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A Right To Clean Water

Three USC Viterbi alumni travel to rural Rwanda to install a water purifying system for cleaner water and healthier communities.
By: Marc Ballon
January 12, 2015 —

USC Viterbi alumni Kirsten Rice, JT Max and Viv Pitter in Rwanda
When USC Viterbi alumnus Jay Todd Max (B.S. ’13, M.S. ’14) visited rural Rwanda with a group of students in summer 2012 to build a pre-school, he was struck by the lack of clean water and its deleterious impact on the local population.

While Max and other American student-volunteers drank bottled water, community residents fetched water from a dirty lake that often sickened and incapacitated them. Worldwide, an estimated 768 million people lack access to clean drinking water, according to UNICEF. About 1.6 million die annually from cholera and other diarrheal diseases caused by a lack of safe drinking water and basic sanitation, with 90 percent under the age of five, the World Health Organization said.

Access to clean water is one of the National Academy of Engineering's 14 "Grand Challenges," which include sustainable energy, improving urban infrastructure and cybersecurity. USC Viterbi is one of the foremost supporters of these efforts.

Max, dismayed by what he saw in Rwanda, decided to do something about it. “I believe access to clean water is a basic human right,” the now 24-year-old said.

Returning to USC, he partnered with fellow engineering students Viv Pitter (B.S. ’13) and Kirsten Rice (B.S. ’13, M.S. ’14), a former NAE Grand Challenges Scholar, to come up with a solution. Working under the auspices of Massoud Pirbazari, a professor in the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and founder of Safe Water for All Nations (SWAN), the trio developed, through lab simulations and best practices, a low-cost water filtration system big enough to serve a village.

In 2013, Max, Pitter and Rice formed the Community Water Project, a company dedicated to bringing clean water to rural populations in the developing world. With the help of Simon Burrow, a social entrepreneurship expert, the students wrote a business plan in that year’s Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC). Their model: Build inexpensive bio-sand filtration systems in conjunction with local communities; charge a nominal but affordable fee to villagers for clean water; and use that money to protect, maintain and expand the system.

With Burrow’s encouragement, the members of Community Water Project decided to test their ideas in the field. Through Indiegogo, they raised $20,000. They also secured a $5,000 grant from National Geographic, which is “proud to support [their] efforts to provide sustainable, safe water in rural communities,” said Dr. John Francis, vice president of research, conservation and exploration for the National Geographic Society.

In October, team members went to Nyarubuye, Rwanda to build a water system that would provide clean water for more than 500 families. Construction finished two months later. With the help of 10 hired villagers, the team built a large filter with concrete, rebar, sand and stone; installed a water pump inside a newly constructed pump house; and built a clean-water storage tank.

In a show of appreciation, 200 community members “clapped, cheered and shouted morakoze (thank you)” at a project meeting, said Rice, who herself became infected with worms from contaminated water during her Rwandan stay.

What’s next for the Community Water Project? The principals plan to incorporate their business as a nonprofit and identify a future project.

Said Max: “We hope to harness biological filtration to provide clean water throughout the developing world wherever it’s needed.”