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Why 500 Everyday Americans Are Test-Driving Life Without Clean Water


It’s World Water Day, a time to celebrate global efforts to bring clean water to the 800 million people who still don’t have it. But if all of this talk about the water crisis seems distant or vague, here’s a statistic that should hit closer to home: This year, a majority of the world’s population will live within 31 miles of an endangered water source.

Americans are notoriously oblivious to water issues. A recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the average American uses more than double the water he or she estimates, and that most of us are unsure of which practices or appliances consume the most. Americans use more than 450 liters (118 gallons) of water at home every day, more than any other group.

Our cluelessness – coupled with growing scarcity and the specter of climate change – raises an interesting question: How do we change the way we use water before places like Southern California start looking more like South Sudan?

The answer from Los Angeles-based nonprofit DIGDEEP Water: Start by changing the way Americans think about water, then change the way they use it.

Last year, DIGDEEP challenged Americans to reduce their water consumption from 450 liters a day to just four, using the equivalent of four soda bottles to cook, clean, drink and bathe for several days. They hoped a brief run-in with water poverty would change the way participants understand their water while raising funds for water projects around the world. They called their experiment the 4Liter Challenge.


“Living on just four liters of water isn’t easy, but many of the participants had a great time with it,” said George McGraw, executive director of DIGDEEP. “People shared really intimate moments: difficulties shaving their legs or washing their hair, inventive ways of cooking a meal or washing the dishes, really moving personal reflections. It’s amazing how the experience sticks with you, even after it’s over.”

The 2013 Challenge, which took place last October, brought together 592 people from six countries and created a social media firestorm. Participants included students, families, working urbanites, and teams from universities, nonprofits and companies. People shared hundreds of photos, videos and tweets from their challenges.

In one of my favorite posts (right), participant Kirsty Spraggon licked her breakfast bowl clean instead of washing it in the sink, sparing a precious few milliliters.

By the end of the weeklong campaign, participants had raised more than $17,000, funding six water projects in South Sudan, Cameroon and the United States (New Mexico). Their experiments with water poverty directly benefitted communities trying to escape that same fate.

This morning, DIGDEEP released an interactive infographic of the best posts from last year’s challenge. The site features “moments” organized by category (like cooking, bathing, cleaning) from real participants, including celebrities like David Henrie, Drake Bell and James Scott. They also built a nifty tool that allows donors to “track” how and where their gifts are being used. The tool was designed by VeryNice.co, an LA-based creative agency and pioneers or the “give-half” model I wrote about here.

While per capita water use in the U.S. has declined in recent years, we’re not out of the woods just yet. Our decisions today – as communities and as individuals – will determine just how much water (and of what quality) we’ll enjoy in the future. Organizations like DIGDEEP believe the critical first step is to change the way we think about water. After exploring the 4Liter Challenge, I’m inclined to agree.

The 4Liter Challenge is an annual campaign by LA-based human rights non-profit DIGDEEP Water. The program includes a social media campaign and a 6-12 grade curriculum, both of which launch every October. You can learn more and join me in pre-registering for the 2014 Challenge by using the link here.

Co-authored by George McGraw.

Jasmine Youssefzadeh is a social entrepreneur committed to finding innovative mediums for non-profits and corporates to build alliances through new media. She is Founder and Director of Production of filmanthropos, a creative agency that specializes in multi-platform storytelling for philanthropies, causes, and corporate social responsibility initiatives.

George McGraw wants to change the way you think about water. George runs the DIGDEEP Right to Water Project in Los Angeles, which he founded. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University Chicago and a professional degree in International Law from the United Nations University for Peace (UPEACE) in San José, Costa Rica. He has worked for several foreign governments and has consulted for the United Nations Development Programme in Afghanistan. His organization DIGDEEP brings sustainable, clean water to communities around the world, while helping Americans to use their own resources more intelligently. George speaks, writes articles and makes all kinds of media for outlets like law reviews, universities, TEDx, and the Huffington Post.

Featured image: Flickr/joeshlabotnik

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