Placing people at the heart of clean water efforts | Global Ideas | DW | 12.06.2012
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Global Ideas

Placing people at the heart of clean water efforts

Millions of people lack access to drinking water. Hamburg charity “Viva con Agua” aims to change that with a grassroots approach. Founder Benjamin Adrion told Global Ideas why his group is no ordinary development NGO.

Benjamin Adrion, founder of “Viva con Agua,” holds 2 bottles with his organization’s logo

A man with a mission - Viva con Agua founder Benjamin Adrion

Hamburg-based charity Viva con Agua campaigns for clean drinking water around the world. Currently, around 3,500 volunteers help run it including German celebrities singer Bela B from the German band “Die Ärzte,” popular bands “Fettes Brot” and “Wir sind Helden,” German television star chef Tim Mälzer and the FC St. Pauli football club. The organization was born in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg. In addition, there are various local branches of the organization across the country.

In order to raise money, Viva con Agua hosts benefit events like the “Water days” festival, charity races and football matches. Volunteers make the rounds at events with donation cups, and Viva con Agua even has its own brand of mineral water where proceeds go to the project. Welthungerhilfe is already using the brand in15 countries.

The organization conducts educational programs at schools and universities to raise awareness about the need for clean drinking water. For his work, founder Benjamin Adrion was awarded Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit in 2009.

Global Ideas: How does a professional football player come up with the idea to set up a project like “Viva con Agua?”

Benjamin Adrion: It all started at a training camp with FC St. Pauli (former Bundesliga club) in Cuba. We experienced the problem with clean drinking water up close and personal. Back then, the club held huge potential for me to commit to social issues and solidarity. The idea was that we have so much capacity to do something, why not meet the problem head on and work together to spark something.

What did the first project look like?

We worked together with the Germany-based NGO Welthungerhilfe to install clean drinking water dispensers in 153 kindergartens. To do that, we set a goal of raising 50,000 euros in one year, and we called the initiative “Viva con Agua.”

The Viva con Agua team poses for the camera

An estimated 783 million people worldwide lack access to drinking water. Viva con Agua wants to change that.

And what does that mean?

We refer to it as “the open network.” That means anyone can participate and get involved. And, in addition there’s an “all profit” thought behind it. That means a commitment to social issues can without being patronizing or giving people a bad conscience. Rather, it can be fun and spread joy. It really can be linked to “coolness” and “lifestyle” and sports and music too. Our motto is, give up your egoism but don’t force yourself into self-sacrifice. We try to find a compromise between the two.

So that means you don’t just walk around with a donation box...

Yes, from the very beginning, we distanced ourselves from the traditional forms of fundraising, like collecting signatures or sending donation letters at Christmas. We’ve started to mix in a few traditional methods here and there, but we still have our own style.

We make it clear that with us, it’s not as much about money as it is about people bringing their own ideas and creativity and devoting time and energy to projects. Instead of just issuing donation receipts, the goal is to go directly to people at festivals and collect money for “Viva con Agua,” or create a local branch of the group, organize an event – basically an open network where we consider how people can use their own abilities and strengths.

And does that work in raising money for the projects?

Äthiopier am Wasserkiosk Projektreise April 2012. Fotograf Henning Heide +++ Henning Heide / Viva con Agua +++

The Viva con Agua family is growing. The charity has branches in several countries

Yes, we’ve raised 1.5 million euros so far and it’s growing. It’s crazy. The dynamic we saw when we did the one project in Cuba surprised us and we wanted to do more. Since then, we’ve founded organizations in Spain and Switzerland, and we’re thinking of opening a new one in Austria in 2013. It’s great. The energy and potential are still strong, the family continues to expand but it’s still a tight-knit unit, which is important when you’re talking about growth.

What form does the aid take? What exactly is done with the money?

It depends on what’s needed. The type of support can vary a lot, even within one country. For example, in Ethiopia, we have different projects running in the north and the south. It’s important to involve the local people in the entire process, from choosing the type of development to the implementation all the way to maintenance. That’s a decisive factor for us.

So in concrete terms, water is pumped from the mountains to water kiosks that sell water in small amounts. People who took part in the project pay less than those who didn’t. The money that’s collected is fed into an account that is managed by a local water committee, so costs like repairs or improvements can be covered. We build deep-water tube wells, lay pipes, install hand pumps and we supply important sanitation facilities too.

Playing football on sand

Viva con Agua’s motto involves combining aid with sports and fun

Essentially, we carry projects through in a way that the local residents can take over and keep them running. Ethiopia is proof that it can work sustainably. Financing for one of the projects there ran out a long time ago, but the wells are still running, and when something breaks down, people there know what to do. It works! Still, there are examples of cases where we had to invest additional money because some of the devices were broken – like in Rwanda. We’re just starting to get our first long-term results.

What are your impressions from being on the ground in the various regions?

The first thing we try to do is to show the local people who we are and what the “Viva con Agua” message is. We play music with them, we play football, we spend a few nights in their village huts or drink their home-brewed moonshine. We want to show them that we represent average people in society, that we’re not purely professionals, we have a human side to us too.

And as the years go on, we try to build a relationship to the people. “Viva con Agua” is there to build bridges – it’s a network that knows no boundaries. Our vision is to someday have “Viva con Agua Ethiopia” or “Viva con Agua Uganda.” It’s exciting to think about going international and implementing the project’s DNA locally. We want to network, want to connect with artists and set up festivals. We don’t want to be boxed into the typical development aid organization stereotypes. “Viva con Agua” is different, and we’ll see if we’re able to bring that across in the future, too.

How does climate change play into your efforts?

We’re not an environmental organization, we focus on water. Still, we know that what we do is not isolated, because the water crisis has intensified because of climate change. When entire stretches of land go through dry spells because there’s no rain, it’s clear that there is a direct link between climate change and water. If hot regions get hotter and drier, water supply problems get worse.

But through your work, you end up raising awareness about climate change too, right?

Definitely. Overall, we try to make it clear to people through our work that it’s all connected. People have to think about what they do and what effect their actions have.

Interview: Po Keung Cheung /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar