Canadian Expat Network: Ryan Rowe, Making a Difference

The Canadian Expat Network, an online resource for Canadians living abroad, expressed interest in hearing more about my activities in the water sector. This is the first article in a three-part series and was published online at http://www.canadianexpatnetwork.com/public/1142.cfm in May 2012. Photos are my own.

Canadian Expat Ryan Rowe, Making a Difference

By Ryan Rowe, MBA, MPH

WHO/UNICEF International Network on Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage
Based at the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I took a deep breath and jumped over the gutter of raw sewage. Landing on the other side, my foot splashed down into a puddle, spraying my shoes and ankles. I grimaced and wiped the sweat from my forehead. The smell of an open fire, rubbish, and human waste permeated the air and burned my nostrils. Kelvin, the six year old boy taking me to his home, ran ahead like an eager rabbit, bounding through a minefield of more foul ditches. I tried my best to keep up with this adventurous and fearless child but within seconds lost sight of him. Stopping, I glanced around, unsure where to go or what to do. Locals stared at me as I stood there, clearly out of place. Schoolchildren walking by looked at me with big smiles and cried “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?”

Like many of the world’s urban slums, the community of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya has little to no water and sanitation infrastructure, at least not the type that you and I are used to. The United Nations estimates about 800 million people lack access to clean drinking water and nearly 3 billion do not have adequate toilet systems. In these settings, people frequently get sick from dirty water and without a functioning toilet the environment is further contaminated, a vicious cycle.

On my first visit to Kibera in 2009, I learned about Carolina for Kibera (CFK), an award-winning non-profit which works on health, education, and entrepreneurship initiatives. The organization is run by local leaders and supported by faculty and students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill through research and fundraising efforts. CFK invited me to participate in their community clean-up program, during which local youth clean out Kibera’s clogged and makeshift sewage trenches (see photo inset) in exchange for points to play football, a very popular sport in Kenya. More importantly, the program improves living conditions and teaches young people how to work and play together. Unemployment is as high as 40% in Kibera and many children cannot afford to go to school, so the program provides kids the opportunity to develop leadership skills and the confidence to pursue their hopes and dreams in the face of such challenges.

The practical impact of UNC’s work in health and development is one reason why it is a global leader in the field of public health. And amazingly, I was lucky enough to win a fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship to pursue a two year master’s degree at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. My activities here have focused on behavioural and policy solutions to the water and sanitation problems faced by communities like Kibera. Early in my degree, I took a part-time research position with UNC’s Water Institute, allowing me to work closely with WHO, UNICEF, and experts from all over the world. My main area of focus is on improving the quality of drinking water, so as to reduce diarrhoea in young children and save lives. One way to do this is to treat drinking water at the point-of-use or household level, using methods such as ceramic or sand filtration, solar disinfection, or chlorination. Such methods are particularly important in schools, clinics, and the homes of the sick, poor, or distressed, as these are the people who bear the burden of disease.

For a young child, diarrhea can be lethal, especially when it’s persistent, lasting for weeks at a time. It leads to dehydration as their bodies fail to absorb essential nutrients needed for their development and growth. Constantly thirsty, they have no choice but to turn once again to a contaminated water supply which perpetuates sickness. It doesn’t take long before children become malnourished — they become subject to frequent infections, and the development of their bodies and brains is impaired. Without remedial treatment, they will be permanently affected, and in the most serious cases die. About 1.5 million children globally die every year from preventable diarrheal diseases.

Halfway through my studies, in the summer of 2011, CFK and local residents welcomed me back to Kibera, giving me the opportunity to learn more about point-of-use and household water treatment in practice. In my next write-up, I’ll share with you a bit more about my work there and what I learned. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions at ryanrowe@unc.edu or visit http://www.who.int/household_water/en/.

Ryan Rowe is originally from Montreal, Canada and he has lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since August 2010. Previously he was an investment banker in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, raising 600 million US dollars for infrastructure projects in the Middle East and North Africa. He now works regularly with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and Rotary International on finding solutions to the world’s water problems and speaks about his work at public and private engagements. Ryan obtained his MBA from the Schulich School of Business in Toronto in 2006 and his MPH from UNC Chapel Hill in 2012. He plans to return to Kibera in July 2012 to continue his work with the community.