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Deep into water, in Rotary Canada magazine

This article was originally published in Rotary Canada, the quarterly supplement to Rotary International’s monthly Rotarian magazine. Click to visit the original article. Republished here with permission.

Ryan Rowe in Kenya | Photo by Anne-Marie Di Lullo/Tabasamu Education Fund

Deep into water
by Paul Engleman
Rotary Canada — October 2012

As a child growing up in Montreal, Ryan Rowe resented his parents’ requirement that he learn a second language. “I hated having 
to learn French,” says the 2010-12 Rotary Peace Fellow, who earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May, along with a certificate in peace and conflict resolution. “I never expected that I would come to love learning new languages.”

Rowe, 34, now speaks Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English and French, and he’s recently taken up Mandarin Chinese. Learning new languages is something Rowe does as a hobby. His official line of work – the stuff he’s really serious about – is 
water and sanitation. That was his specialty at UNC, where he studied at the internationally acclaimed Water Institute. Today he is a part-time communications officer at the institute and quenches his thirst for volunteer opportunities on water projects in Africa, with Rotary and other organizations.

“A lot of people think the water crisis is just too daunting,” he says. “I believe if we work together and remain committed to investing our energy, our skills, and our money, we can have a positive impact.”

To hear Rowe tell it, that blend of optimism and determination has been part of his outlook at least since college. While an undergraduate at Concordia University in Montreal, Rowe took a semester off and travelled by bus through Mexico and Central America, immersing himself in the language and cultures to prepare for an exchange program in Colombia, where he took most of his courses in Spanish.

That bus trip, he says, is what opened his eyes to the impoverished conditions that many people face. “But instead of seeing poverty,” he says, “I saw opportunity. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial quality, and I saw how the issues of poverty related to lack of infrastructure.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in commerce and finance, Rowe pursued an international master’s in strategic management at York University in Toronto. He studied in Brazil, taking a third of his courses in Portuguese and conducting an independent-study project on private-sector investment in water infrastructure in Latin America.

Rowe recalls that during his childhood, he heard tales of world travel and service projects from an aunt and uncle who are Rotarians in Ottawa. “But I wasn’t clued in to Rotary’s impact on the world,” he says. That changed in 2009, when he was living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and working in infrastructure development for the Australian investment bank Macquarie Group. While doing volunteer work, Rowe learned about the Rotary Peace Centers program and saw an opportunity to help address water issues with some of the world’s best experts.

“The public health program at UNC is fantastic. This is an amazing partnership for Rotary,” he says. “Applying to the Rotary Peace Centers program was the best decision I ever made.”

In June, just four weeks after completing his fellowship, Rowe packed up his laptop, strapped on a backpack, and set off on his latest adventure: a six-month working tour of Africa that began with stops in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, where he spoke at a conference sponsored by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. He plans to visit Nairobi, Kenya, where he serves on the board of trustees of the Tabasamu Education Fund, a nonprofit that provides funding to help children stay in school.

While Rowe continues his work for the Water Institute, 
his goal is to create a social investment fund to provide sustainable financing for infrastructure and development projects that improve the health and welfare of people in vulnerable areas.

He also expects that his career path will lead to collaborations with other peace fellows. “We’re all in the same army,” he says. “I’m following my passion, and I think that may be the most important thing a human being can do to be successful. I thank Rotary for enabling me to do that.”

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.