What good can one company do in helping Third World countries to obtain safe, clean drinking water? A lot, it turns out, as Karla Nagy learns how a St. Charles pond equipment maker is changing communities.
You never know when you might find your calling. For St. Charles resident Carla Wittstock, it came in 2007, when she visited a friend in the Dominican Republic.
This friend, Lisa Ballantine, is founder and CEO of FilterPure, a nonprofit organization that manufactures and distributes ceramic water filters to areas without a reliable supply of fresh water. The sustainable business not only employs locals, but also provides a means for them to obtain clean, potable water.
“It’s no secret that there’s a water crisis in the world, but this trip was eye-opening for me,” says Wittstock. “Here, we flip a switch and have electricity, turn a knob and have all the water we need. I saw adults and children sick just from a lack of fresh water. I came home from that trip and said to my husband, ‘We have to do something.’”
The Wittstocks were in an ideal position to help. Carla’s husband, Greg, is founder and CEO of Aquascape Inc., the largest distributor of pond and waterscape supplies and designs in North America. Carla, too, has worked for the company, digging ponds, putting in landscaping and strategizing to create sustainable pond ecosystems.
According to the United Nations’ UNICEF, 768 million people around the world don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, and nearly 2.5 billion live without proper sanitation. But our water resources are limited, too – just barely 1 percent of all Earth’s freshwater resources are useable for human consumption. Even as water can give us life, diseases carried in untreated water can kill.
“It’s such a simple thing – clean water – and people are dying for lack of it,” Wittstock says. “Water is our business, so we thought this was a great way to share our blessings and knowledge.”
Aquascape has always worked to preserve healthy ecosystems in the process of building its water features. It has always been a strong advocate for the collection and reuse of rainwater through systems like rain barrels.
According to the Aquascape website, one inch of rainfall on a 2,000-square-foot residential roof yields up to 1,250 gallons of water that can be reused. An area receiving 30 inches of rainfall annually generates 41,000 gallons of reusable water, and a sprinkler run for two hours can use as much as 500 gallons of water.
Rain barrels can only hold so much water, however, so the experts at Aquascape developed AquaBlox, modular filters that can be put together in any number of configurations, like Legos or a puzzle.
The water is captured on a rooftop and diverted to an underground storage area, where it passes through these special filters that remove pollutants. The water is also kept in motion, allowing for aeration and preventing stagnation and growth of unhealthy bacteria.
“We build ecosystems for people’s backyards, and we’ve always been concerned with water conservation,” says Wittstock. “We developed RainXchange as a way for people to capture rainwater to use for their decorative water features, so that they’re conserving water. They can also use it to irrigate their lawns and landscaping. It cuts down on water bills and lessens the demand on municipal water systems.”
The AquaBlox and RainXchange can be incorporated in features as small as a bubbling urn and as large as a pond with a waterfall and stream. It’s been used in municipal water management, for corporations and even inside theme parks. Wittstock figured: Why couldn’t it work for Third World countries?
Wittstock went to work, using the Aquascape brain trust to adapt the RainXchange technology for remote villages, and drumming up financial and intellectual support.
“In 2008, just two weeks after we received our nonprofit status, we got a call from IN Network,” Wittstock says. “The group had a village in Ghana, West Africa, where they had tried to dig wells without any luck. They asked, ‘Can you help?’ It was just one of those clear, divine things that meant we were following the right path.”
International Needs (IN) Network is a Christian organization that focuses its work in needy areas in underdeveloped nations. “They build schools, and they’ve been very helpful in identifying the places most in need,” says Wittstock. “We usually use the roof of the school as the rainwater capture point.”
With its proprietary products and innovative methods of construction, Aquascape holds numerous seminars and training sessions on their proper use. Wittstock solicited a team of volunteers from among the company’s contractors and suppliers.
“It made the most sense to ask them,” she explains. “Who’s more familiar with how our products work and how to install them properly? So our customers, certified Aquascape contractors and distributors, volunteer. They’ve built companies around our products, so when we arrive at our mission, we hit the ground running.”
The volunteers pay for their own transportation, airfare and lodging, which costs about $3,000. Aquascape and some of its suppliers donate the materials. The first trip was in 2009, to a village in Ghana. Subsequent groups traveled to Colombia, Uganda and the Domincan Republic.
“We take about 15 people, and each year, we fill up,” Wittstock says. “We send the word out early, and every year, it seems, I have to turn people away who waited too long to sign up. It’s pretty hard work in very difficult conditions, but we have a core of the same people who come on each trip.”
Wittstock herself accompanies each mission and helps to install the systems. “What’s really cool is that IN Network helps to maintain the systems and keep us informed about the villages,” she says. “Many people make mission trips and never know if they’ve had an impact. A team of doctors visited the village after our installation and said there was vast improvement in the health of the children. That’s very gratifying.”
As Aquascape’s director of contractor development and field research, Ed Beaulieu helped to develop the modular system installed by the Foundation. He also handles technology issues from contractors and hosts webinars and hands-on seminars on installing water features.
“We’re very focused on education,” Beaulieu says. “We’re the only manufacturer with a full-time installation team. We’re constantly updating and modifying our products and processes, to find problems before our customers do. Installing water features can be challenging, so we want to educate our contractors as much as we can.”
A 20-year Aquascape veteran, Beaulieu was involved in the Foundation early on, and plans the logistics for each RainXchange System the nonprofit makes. He typically begins planning around mid-summer for the January missions. “We start with a water budget, to determine the system size,” he says. “IN Network sends me the rainfall data and takes digital photos and sends other topography information that I need. Then, I send the dimensions to the village, where they excavate before we arrive.”
These remote villages have no access to machinery, so excavation is done manually by villagers, who are paid for their labor by the Foundation. “This way, we can get an installation done in about five days,” Wittstock says.
Rainwater harvest systems are adaptable, and can be as small or large as needed, configured to fit into any topography. “When we installed a system for the area I first visited in the Dominican Republic, there was only a long, narrow strip that could be utilized,” Wittstock explains.
Just as in its commercial applications, the RainXchange System consists of a rooftop location to capture the water and an initial filtration system that captures leaves, sticks and other debris. “We do install a better pre-filtering system,” Beaulieu says. “Rainwater itself is a pretty clean source of water, until it hits the ground. That’s why a rooftop is used for capture.”
The water goes through a settling system first, and is then funneled to an underground storage area. “We use two purifying agents here,” Beaulieu explains. “First are the modular AquaBlocks, with polypropyline webbing, spaced every nine inches, so the water has to pass through this matrix-like system that mixes and aerates the water to purify it. Then, we use either ultraviolet sterilization or copper silver ionization, which is our favorite, because the metal attacks the bacteria.”
Locals shadow the volunteers during installation, learning about the system and its maintenance, so that they can keep it up and running after the team leaves. Beaulieu is available by phone to troubleshoot any major problems.
“We want to make sure that what we’re doing is in place and operating for decades,” says Beaulieu.
Diane and Chris Baker first learned about the Foundation through training sessions they took at Aquascape. They’ve worked with the company since 2003, when they started using these products for their own business, Across the Pond Aquascapes, in Doylestown, Pa.
“We’ve always believed in helping the less-fortunate, locally and otherwise, with donations,” Baker says. “But I always wanted to do something more. Carla presented us with this opportunity to get hands-on, and Colombia was our first trip. At first, we thought it would be a fun adventure. Once we saw the conditions, we vowed never to miss a trip, if it was within our power.”
The only trip the Bakers have missed was one to the Dominican Republic, the year Chris was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. His doctors cleared him to make the 2014 trip to Ghana.
“He’s in great shape,” says Diane. “I honestly believe that someone is watching out for him. We’re not overly religious, but I think he’s doing so well because of all the good he’s done.”
The trips involve hard work in deplorable conditions. “It’s just like you see on television,” Wittstock says. “No electricity, no sanitation, 10 people living in a ramshackle hut with a thatch roof and dirt floor. On our first trip to Ghana, my mother and I followed the women down to the river, and it was indescribable how dirty and polluted it was. I had trouble asking for donations before that first trip, but afterwards, I have absolutely no difficulty.”
Baker was especially affected by that first trip. “We were driving down a dirt road in a remote area, and children were in the gullies along the side of the road with yellow oil bottles, getting drinking water. A ways down, a cow was standing in the same gully, relieving itself. In the village, we saw adults and children with their bellies distended from drinking that water. And it’s such a simple thing we do, to give them water, but it’s everything to them.”
Baker says that trip changed her outlook. “I was humbled, and ashamed, after I returned,” she says. “Things that used to be important to me – getting granite countertops, for example – don’t bother me anymore.”
Beaulieu relates similar feelings. “Water is polluted there and we take it for granted,” he says. “I focus on getting to know the people in the village. We have meals together, talk while we’re working. We don’t mention material things or how we live. We talk about our families, what we do for a living. It’s very humbling.”
The volunteers work 10 or 12 hours a day in muggy heat, but they stay positive. “When you go, there’s a lot of laughter and teasing, to help us deal with what we’re seeing,” Baker says. “We all want to fix everything for the people, but we can’t. On one trip, April Frost, an EMT who comes on every trip, stopped me from touching a little boy who had cut himself, to get him bandaged. ‘We’re in an AIDS orphanage,’ she reminded me. It’s hard to remember where you are.”
At 24,000 gallons, the most recent RainXchange System, installed this January in Ghana, is the Foundation’s largest to date. “A typical swimming pool is 10,000 gallons, so this is basically two-and-half swimming pools – all hand-dug,” says Beaulieu.
The group is limited to helping in areas with consistent rainfall, says Beaulieu, and roof size and rainfall pattern are controlling factors.
“We’ve brought clean water to more than 10,000 people, and it’s just fantastic,” says Wittstock. “As a company, we feel so blessed by what we’ve been given, and even in this economy, we’ve been able to take our technology to these places.”
Beyond freshwater collection systems, the Foundation is working to eliminate the Ghana practice of trokosi, a type of ritual servitude, where young girls are given to village priests as an appeasement for some sin or crime. During both Ghana missions, the Foundation bartered its water system in exchange for the release of some of these women and their children. IN Network has built schools to educate them and train them in a vocation, as well as teach the children about the dangers of trokosi.
Fundraising continues year-round for the Foundation. Some volunteers hold their own fundraisers to pay the way, while others forego vacations or dip into savings. Volunteers consider it a worthwhile investment.
“I thank Carla Wittstock every year that she’s given us this opportunity,” says Baker. “It’s a small foundation, but I hope word gets spread. We’re trying to create awareness in our area, with slideshows to show people what it’s like. Carla could have turned a blind eye to what she saw, but she didn’t.”