.How Santa Cruz’s Gravity Water is Fighting a Global Epidemic

Even in 2018, global access to clean, safe drinking water continues to be a major problem. According to the United Nations, four out of 10 people—40 percent of everyone on Earth—are impacted by water scarcity. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 2 billion people are consuming contaminated water, and 844 million lack even basic drinking water services. Roughly one million people die a year from bacteria and digestive disorders directly linked to contaminated drinking water. Additionally, a recent WHO study theorizes that by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas thanks to the rapidly increasing effects of climate change.

In other words, humanity is facing a major water crisis. But the local nonprofit organization Gravity Water is tackling the problem in a completely new way, with a system that builds on the rainwater harvesting that is already being done in communities around the world.

“Gravity Water is a theory,” says founder and Executive Director Danny Wright. “It’s not a machine. It’s an approach.”

And it’s already working. In just one year, Gravity Water has already provided 6,000 students and community members in two countries access to clean, safe drinking water.  

“Nobody in the world is doing this,” Wright says. “It’s a brand new approach and something that I knew needed to be done globally.”

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It all started in 2011, when Wright was working on his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. As part of the final project, he was required to do a field study that involved working with developing communities to achieve sustainable solutions to the problems they faced. Wright decided to go to the Central American nation of Belize, where he worked with a Mayan district that had no electricity.

“The only way they could get water was by going to the river with buckets,” he remembers. “And that was contaminated with pesticides and other pollutants.”

After that, the water was filtered by a hand pump, and contained in plastic bottles for the entire community. Wright says every day 30 to 40 bottles had to be filled, each taking 10 or 15 minutes to filter. He knew there had to be a better way. The problem led him to think about the three things needed for clean water: a source, a treatment, and an energy source for the treatment. That night he sketched a filtration system that collected rain and filtered it using gravity, the first prototype of what would later become Gravity Water.

Realizing he needed to understand more about the problems global communities face concerning water, Wright shelved the idea and went on to earn his master’s degree in International Water Management, graduating in 2015.

“[After graduation] I was traveling and feeling lost,” he says. “I wasn’t getting the jobs I wanted and didn’t know where to go.”

Gravity Water founder Danny Wright in Vietnam
Gravity Water founder Danny Wright (top) works on assembling the group’s water collection and storage system in Vietnam. PHOT: MICHAEL DANIEL/SWANDIVE MEDIA

First Response

Then, on April 25 of that year, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the nation of Nepal, killing an estimated 9,000 people. As weeks of massive aftershocks continued, Wright remembered his sketch from Belize and took a leap of faith to help the people of Nepal. He understood that many in rural communities might not trust an outsider, even if he was trying to help. To avoid the “white savior” complex, Wright went to Nepal and spent almost half a year getting to know people in the Kathmandu Valley District and built trusting relationships with multiple communities. He quickly became friends with local engineers and showed them his sketch of Gravity Water.

“I had no idea if it would work,” he says. “It was a personal investment of $2,000 on something that had never been tested.”

He met Samundra Giri, who now serves as the nonprofit’s Nepali representative. Giri tells GT that even before the earthquake, access to clean water was hard for many Nepalese. In his city of Kathmandu, people can buy drinking water, but those who live in remote areas often have to walk three or four hours to fetch water for their families.

Three years later, Giri describes a country still in the process of rebuilding. He says that many people are still struggling to rebuild their homes—living in temporary shelters built immediately after the quake—while water sources dry up or are contaminated.

“Due to lack of awareness, lack of proper infrastructure, and lack of a proper system, most of the ground water sources in urban areas are polluted,” he says.

By gathering community members and using locally sourced materials—two key points in the Gravity Water mission—Wright and his team were able to build a system that produced more than 1,000 liters of safe drinking water. Giri says the people of Nepal were highly intrigued by the new system—and pleased with its quick results.

“As a whole, we got a very positive response from the community,” he says. “The community and schools where we have installed the system all love Danny, and they really appreciate the hard work.”

In October of 2016, Gravity Water received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and continued building water filtration systems in Nepal; Giri says the construction of their next project—located at the Koseli school—will begin soon. Last year, the group expanded its work into Vietnam, after connecting with Danish company Not Just Bamboo (NJB) through Instagram.

Originally founded as Not Just a Bottle in 2015, friends Frantz Pedersen and Martin Jensen created the company to fulfill their search for a sustainable drinking bottle. After spending time in Vietnam and learning about the sustainability of bamboo, they decided to make their first bottles out of it, eventually changing the name of their company to Not Just Bamboo. Because the bamboo plant is durable, antibacterial, releases 35 percent more oxygen than trees, and grows at a rate of 98 feet every three to five years, it is an environmentally friendly source. The company now boasts a variety of products from water bottles to toothbrushes, bowls, cups, soap dishes and straws. One of their main goals is to maintain a “holistic” approach to their products.

“That means the working conditions, processes and materials [used in] making the products are carried out to protect Mother Earth and with zero waste,” Pedersen tells GTexplaining they harvest bamboo from families who have grown it for generations and prioritize the well-being of their workforce.

“We have visited all the families supplying us with bamboo,” he writes. “That gives us clarity and trust in the materials used.”

After seeing pictures of Gravity Water’s work in Nepal, NJB contacted the nonprofit and within six months of weekly Skype meetings, both groups were on the ground in Vietnam. Because their products are made by Vietnamese carpenters, NJB asked Gravity Water to build systems in two schools and a factory where NJB products are crafted, providing 1,250 men, women and children with water.

“For every bottle we sell, we give one U.S. dollar to our water initiatives in Vietnam which we build together with GW,” explains Pedersen. “We plan to build 10 to 15 projects this year.”

Wright says many in the Asian country already harvest rainwater, making it easier for the nonprofit to build their filtration system and an obvious place to continue their work.

“We will be expanding our efforts in Vietnam in September and October to provide 10,000 people access to drinking water,” he says.

Gravity Water Kathmandu Valley District of Nepal
Wright spent six months consulting locals in the Kathmandu Valley District of Nepal after the 2015 earthquake, before going on to set up Gravity Water systems in several communities there. PHOTO: MICHAEL DANIEL/SWANDIVE MEDIA

How Gravity Works

To understand Gravity Water’s system, Wright suggests thinking of it “like a giant Brita filter.” First, the company researches the areas in need and picks a local school in which to set up a new system. They choose schools because many already have adequate storage tanks—cutting down on cost—and community members have a better chance at access, avoiding political corruption or systemic caste prejudices.

Rainfall was an obvious source not only because of accessibility, but because the WHO already considers it an improved drinking source as it has not been exposed to contamination from ground level pollutants. If the building doesn’t have adequate gutters, Gravity Water builds them to divert rainfall to their elevated storage tanks that can hold 1,000 to 4,000 gallons. The size of the tank is chosen after analyzing the area’s average daily precipitation percentage going back 10 years. This way, communities can continue to store water even during periods of drought.

After the water is diverted from the gutters, gravity moves it through the tanks, which each contain a triple filtration system of sediment, activated carbon, and a 0.1 micron hollow membrane. This guarantees the removal of 99.9 percent of all harmful bacteria and protozoa. Below the filters is a final storage tank providing people with all-around access to clean water.

The genius of it lies in how it recreates the natural water cycle of rainfall and sediment filtration in its completely sustainable system. Instead of spending $10,000 to $20,000 on drilling wells, paying contractors and building massive storage facilities, each Gravity Water system can be built for approximately $2,000, and only takes three to five days to complete. Unlike other organizations that build pumps and have to be called back to fix machinery when it breaks, Gravity Water uses locally sourced materials and teaches members of the community how to build, operate and maintain each system. This brings maintenance costs down to roughly $20 a year for every 500 people, and guarantees an easy, quick fix if something does break. Wright claims that the most expensive cost for communities is usually the filtration replacement, which comes to $3 every three months.

“Every community has different requirements,” Wright explains. “Every system is used in relationship to the environment and co-created with the community members to understand what is best for them.”

Funding for the various projects comes from a number of sources. As a nonprofit, Gravity Water applies for grants, but they also began a membership club, where anyone can join for $8 a month with 100 percent of the donated money funding new systems. They are also about to launch their Youth Initiative program which allows public schools around the U.S. to hold their own fundraisers for Gravity Water filtration systems to be installed at equivalent schools around the world.

“This gives students a real-life connection to actually help other people their age,” he says. “It also gives them a cultural connection to other people around the world.”

In less than two years, the Gravity Water model has sparked the interest of everyone from diplomats to scientists. Last year, they were one of 15 Solution Organizations—out of hundreds of submissions from all over the world—chosen by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“We were able to sit at a table with representatives of the U.N. with the 14 other winners for solutions to the global water crises,” he says. “That was pretty amazing.”

Gravity Water was also one of 15 solutions (out of 3,000 submissions) selected to participate in National Geographic’s Chasing Genius Challenge. The general public voted on which organization would win the $25,000 prize and although Gravity Water didn’t win it, Wright recognizes the nomination as a humbling honor. He says the nod gave Gravity Water a huge social media push and more awareness throughout the globe.

Locally, Gravity Water won the 2018 NEXTie award for Nonprofit of the Year. Matthew Swinnerton—founder of Event Santa Cruz, which puts on the yearly award show—says the nonprofit category is the most competitive, considering the number of organizations currently operating in Santa Cruz. Gravity Water was chosen not only for their incredible work but because the award committee felt Gravity Water wasn’t getting enough attention in its own backyard.

“If I was going to do a nonprofit, it would be centered around water,” Swinnerton says. “It’s amazing and sad how there are so many people in the world that don’t have normal access to drinking water.”


After the Storm

As a general rule, Gravity Water only goes into developing areas without electricity. However, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico at the end of last year, killing an estimated 4,600 people and leaving survivors without electricity or clean water, Wright—who visited the island in May—knew he had to do something.

“Communities are taking trash cans to catch rainfall just to wash their dishes and flush their toilets,” he says.

With an estimated 11,000 people still without power, this has been the longest blackout in American history. Even those with access to a working power grid still face the problem of finding clean water. Wright says that’s because the hurricane caused major flooding to wash more contaminants into the water supply than the sanitation facilities could handle.  After moving to the island on June 11, Wright says he plans to spend the next several weeks building a 4,000 gallon system for the Atalay Barrio, which, as of the 2010 census, has a population of 3,108 residents.

“When you’re doing work you’re passionate about, you’re always thinking of it,” he says. Much of Gravity Water’s success, he says, is due to support from volunteers and communities.

But he notes that it’s also been extremely hard to form an international nonprofit, since everything they do is 100-percent volunteer. Wright has made no money off of the projects, maintaining a day job as a bartender to support himself. But it’s a problem he doesn’t see as a failure.

“Success isn’t a goal you reach for,” he says. “It’s a verb. Either you’re making success or you’re not, and it’s in alignment with your values in life. If you’re an artist, even if you have a day job, if you’re creating art every day, you’re a success.”

For more information on Gravity Water, or to become a donating member, visit gravitywater.org.


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