was chosen for the countrywide initiative because it has the highest population density of AIDS/HIV of any country in the world, and 40 percent of people living there don’t have access to potable water, which is particularly deadly for AIDS/HIV patients.
“Even if they have access to medication and treatment, they don’t have access to clean water so the diseases in that water will kill them faster than the disease will because their immune systems are so compromised,” he says. Additionally, the constant search for water keeps adults from pursuing employment and children from attending school, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
“We did a feasibility study on this country to assess what it would take to make a significant impact there and we discovered that if we raised $50 million we could give the entire country safe water,” he says. “We assembled a group of people to build a strategic plan on how to raise the funds and implement, and now we have that plan in place. We are giving ourselves 10 years to do what’s never been done before, and we will not leave the country until every single person has safe water.”
Maxwell says it’s an attainable goal, especially since the government of Swaziland has been cooperative and engaged in the project, “and that transparency has been an amazing relationship to move forward from.”
His plan involves marshalling six separate groups: students, financial institutions, corporations, churches and other faith-based entities, individual philanthropists, and the entertainment community, using celebrity supporters “to raise awareness and get others on board. I’m so excited where we’re at and where we’ve come from,” says Maxwell. ”But, where we’re going is so much more exciting.”
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